Second thoughts result in payout

A journal's decision to ditch a paper questioning a law of physics has proved costly. Paul Jump reports

June 16, 2011

A mathematics journal has reached a financial settlement with an advocate of intelligent design after withdrawing a paper by him shortly before publication.

Applied Mathematics Letters accepted the paper by Granville Sewell, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso, earlier this year.

The paper, "A Second Look at the Second Law", questioned the second law of thermodynamics: a fundamental law of physics that states that disorder - entropy - always increases in a closed system.

The paper was posted on the journal's website but was retracted shortly before its scheduled publication in the print edition.

In response to a complaint about the article from science blogger David vun Kannon, the journal's editor-in-chief, Ervin Rodin, director of the Centre for Optimisation and Semantic Control at Washington University in St Louis, offered his apologies for even considering the paper for publication.

"Applied Mathematics Letters is attempting to live up to its aim of being an outlet of 'rapid publication'. Unfortunately, this may sometimes lead to hastiness," he wrote.

But supporters of intelligent design claimed that the journal's actions breached its own acceptance guidelines, and Professor Sewell sought legal advice. The Discovery Institute, a thinktank that supports intelligent design, announced on its website last week that the journal's publisher, Elsevier, had offered Professor Sewell an apology for the retraction plus $10,000 (£6,125) to cover his legal fees.

Professor Sewell's lawyer, Pete Lepiscopo, of Lepiscopo & Morrow, told Times Higher Education that the journal's actions amounted to censorship.

"Elsevier's attorneys are well aware of this type of censorship, and an expeditious resolution was reached," he said.

The apology, which has been posted on the journal's website, confirms that Professor Rodin withdrew the article without consulting Professor Sewell after concluding that its content was "more philosophical than mathematical". The journal and Professor Rodin "provide their sincere and heartfelt apologies to Dr Sewell for any inconvenience or embarrassment", it says.

Although the journal will not publish the article, Professor Sewell told THE that the primary objective of his action had been for the journal to make clear that its withdrawal had not been due to any errors found by the reviewers.

"Anyone who reads Elsevier's guidelines on withdrawals would naturally assume either that it contained serious errors or that I had committed a crime, neither of which was ever alleged," he said.

He said he knew that one of the paper's two reviewers had warned that it was too controversial for a journal such as Applied Mathematics Letters, and the paper's abstract had also given "a very clear idea" what it contained.

He said potential controversy was "a perfectly valid reason for rejecting (the paper) but not for withdrawing after acceptance".

He also insisted that while his paper was "friendly" to intelligent design, it did not explicitly advocate it, and contained "absolutely no appeal to the supernatural".

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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