An embarrassment to science: BioScience editor formally rejects retraction request

After four long months of waiting, late last week I finally received an official  response from the editor of BioScience regarding my retraction request for the Harvey et al. paper (Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy), which I sent 5 December 2017.

Crockford 2017_Slide 12 screencap

From the sounds of it, the wait took so long because the paper went through a tedious process of parsing words just so among the 14 co-authors (akin to that used by the IPCC in constructing the Summary for Policy Makers), to convey the authors meaning and retain as much of the original insult as possible. In reality, we know the decision was made barely two weeks after I sent the request (16 December 2017) because that day, BioScience editor Scott Collins told a reporter he had no intention of retracting the paper.

In the end, the authors were compelled to make two small word changes. The editor insists that:

“…prior to publication, the article was peer reviewed by highly reputable scholars with expertise on the topic as per our standard procedures.”

So he says.

But all we can do is judge by the results the reviewers approved: a paper with two prominent spelling errors (“principle” component analysis; “Refereces” cited) as well as several serious errors in the supplemental material that were brought to the editors attention (which does not even break the surface of the statistical errors described in detail by others or the additional errors found after my retraction request was filed, including a case of plagiarism of my blog content by a so-called “science” blog used in the paper).

Harvey et al. hardly needed much analysis for savvy folks to judge its quality: on the day of release, climate scientist Judith Curry’s scathing remark on twitter said it all:

“This is absolutely the stupidest paper I have ever seen published.”

Among the co-authors of the paper are polar bear specialists Steven Amstrup and Ian Stirling, as well as Stephen Lewandosky and Michael Mann (who now writes for children, competing with my popular polar bear science book for kids):

The online version available today (26 March) did not contain the changes described by the editor in his 23 March 2018 email nor were the spelling errors fixed (pdf here). Errors in the supplementary data file remain (here), although these were identified months ago.

The entire fiasco, start to finish, is an embarrassment to science but apparently, the editor does not care. As I’ve said before, this paper says more about the editor of the journal, the journal’s publishers, and the authors of the paper than it does about me or any of the bloggers discussed within it.

If published as is by the journal, it will go down in history as a low point for science and BioScience will have the dubious honor of being complicit in its production, as will all 14 co-authors. I encourage you to read the paper and see for yourself.

The same morning I received the response from the BioScience editor (text below), Dr. Richard Tol received a rejection notice for the critique of the Harvey et al. paper he and co-author Anand Rajan submitted 25 January 2018 (“LIPSTICK ON A BEAR: A COMMENT ON INTERNET BLOGS, POLAR BEARS, AND CLIMATE-CHANGE DENIAL BY PROXY”), with two reasons given:

“First. author guidelines state that letters are limited to 500 words and must be considered to be constructive. Secondly, and more importantly, your letter has already been published verbatum on line and therefore does not merit re-publication in BioScience.” [my bold]

Odd timing and a bit ironic, isn’t it? Preprint server publication is damned as ‘prior publication’ even though it is dismissed out of hand by vocal champions of scientific virtue because it hasn’t been through a journal-orchestrated review process (as opposed to simply being reviewed by peers).

Such a “dismissal” has occurred with my paper that shows how and why Amsturp and colleagues 2007 polar bear predictions failed so miserably (Crockford 2017), now downloaded more than 2300 times (see a shorter summary in Crockford and Geist 2018, and here). This is the paper Amstrup and Stirling don’t want the public to read.

I’ll let readers decide for themselves if they agree with Collins on whether the changes agreed to by all parties to this sham of a paper come anywhere close to addressing the insult to science and dedicated scientists everywhere.

Text of the email from BioScience editor Scott Collins received by me the morning of 23 March 2018 [my bold]:

“Thank you for your letter (dated December 5 2017) regarding the article ‘Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy’ by Harvey et al. As Editor of BioScience I take very seriously all complaints against the journal and the content we publish. As such we have completed a thorough review of the points you raised in accordance with publication ethics guidelines and best practices for academic scholarship and scholarly communications. Thank you for your patience while we have carried out this process.

The volume of comments following your post critiquing the article in and of itself reflects that there is substantial scientific and scholarly debate and controversy surrounding these issues. Before I address your specific concerns, I can confirm that, prior to publication, the article was peer reviewed by highly reputable scholars with expertise on the topic as per our standard procedures and, to ensure that we fully address the points you then raised, we have worked with the authors to explore more fully the evidence supporting the claims made in the paper about which you have suggested issues. Having carefully considered the points you raised in your letter, we have concluded that a retraction would not be justified, although there is some basis for two changes in order both to address your concerns and provide greater clarity to readers.

The first change addresses your comments around your previous publication history to clarify that a) the article’s assertions relate specifically to your publication history on the impact of sea ice on polar bear populations, not on polar bears generally and b) this assertion applies only to peer reviewed publications, clarifying that the 2017 paper you reference is published in PeerJ preprints does not constitute a peer reviewed publication, as it is only hosted on a preprint server.

Collins email_first change to Harvey

The second change clarifies the nature of your relationship with the Heartland Institute to make this clearer and avoid any implications beyond what you have publically disclosed – i.e. that you did receive funding for report writing for this organization. (As you’ve said, the Heartland Institute paid you a monthly payment of $750 from 2011-2013 for work by you that was then published by the Heartland Institute, and the Heartland Institute also paid your travel expenses to their 2017 conference.)

Collins email_second change to Harvey

These changes have been agreed with the authors and the revised article will be updated online and published in the print version of BioScience. I would like to apologize for any unintended inferences readers may have drawn from the online paper in the interim.

I appreciate that global warming is an important matter of public interest. I naturally support your right to have published your critique of the article, as you’ve done, and thank you for the opportunity to address your concerns.


Scott L Collins
Editor in Chief, BioScience


Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. Pdf here.

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access.

Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133

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