Conspiracy Related Studies Face Precedence of Legal Retractions

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By Athena Yenko | April 2, 2014 4:14 PM EST

The research industry feared that precedence will take place as a conspiracy report relating to climate change was retracted by its publisher due to obscure legal conflicts.

Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia, with his team, wrote the report titled: Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.

However, the journal Frontiers retracted the report "in light of a small number of complaints" with its authors agreeing to the decision.

"In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors."

John Cook, researcher at the University of Queensland and a co-author of the retracted paper told The Sydney Morning Herald that the case might cause a "chilling effect" on research.

 "It means that if a paper is published that the climate deniers don't like the look of, they can bombard the journal with complaints or threats. Knowing they have had success once might embolden them to try to retreat the strategy again," Mr Cook said.

For Elaine McKewon, research associate at the University of Technology Sydney's Centre, the retraction implied that Frontier is a "spineless" institution.

"They caved in at the first pushback from the climate change denial community. To retract a paper is just the most extreme action that a journal can take, and it was thoroughly unwarranted in this decision. It was really quite breathtaking."

However, the University of Western Australia published the retracted paper in full and had no plans of taking it down.

Full paper here.

Kim Heitman, a lawyer for the UWA, said that UWA had also received complaints from various groups.

"There's always a close interest in everything that Steve (Lewandowsky) does. We are conscious that we are going to be targeted by people opposed to his works."

However, Mr Heitman said that there were also institutions who expressed support of UWA's decision.

"I couldn't list them. And I wouldn't list them, having regard to the fact that anyone who issues a 'thanks UWA' will probably get their own enquiry."

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