The blogosphere, or at least the climate contrarian part of it, has been up in arms over supposed misconduct and plagiarism on the part of climate scientists. First, there was a minor kerfuffle earlier this summer over NOAA’s citation of the surfacestation.org website instead of an online publication by Anthony Watts. That turned out to be just the latest in a series of accusations of misconduct from ClimateAudit.org.
But that was nothing compared to the furor over the Corrigendum to the Steig et al. paper, “Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year” (just published in Nature). Steig et al. were accused of failing to acknowledge the role of Hu McCulloch in identifying an error in the calculation of trend significance. The corrigendum thus was held to constitute an act of plagiarism.
Meanwhile, some of the same bloggers who have risen up in righteous indignation and made groundless accusations against Steig et al, have been strangely silent regarding a real act of plagiarism, namely EPA economist Alan Carlin’s wholesale appropriation without attribution of large swathes of Patrick Michaels’ World Climate Report.
And, of course, an examination of the accusations against Steig et al shows them to be completely baseless. In fact, Hu McCulloch has apparently already withdrawn his accusations, although at present we have yet to see any apologies or retractions from Steig et al’s accusers.
Now, this is not the first time that Steve Mcintyre of ClimateAudit.org has dropped the P-Bomb (nor is it a first for Hu McCulloch for that matter). As mentioned above, McIntyre claimed that the omission of Anthony Watts name from the NOAA “talking points” memo on relaibility of the U.S. surface temperature record might constitute plagiarism, even though the whole memo was an evaluation of the data found at SurfaceStaions.org, which was acknowledged as the source of the analyzed data (BigCityLib held McIntyre’s feet to the fire on that, for instance here and here). It’s not even clear that the NOAA was aware of the Watts report, published by the Heartland Institute. But when they were made aware of it, they did change the citation.
Of course, the salient point here is that McIntyre failed to distinguish between plagiarism and possible improper (or lack of) acknowledgment. Other thinly-veiled or casual accusations of plagiarism at ClimateAudit.org can be found in these posts:
- “Memo to Gavin Schmidt” (comment by McIntyre), also discussed here.
- “Rutherford, Mann et al” (comment by CA website admin John A)
- “USCHN Raw” – A Small Puzzle (comment by Hu McCulloch)
- “realclimate on Loehle”
- “Code and realcode” (comment by McIntyre)
- “Gavin’s Mystery Man Revealed”, (comment by McIntyre)
That takes us a little more than halfway through the Google search for “plagiarism” at CA, but frankly, I haven’t the stomach to keep going.
All of which brings us to this latest nonsense. In a post entitled the Steig Corrigendum, McIntyre opined:
US. federal policy defines plagiarism as follows:
Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.
Here [link omitted] is a discussion of the topic from Penn State, where Michael Mann of Steig et al has an appointment.
In an entirely unrelated development, Steig et al have issued a corrigendum in which they reproduce (without attribution) results previously reported at Climate Audit by Hu McCulloch … see comments below and Hu McCulloch’s post here [referring to McCulloch's CA post of Feb. 26, entitled "Steig 2009's Non-Correction for Serial Correlation"].
McCulloch chimed in to state that he had emailed the authors about the matter on February 28 (two days after his post). McCulloch went on to repeat the plagiarism charge in a letter to Nature:
There is no submission date published with the Corrigendum, but if it this was after Feb. 28, I would submit that this Corrigendum constitutes plagiarism as you define it.
I therefore request that you retract the Steig et al. Corrigendum and replace it with my e-mail to them, copied below. The e-mail provides the URL to my Feb. 26 Climate Audit post, “Steig 2009′s Non-Correction for Serial Correlation.”
The title of the riposte at Things Break sums up the situation nicely, at least with regard to Roger Pielke Jr’s effort:
“Honset Broker” bemoans lack of decency and in the same breath accuses others of plagiarism.
Reasonable commentators pointed out that on the face of it the issue was not palgiarism at all, but at most a possible issue of lack of acknowledgment for notification of error. Here’s commenter “andrewt” at RP jr’s blog:
In venues where acknowledgements of people who point out errors are normally included, omission of such an acknowledgement would be impolite and unprofessional but not plagiarism.
The Realclimate.org group (which includes lead author Eric Steig and co-author Michael Mann) has now responded in a forthright manner, and have dismissed the plagiarism charge in a cogent summary:
McCulloch accuses Steig et al. of appropriating his ‘finding’ that Steig et al. did not account for autocorrelation when calculating the significance of trends. While the published version of the paper didn’t include such a correction, it is obvious that the authors were aware of the need to do so, since in the text of the paper it is stated that this correction was made. The corrected calculations were done using well-known methods, the details of which are available in myriad statistics textbooks and journal articles. There can therefore be no claim on Dr. McCulloch’s part of any originality either for the idea of making such a correction, nor for the methods for doing so, all of which were discussed in the original paper. Had Dr. McCulloch been the first person to make Steig et al. aware of the error in the paper, or had he written directly to Nature at any time prior to the submission of the Corrigendum, it would have been appropriate to acknowledge him and the authors would have been happy to do so. Lest there be any confusion about this, we note that, as discussed in the Corrigendum, the error has no impact on the main conclusions in the paper. [Emphasis added]
The group’s general comment about the contrarian blogs and their various accusations also bears repeating:
While commentary — even quite negative commentary — of papers on blogs is entirely reasonable (after all, we do it here occasionally), claims that a particular paper has been ‘discredited’ or ‘falsified’ that have not withstood (at minimum) the process of peer-review should be viewed with extreme skepticism. So should accusations of dishonesty or misconduct that have not already been conclusively and unequivocally substantiated.
Now it’s always possible, although unlikely, that Nature would have agreed that McCulloch should have been recognized in the Steig et al Corrigendum. But his absurd charge of plagiarism has surely poisoned the well to the point that it would be nigh impossible for Nature to find for him on the relatively minor acknowledgment issue. And, in fact, McCulloch did not ask Nature for acknowledment for advising Steig et al of an error (i.e. the failure to take into account the effect of autocorrelation on the significance of estimated trends). Rather, he only asked for a finding of plagiarism – and that finding simply can not be supported.
Anyway, it turns out that even the issue of acknowledgment is moot, because even before becoming aware of McCullough’s critique, Eric Steig had already recognized the autocorrelation adjustment error:
McCulloch’s email, which provided no details but pointed me to his post, was sent while I was in the field in Antarctica, and would have received notification that I was in gone, and not receiving email for the next month. McCulloch states very clearly in his letter that he didn’t think his work was important enough to warrant a letter to Nature, and he would have been well aware that I don’t read ClimateAudit. In any case, I had already recognized the error in our paper before I heard anything about McCulloch.
Furthermore, McCulloch himself has apparently agreed to withdraw the accusation:
For his part, McCulloch has acted very professionally and, in response to my letter to him explaining the actual sequence of events, has withdrawn his accusation.
It will be interesting to see when (or if) Steig et al’s various accusers proffer full and complete apologies.
[Update Aug. 14: Here is part of McCulloch's statement at ClimateAudit:
Since Steig professes ignorance of my post and claims that he had not read it, I can only take him at his word. Accordingly, I wrote [Nature associate editor] White today thanking him for his prompt attention to the matter and withdrawing my complaint.
However, while ignorance may be an iron-clad defense against plagiarism, it is a rather dicey position academically speaking. Surely Steig and co-authors would at least read the vigorous and serious discussion of their paper on Climate Audit, the Air Vent, and other blogs, even if they do not deign to participate.
So the withdrawal seems decidedly half-hearted at this point. And McCulloch seems determined to discount Steig’s statement that he was aware of the problem before he had even “heard anything of McCulloch.” ]
Meanwhile treatment of another case of possible plagiarism over at WattsUpWithThat perhaps provides an instructive contrast. Careful readers will recall that I first raised the issue of plagiarism regarding the supposedly suppressed report from EPA economist Alan Carlin in my first post describing some of Carlin’s sources:
Maybe Carlin just pasted it all and hadn’t had time to go back and fix it (or even forgot that he hadn’t actually written it in the first place). But with the careful edits and slight rewordings already made in the opening section on van de Wal, the whole section definitely has a “plagiarism in progress” feel. It would be interesting to see the evolution of subsequent versions.
Note that although the evidence was compelling, I hadn’t yet come to a definitive conclusion as to whether the plagiarism was deliberate or not. That all changed when I discovered several more unattributed swathes, mainly from Patrick Michaels’ World Climate Report, all lightly edited so as to appear to be Carlin’s original work.
Meanwhile Anthony Watts had released the completed version of Carlin’s report. I pointed out to a Watts reader that he seeemed “unclear on the concept of plagiarism”. Watts deleted the comment but only after a moderator named Evan had replied, as I noted in a comment at Deep Climate:
Deep Climate (20:31:16) :
[snip, policy - if you want to accuse people of plagaism, put your name to it, 24 hour timeout for deepclimate]
Deep Climate (20:50:45) :
[REPLY - It was an internal report, not for publication, and, besides, it was fully footnoted. He neither claimed nor implied that he did any of the original research, himself. ~ Evan]
You are sadly mistaken. None of the World Climate Report material that Carlin cut and pasted was attributed or footnoted. In fact, Carlin carefully removed all references to World Climate Report, as I explained in my first post.
On June 30, Watts posted his policy on plagiarism (on the Carlin thread, but well down):
wattsupwiththat (10:41:46) :
NOTE to Phil. and All posters on WUWT
If you wish to accuse people of things like plagiarism, then you need to put your name on it.
That goes for everybody. I don’t mind opinions under handles. But, if you are going to make an accusation like plagarism, that requires stepping up. Otherwise, such posts will be deleted. – Anthony
24 hour timeout for Phil.
Thanks to Michael Searcy who posted a few hours later, Watts’s objection was removed, and the hypocrisy of the “policy” neatly skewered :
Anthony, I have to say I find your policy stand regarding anonymous plagiarism accusations a bit disingenuous. After all, this is the same blog that took a considerable amount of pride in facilitating communications with an anonymous source within the EPA who was accusing the agency of suppression. …
Regarding Deep Climate, he accurately points out that sections of Carlin’s report are lifted almost word-for-word from contrarian blog postings without attribution, with the pronouns in Carlin’s report indicating his personal ownership of the work. The evidence is openly there for anyone to examine. Whether or not DC associates his name with the discovery is immaterial, as you concluded with your anonymous EPA source. How those actions reflect on Carlin is for the reader to decide.
But that did not deter WattsUp readers. One actually claimed that Carlin was not a plagiarist because he “does not claim that it is his original ideas”. Another raised the preposterous possibility that Michaels got his material from Carlin at one of the EPA seminars Carlin organized:
I wouldn’t at all be surprised if, when presenting one of these seminars, Michaels or some of his colleagues were in attendance. It’s possible that the web article was based on Carlin’s or his co-author’s own work, i.e. it simply could have been a derivative of presentation material obtained from one of Carlin’s seminars and posted anonymously with his permission.
And through it all there was naught but stony silence from Anthony Watts.
[Update August 14: Here is the graph at the top, enlarged]
I’ll leave the last word on contrarian blogs, and their predilection for accusations of misconduct, to the indefatigable “Phil.” (here dealing with a commenter’s accusations of fraud at a WattsUpWithThat guest post by Roger Pielke Sr):
[A]ccusations of fraud and plagiarism on here are treated differently depending on who is being accused.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.