In a front-page story on 16 May, The Times claimed that a paper by Lennart Bengtsson, professorial research fellow at the University of Reading, and four others had been rejected by Environmental Research Letters because of a reviewer’s concern that it would damage what the newspaper called climate scientists’ “cause”.
In the paper, Professor Bengtsson casts doubt on the estimate by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the average global temperature would rise by 4.5 degrees if greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were permitted to double.
The Times quoted a description of the manuscript by one of the reviewers as “less than helpful” and “harmful as it opens the door to oversimplified claims of ‘errors’ and worse from the climate sceptics media side” [sic].
The paper likened the incident to the 2009 “Climategate” affair, in which hacked emails from University of East Anglia climate scientists allegedly revealed the manipulation and suppression of data – though a series of inquiries absolved the scientists involved of scientific misconduct.
Professor Bengtsson told The Times that “some scientists are mixing up their scientific role with that of a climate activist”.
But in a subsequent statement to reporters, he distances himself from suggestions that there was a “systematic ‘cover up’ of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work is being ‘deliberately suppressed’”.
However, he remains “worried by a wider trend that science is gradually being influenced by political views”.
“I was concerned that the Environmental Research Letters’ reviewer’s comments suggested his or her opinion was not objective or based on an unbiased assessment of the scientific evidence,” he says.
He welcomes the release by the journal’s publisher, the Institute of Physics, of the full transcript of the review in question.
In a statement accompanying the release, Nicola Gulley, editorial director of IOP Publishing, rejects any suggestion of activism by the journal or the reviewers.
She says the paper was rejected because it “contained errors” and “in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field”.
“Far from denying the validity of [Professor] Bengtsson’s questions, the referees encouraged the authors to provide more innovative ways of undertaking the research to create a useful advance,” she says.
“The journal … is respected by the scientific community because it plays a valuable role in the advancement of environmental science – for unabashedly not publishing oversimplified claims about environmental science, and encouraging scientific debate.
“With current debate around the dangers of providing a false sense of ‘balance’ on a topic as societally important as climate change, we’re quite astonished that The Times has taken the decision to put such a non-story on its front page.”
A spokesman for the IoP said the journal had also released the other referees’ report online this morning for people to view after permission from the writers was obtained.