Trying to disperse the Impermeable Fog #2: Editors who "entertain" and are not "answerable"

In my last post, I gave a fresh example how the confidential peer review maintains the publication of dubious scientific results. Naturally I confronted the authors of the paper and editors of the journal. With revealing results.

In 2012 we wrote a paper where we showed that the accessible climate tolerance data used for hundreds of Coexistence Approach studies were highly erroneous. In the same year, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology published a paper by Hoorn et al. (2012), where the following is stated in the Material & Methods

"Though being useful to unfold erroneous entries regarding climatic ranges of extant plant taxa cited in the Palaeoflora data base (Utescher and Mosbrugger, 2012) [a dead link, purely virtual reference], the study is not qualified to assess reliability and potential of the CoA for the reason of various methodological flaws. These include the partly very low number of taxa contributing with climate data in the analysis [same number than used in CA studies] ..., the use of unspecific climate data (e.g. climate data for plant families when the more specific data for a lower taxonomic level were not contained in the data base) [a standard procedure in CA literature] to reconstruct very specific climate conditions (e.g. the climate of the Alpine zone in Georgia) [which happen to host many Tertiary relict genera, CA studies relied on for their estimates], and extensions of the climatic ranges derived from extreme stands in high altitudinal areas thus introducing an additional bias (insufficiently known lapse rates [we tested for this, actually], microclimate, snow depth in the cold season, etc.) [issues that Utescher handles by "...careful selection of 4–6 climate stations", and only he knows which 4–6 stations he used]. The Palaeoflora database is checked and updated in regular intervals (Utescher and Mosbrugger, 2012) [data have been and are largely inaccessible and undocumented] and new tests of the CoA on additional modern floras from various continental areas that follow the published standard of the procedure (Mosbrugger and Utescher, 1997) [using four modern validation floras, for one, precipitation estimates didn't match the station data, a thing that should be impossible when you have correct tolerance data, and two of the four where 100 km apart in growing under exactly the same climate] are on the way [a good one, they still are "on the way" six years later ... country roads, take me home,  ... ] in order to provide further evidence for the reliability of the method." The very last has been done, we invalidated it in 2016, the application (Grimm et al. 2016) and the theory behind it (Grimm & Potts 2016).

I protested this back then (October 2012), and wrote a mail to the authors and head editors of PPP. The editors didn't react, and the first author, Carina Hoorn (a well-merited palynologist) just told me this:

"Dear Sir," — whenever you criticise somebody in science, it becomes formal ... and it was not "Dear Dr Grimm" to show me that I was a nobody, of course

"The reference to your paper in our CA section was made on recommendation of one of our reviewers." — Not us.

"I was not aware that the text resembled another text and I apologize if perhaps it is too crude a statement." — Oh, nice, thanks. No it's not crude, it's just entirely wrong (see [...] above).

"The CA section was produced by my co-author Torsten Utescher." — Meaning, I'm the first author, but I'm not responsible for that crap.

"I expect he may want to debate this matter further with you." — No. He doesn't. Deep inside he might know that he's riding a dead horse for now 20 years. Thank you, peer review confidentiality to make that possible.

"In my view this debate seems to comprise a larger issue that extends beyond our paper;and for this reason perhaps you can both decide on a suitable forum to display this discussion?" — Yes. And The Donald has an IQ of 156, and just yesterday I discussed with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny how to take down Valentin and his day.

In case you're interested in what I wrote in my e-mails regarding the unfounded statements by Utescher on our 2012 paper; and why the application of the Coexistence Approach in Hoorn et al. even violated their own guidelines and non-logic; here's the full story (no conclusion).

Six years, and two devastating (for the Coexistence Approach) papers later

Regarding my recent re-ignition of what a WIRED journalist called a "prehistoric climate scientists turf war" to celebrate the 2-year anniversary of the invalidation of the so-called "Coexistence Approach", this is what the first author Elzbieta Worobiec answered regarding my request for the primary data they used to produce their (pseudo-quantitative) estimates in Worobiec & Gedl (2018).

"... First, the CA analysis is not the main part of the paper." — Not being the main part of the study, you don't have to be able to justify it. My error. Hoorn told me already 2012. But, when it is so unimportant, why are you doing it at all? Do you have to sign up for the Coexistence Approach, when you join NECLIME (both Worobiec and Hoorn are listed as members)?

"All data used for the CA analysis are available from the Palaeoflora database" — no, they are not! The "Palaeflora Database" is inaccessible (even for ordinary NECLIME members, I was told in the past, I once – long ago – heard of a copy, sort-of-gone-lost when somebody visited the Holy Temple in Bonn; not me — it would have saved me a lot of time for the 2012 and later papers).

And "I am not sure if I can publish the data obtained from the database. ..." — really? But this is what Hoorn hinted to: Even as first author, you have no right to release data used for CA (pseudo-)results in your own study. It is Torsten Utescher's personal property, who is either your co-author, Hoorn, or reviewer, Worobiec: only the Archmage may grant access to the Holy Data. And His Excellency doesn't converse with non-acolytes like me (I cc-ed him on all mails, the nasty wood goblin that I am.)

Truly best scientific praxis.

By the way, in the paper it says (legend to fig. 3, not in Material & Methods): "Data on NLR based on The Palaeoflora Database (Utescher and Mosbrugger, 2015) as well as their MAT ranges based on Fang et al. (2011), Thompson et al. (2015), as well as Utescher and Mosbrugger (2015)." — It's a piece-of-cake to reproduce Coexistence Approach results under these circumstances. For MAT it's a mix, the rest is arcane knowledge, and they are not allowed to publish it. Building walls is not only good for business in the physical world.

Is it ok to withhold data used for scientific papers?

The one editor that answered my mails, Thomas Algeo, first "entertained" me to try out a Comment. In his second mail, he was so nice to point out that I'm "sadly misinformed" that the editors of the journal are "answerable" to me and my request, and that I should please not involve them in further correspondence with the authors on the issue.

I naturally apologised to Algeo for my misconception that editors are there to ensure basic scientific standards of peer-reviewed journals, such as: documenting critical data.

And whenever I'm misinformed (or not informed at all), I do what everyone does: ask the World Wide Web.

So, I duckducked what is the job of an editor of a scientific journal.

And found this, a white paper issued by the Council of Science Editors.

Among many other reasonable things, one recommendation is:

"Establishing clear guidelines for authors regarding acceptable practices for sharing experimental materials and information, particularly those required to replicate the research, before and after publication."

It's not only me who is sadly misinformed (couldn't help to mail this to all editors of PPP I could easily find, maybe some of them find this a good guideline for the future).

The answer must be no.

In this particular case it is very simple.

When you publish results based on a mutual climate range method, you have to document the climate ranges.

Basics. An obvious thing to do or ask for (editor, reviewer, or author). And it is the editor's job (who else?) to make this clear to unwilling authors, especially when being pointed to this deficit by one of the reviewers (as it was the case for Worobiec & Gedl 2018).

In general, the scientific world could be such a nice place, if we all would at least agree on something so pretty obvious:

Data that were used to produce published results, should be accessible to third parties.

It is in our own interest (see also this post by D. Morrison regarding why we want to publish our phylogentic data). We all make errors, and we all may eventually use erroneous data. There is no shame about it. The quality of science depends on two things above all:
  1. That such errors can be identified.
  2. That erroneous data are eliminated.
Ideally, basic data are published, something even PPP encourages to do (another info I passed on to Algeo and the PPP editors). But at least, when somebody asks for it, even if it is to proof you wrong, you should be able to deliver. Or don't show the results at first place.

And as editor of a proper scientific journal you should – for the sake of good scientific practise and open scientific discourse – not put your head in the sand, dear Prof. Dr Algeo, when a syndicate blocks down such a request, for no other reason than to keep their persistent science-fraud under the carpet. You should make sure that mal-practise comes to an end, when somebody put a lot of effort in its revelation. Science needs to serve higher standards than economics and politics.

You can join (start) the discussion also at PeerJ Discussions (Q&A).

Question: Should we be forced to document primary data integral to our results?

References (see also the preceeding post)
Grimm GW, Bouchal JM, Denk T, Potts AJ. 2016. Fables and foibles: a critical analysis of the Palaeoflora database and the Coexistence Approach for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 233:216–235.
Grimm GW, Potts AJ. 2016. Fallacies and fantasies: the theoretical underpinnings of the Coexistence Approach for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Climates of the Past 12:611–622.
Hoorn C, Straathof J, Abels HA, Xu Y, Utescher T, Dupont-Nivet G. 2012. A late Eocene palynological record of climate change and Tibetan Plateau uplift (Xining Basin, China). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 344–345:16–38.
Worobiec E, Ged P. 2018 [online December 2017]. Upper Eocene palynoflora from Łukowa (SE Poland) and its palaeoenvironmental context. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology DOI:10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.12.019.

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