Keenan’s accusations of research misconduct

NIH, the National Institutes of Health, defines research misconduct as

fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results

with the proviso

Research misconduct does NOT include honest error or differences of opinion

The emphasis is in the original. Other funding agencies have similar definitions.

Some climate change sceptics would appear to believe that a different definition should apply to climate scientists: being a climate scientist.

Allegations of research misconduct have been made against several climate scientists. Michael Mann and Phil Jones have, together, endured at least five inquiries into academic misconduct and been exonerated by each. I’m not aware of any climate scientist who has had an inquiry into academic misconduct make material findings against them.

Perhaps it is the hope that they will eventually that drives Doug Keenan, who has just submitted his fourth (I believe) formal allegation of research misconduct (in addition to several other claims of misconduct that he has not pursued formally – including against the Met Office). His previous allegations against Professor Wang (University at Albany) for his work on urban heat islands and Professors Manning (University of Reading) and Kuniholm (Cornell University) for their work on dendrochronology, were dismissed. This time he is making allegations of misconduct against Christopher Bronk Ramsey on the Bishop-Hill blog and reporting that he has submitted the allegations to Oxford University. Keenan’s allegations of misconduct stem from Bronk Ramsey’s radiocarbon work which Keenan claims is in error.

Keenan takes issue with two aspects of Bronk Ramsey’s work. The first is in how radiocarbon dates are calibrated. Keenan has argued in a paper published in Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics that the standard method of calibrating radiocarbon dates is wrong. Bronk Ramey continues to use the standard methods, as implemented in his OxCal software. Keenan believes this is grounds for a misconduct complaint – I fail to see how it can be categorised, at this stage, as more than “differences of opinion” even if Keenan was correct. And he certainly is not.

I wrote about the problems with his paper last year. The basic problem with Keenan’s proposed method is that it assumes that all radiocarbon ages are equally likely – they are not. Radiocarbon dates that correspond with plateaux in the radiocarbon calibration curve are more likely than dates that correspond to steep parts of the curve. Today, others have explained the same in the comments  at Bishop-Hill (see comments by Radford Neal and Nullius in Verba) . Keenan has yet to either accept that he is wrong or to try to demonstrate that he is correct.

The second allegation concerns the correct method for combining radiocarbon dates. Keenan believes that Bronk Ramsey used the wrong method in some papers and asks if corrigenda will be published. Despite Keenan’s combative email, Bronk Ramsey’s response is constructive and explains that the choice of model is “ultimately is a matter of opinion”. Neither in the email nor the paper does Keenan demonstrate that the choice of model makes a material impact on the results.

Keenan’s allegations of misconduct against Bronk Ramsey are hopeless – both complaints can be ascribed to “differences of opinion” and thus be dismissed. Keenan must know this – some of his previous complaints were dismissed on the same grounds. Any honest errors are Keenan’s.  These allegations, like the allegations against Mann and Jones before, will consume the time of the researchers and the committee assembled to investigate the complaint. When his complaint is inevitably dismissed, Keenan will no doubt complain about biases in the system, and other climate sceptics will nod vacuously.

Given its likelihood of success (almost exactly zero), it is difficult to see Keenan’s current complaint as anything other than vexatious.  Hopefully, he will realise there are errors in his calibration procedure, withdraw the complaint, issue a corrigendum to his paper, and apologise to Christopher Bronk Ramsey. Well one can hope.

About richard telford

Ecologist with interests in quantitative methods and palaeoenvironments
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9 Responses to Keenan’s accusations of research misconduct

  1. Sou says:

    I’m wondering if it would be feasible to have a list of such people that can be maintained in a central repository somewhere. This could be checked by universities and researchers whenever they suspect a complainant to be a serial vexatious complainer, and give them grounds for ignoring the complaint if they choose to do so.

    It strikes me that there are a few people in the world (thankfully not many) who make it their life’s work to harass others needlessly. They jump from one researcher and research institution to another so, without a central register, each complaint could appear to be stand-alone. A central register of serial harassers would help in that regard.

    I realise there is a very remote chance that in one out of 1,000 instances such people may in fact have something of substance to offer. But is it worth the 999 time-wasters?

    • Amusing as the reaction of Keenan and Monckton would be were they included in a such a list, I don’t think one is necessary. It would be difficult for universities to ignore complaints just because they were from someone on the list, and a minute with Google will reveal most complainants history anyway. Documenting their vexatious behaviour on blogs etc is probably more useful.

      I have some sympathy when our vexatious friends request data pertaining to published papers, especially when the paper was published in a journal mandating data archiving. However it is difficult to have that much sympathy when Keenan spends three years demanding tree-ring data from Queen’s University Belfast, and then appears to have done nothing with the data since he received them in 2010. He probably lacks the skills and understanding needed to do much with the data.

  2. Martin A says:

    [The following comment is similar to one I posted on the BH blog.]

    It’s a fact of academic life that people will point out apparent errors in your published work. It takes time and effort to deal with but that, as they say, goes with the territory.

    You have no option (if you are following normal professional standards) but to check to see whether or not there is actually an error. It takes time to do so and it often turns out to be a misunderstanding on the part of the part of the person who has found the supposed error.

    If there is an error, you thank the person politely (through gritted teeth) and confirm the correction, perhaps taking the opportunity to add additional comments that might be of interest to readers.

    If there is in fact no error, you politely point out the nature of the misunderstanding, perhaps with examples to help other readers to see clearly what is involved.

    Suppose that the owners of OxCal follow my suggested list of actions.

    – Confirm the existence of the error.
    If they accurately determine there is no error, that’s the end of the story.

    – Evaluate its significance.
    If the error is real but, even in the worst case, it has negligible significance, that would then be the end of the story, perhaps with a brief published comment.

    As I said, it’s just a fact of academic life that people will report errors in your work. It’s part of the scientific process to deal with such reports. Even if they are wrong, it takes time and effort to address what they say. That’s just how it is.

    Having said all that, I’d comment that getting people to see and admit errors is more likely to succeed when they are offered a path to do so that does not involve eating large amounts of crow. The use of words such as ‘misconduct’ and ‘perpetrator’ make their cooperation in verifying and correcting the error unlikely.

    • I would mostly agree with you, but I would argue that it is at least partly the responsibility of the person claiming the error to determine if it is of sufficient magnitude to cause real problems. This normally isn’t too hard to do either by finding relevant literature or by simulation.

      The problem with your scheme is what happens when the owners of OxCal have determined that there is no error and Keenan continues to believe there is? How much time to they need to spend dealing with someone who comes across as an unpleasant crank with a history of making dubious reports of academic misconduct?

  3. Richard,

    I fully agree that filing a complaint of supposed research misconduct is not justified and would anyway be counterproductive. Douglas Keenan’s track record is disappointing.

    I draw your attention to a comment apparently from Keenan at BishopHill:

    “Radford Neal and Nullius in Verba, I accept and agree with what you say about how the sample measurement should be interpreted as probability, and that this implies that my criticism of the calibration method is invalid. I thank you extremely greatly much for explaining this….” Apr 1, 2014 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas J. Keenan

    Is this an admission that his criticism is incorrect? A more prominent and completely unambiguous statement from him would be helpful.

    Despite this, from my initial reading I could see merit in Douglas Keenan’s arguments — but I’m not an expert on this and anyway that’s for another thread.

    • I interpret Keenan’s comment as him beginning to realise that he has made a mistake. The honourable thing for him to do now is to publish a retraction at Bishop-Hill, withdraw his complaint against Christopher Bronk Ramsey and apologise, and to publish a corrigendum to his Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics. I hope he now realises that his hire-by-the-hour statistical consultants may not instantly understand a subjects as well as people who have worked in the field for over a decade.

  4. Frà Tuck says:

    I think that the problem in Bayesian analyses of radiocarbon results lies not in the OxCal Bayesian tools but rather in the use that archaeologists make of results. Phase_Combine etc…are useful tools for checking internal coherence of interpretative models, but it is a circular argument to use them for checking back the accuracy of the external assumptions in one’s given model, let alone
    establishing “real” calendar dates as in Manning et al. 2006.

    • Of course, any method can be misused. With the data I have, I don’t need to use features like Phase in Oxcal, and I’m not familiar with Manning et al 2006, so cannot comment on this paper.

  5. Pingback: Private prosecutions as an alternative to publications | Musings on Quantitative Palaeoecology

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