A case of gross scientific misconduct

The email archive of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia has been stolen mischievously by evil, criminal thieves – or by heroic, brave whistleblowers committed to highest ideals, depending on your viewpoint – and publicised. This is illegal, or perhaps not (there is legisation on protecting whistleblowers in the UK, but I don’t understand much of British law). But as these mails now have been published on the internet, there is no way to hide them anymore (what happens on the internet, stays on the internet).

There are many embarassing emails, but I would like to single out one of them, sent by Professor Phil Jones, director of the CRU (emphasis mine):

I presume congratulations are in order - so congrats etc !
Just sent loads of station data to Scott. Make sure he documents everything better this time ! And don't leave stuff lying around on ftp sites - you never know who is trawling them. The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone. Does your similar act in the US force you to respond to enquiries within 20 days? - our does ! The UK works on precedents, so the first request will test it. We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind. Tom Wigley has sent me a worried email when he heard about it - thought people could ask him for his model code. He has retired officially from UEA so he can hide behind that. IPR should be relevant here, but I can see me getting into an argument with someone at UEA who'll say we must adhere to it !

[rest ommitted]

This is gross scientific misconduct.

All scientists are humans, therefore they make mistakes and produce errors in their work. There is no shame in this. Science can handle this because other scientists always try to reproduce the results of their peers. This way, errors are uncovered (although this may take some time). Scientists know this, know the process for corrections, and generally behave accordingly. If scientist A publishes a paper with an error in it, and scientist B can’t reproduce the result, B will contact A to get any additional data needed to uncover a possible error. A may moan and growl, but will provide the data, and B might send a letter to the corresponding journal to correct the error (which will make A growl even more). Science is advanced once more.

Making mistakes is not shameful, and questioning the results of others isn’t either. However, refusing to render your data to others so they can check them, is dishonarable. It is against all good scientific practices. Deleting an important file instead of handing it out is akin to burning your lab book, and should be considered with equal horror.

Does this mean that man-made global warming is just made up? No. Global warming may be happening or not, and it may be man-made or not. That email proves neither one nor the other. However, the email does prove one thing: that Phil Jones committed gross scientific misconduct. Given his disregard for good scientific practices, he must not be called scientist any longer (this man calls himself a professor! He really should know better).

Scientific misconduct is actually quite common in the modern research landscape, and I’m under the impression that it is spreading. I encountered one case myself, but at first it didn’t even cross my mind that this could be a case of misconduct. Surely, those people wouldn’t …? Only years later, and after questioning the involved scientists several times (with always evasive answers) it occurred to me that something was fishy. But I didn’t want to push the matter, as it was several years ago (long enough that important data could have vanished), and I just had finished my PhD thesis and had other things to worry about. My idleness in this matter was a mistake, and I feel a little guilty about this – if we don’t fight against scientific misconduct, it will spread. And it does.

The University of East Anglia could now make an example of this case and stress the importance of proper scientific conduct. A harsh public condemnation for Jones would be the least they could do. However, I have little hope, as professors have powerful networks, and no university is keen on incriminating one of its well-known figureheads.

Sic transit gloria scientiae.

Update 2009-11-26:

Via Steve McIntyre:

Phil Jones, Dec 3, 2008, in an email:

About 2 months ago I deleted loads of emails, so have very little – if anything at all.

Phil Jones, Nov 24, 2009, in the Grauniad:

We’ve not deleted any emails or data here at CRU.

Not only gross scientific misconduct, but also bald-faced lies. And actively working against the Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps the Crown Prosecution Service wants to have a look at this?

But what really irks me is the statement by UEA’s pro-vice-chancellor Trevor Davies: We see no reason for Professor Jones to resign and, indeed, we would not accept his resignation. He is a valued and important scientist. Gross scientific misconduct is not punished if the perpetrator is well-known and well-connected. No wonder scientific misconduct is spreading.

About Daniel Tiggemann

Software-developer living in Cologne, Germany. Was once a physicist, specialized in computer simulations and parallel programming. Now more into JavaScript, web frontend development, and especially mobile computing.
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