Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Crackpots and scientific journals

I've been hearing from folks with diverse ideas about tornadoes for decades - by phone, by snail-mail, and now by email. Tornadoes seem to attract more than their fair share of attention from non-meteorologists. Some of these are people who have some serious issues - for example, those who make various claims about having special mental powers to control the weather. Others are technical professionals in other fields, including those who may actually know quite a bit of math and physics, but are blissfully ignorant of the relevant science. For example, I've been dealing with papers making wild claims about electromagnetic forces in tornadoes for decades - see here for a discussion (item #38).

Recently, I corresponded via email with a person who had some idea or another about tornadoes. It was evident from the beginning that I didn't want to know anything about his idea because I was pretty certain it was something off the wall, as evidenced by his verbiage. If I can avoid becoming involved in a discussion about someone's bogus notions regarding the atmosphere, I'll do so. Anyway, I told him to submit his ideas to a scientific journal and see what happened.

As it turned out, he sent it to the American Meteorological Society's Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences (the 'premier' science journal for the AMS). The outcome was quite predictable - rejection. However, the editor chose not to provide detailed reviews of the manuscript, contrary to standard procedure for journal submissions. I suspect the editor probably decided, as I did, that the ideas contained in the manuscript were without any redeeming value, and may not even have sent it out for external peer review. The author received what amounted to a one-line review (probably from the editor) rejecting the paper for containing 'dynamical statement errors'. I understand that editors wouldn't want to waste the time and effort of reviewers for a paper that's evidently without much merit.

However, I find this abrupt dismissal of a person's ideas to be disturbing, arguably to the point of being unethical. No matter how bizarre someone's concepts might seem to be to an experienced scientist, I believe that even a crackpot deserves something more than a one-line dismissal. This brusque treatment looks to me to be something of an ethical lapse on the part of the JAS editor.

If I were in the editor's shoes, I'd feel obligated to try to point out at least the primary important shortcomings of such a submission. I believe a journal editor can and should screen manuscripts to avoid wasting the time of reviewers with obviously unworthy submissions. However, that editor should be willing to give something substantial to the author(s) to let them know what they need to do to offer a revised manuscript that might meet minimal standards. Even a crackpot deserves that much respect.

Given all the brouhaha about global climate change skeptics, it seems to me that those of us who support consensus science have an ethical obligation to avoid summarily dismissing ideas that run counter to the mainstream. If they contain major errors, then the author(s) of those ideas should be informed of those reasons for rejection in a reasonably detailed way. One-line rejections are clearly patronizing and insulting, unworthy of the science we represent.


Scott said...

Assuming that this guy believes in his idea and wants to pursue it, despite the rejection from the JAS, what would be his next logical step? Is there any appeals process to bypass the editor or get the editor to reconsider or is he totally out of luck with the JAS?

Chuck Doswell said...

His next logical step would be to see if he can find a meteorologist who's willing to help him develop something publishable from his idea. This might be difficult if his idea is what I believe it to be - I know I'm not volunteering to help him. I have my own ideas to pursue and his idea isn't likely to be worth the effort.

In principle, he could appeal his case to the Publications Commission of the AMS, but I'm pretty confident they're going to line up behind virtually any decision by their editors. They've done so in the past with even more evident ethical lapses by their editors. So I'd say this person is indeed totally out of luck with JAS.

The outcome is disappointing to me, as noted in my blog, but the process isn't under my control.

Jim Means said...

I was a co-author on a paper that many might consider a "crackpot" paper because it dealt with something very controversial--a situation where the second law of thermodynamics might be violated. We submitted it to Nature and found ourselves up against an editor that was going to make sure that it didn't get published there. At first he said our work would only be of interest to specialists, so it was not broad enough for publishing in Nature--that was pretty laughable, so we pointed out that people in MANY fields are interested in the laws of thermodynamics! When that approach didn't work, he said that there was no supporting experimental evidence--so we informed him that there was experimental support that my co-author had published in other journals. Then the editor's argument was that, oh, some of the conclusions are published elsewhere, so it's not original and Nature won't publish it for that reason. After going through this dance with the editor for several months, I think he finally might have admitted the truth to us--it didn't matter what the referees might say about it, or whether or not he could find anything wrong with the paper--he was never going to publish it because of the subject matter. I found this very disturbing that a journal editor would essentially be taking a religious attitude that ANYTHING in science is unchallengeable. We gave up on Nature and submitted the paper to Physics of Plasmas, where it was eventually published.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that the age of a particular journal should garner any more (or less) respect than a newer journal? Of course I am young and have yet to experience the torment of academic rejection in spite of the possibility of gaining additional academic freedoms (which is an odd middle ground that some have to walk), however it sounds like you have taken the careful necessary steps for a curious scientific inquiry.

Also, Jim, when has a "religious attitude" ever been unchallengeable? After all there are many religions?. Publishing in another journal is very similar to an individual joining another religious faction.