Willie Soon's Fossil Fuel-Funded Work Draws Ethics Review From Publisher

Journal publisher Elsevier has launched an investigation over the scientist's missing disclosure of funding sources.

Scientist Willie Soon (right), whose work questions the extent and reality of man-made climate change, failed to disclose fossil fuel funding in 11 studies published by nine journals, a potential violation of some journals' conflict-of-interest policies. One publisher has launched an ethics review over the controversy. Credit: International Conference on Climate Change

A journal publisher that distributed studies written by a climate skeptic whose work was financed by fossil fuel interests has launched an ethics investigation over undisclosed funding.

The investigation by Elsevier, a global network of scientific journals, was prompted by documents showing that Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon failed to disclose industry funding in 11 studies published by nine journals.

Six of those papers were published in four Elsevier publications. Elsevier requires its authors to disclose financial conflicts that "could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work."

The documents were obtained by Greenpeace and made public in February by the Climate Investigations Center, an environmental watchdog organization based in Virginia. After the documents were released, the center alerted the journals that the lack of disclosure violates ethical guidelines requiring authors to identify their funders and potential conflicts of interest.

"We applaud your guidelines for ethical behavior in science, but we are concerned that your conflict of interest policy has been ignored and that Dr. Soon may have hidden his funding," wrote Kert Davies, the center's executive director, in letters to the journals. "Violations of ethical norms in scientific publishing may undermine the credibility of your journal."

Elsivier's ethics inquiry was made public in a report issued by the center Wednesday that includes the responses from all nine journals.

"We have referred the matter to Elsevier and they have an ethics team investigating," Rob Hyndman, editor of International Journal of Forecasting, said in a response to Davies. "We will not be taking any action until we have received advice from the Elsevier ethics investigators."

Chris Capot, a spokesman for Elsevier, confirmed the investigation, but declined to discuss the nature of the review or any potential outcomes. "The review is still ongoing. The results of our review will be published in any affected journals," Capot said.

In addition to the Elsevier inquiry, one publication, Journal of Climate, amended a 2009 paper that Soon co-authored to clarify his funding source. The editor of Ecology Law Quarterly, published by the UC Berkeley School of Law, said the school is considering instituting a formal procedure to address conflicts in all of its publications. Others responded with noncommittal acknowledgements thanking the center for the information. One journal, Astronomy and Astrophysics, dismissed Soon's failure to disclose his funding as "irrelevant."

Soon, a well-known climate contrarian, works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which houses the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. Soon has been employed by Smithsonian since 1997, but relies on grants from outside sources for his research and salary.

Soon's 11 papers question the extent, severity, cause or existence of man-made climate change. Many of the studies argue that changes in solar activity are responsible for rising global temperatures. The studies appear to have had limited impact in the scientific world, according to the number of citations by other researchers.

Soon did not respond to a request for comment from InsideClimate News.

The public records show that since 2008, Soon has received more than $800,000 from ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the electric utility Southern Company Services Inc., and Donors Trust Inc., an organization that facilitates contributions largely toward conservative causes from donors who wish to remain anonymous. The funds were earmarked to pay for research papers, public speaking appearances and presentations. Soon called his studies "deliverable" to funders.

Since the controversy broke, Southern Company, a major coal utility in the southeastern United States and one of Soon's primary funders, has said it will no longer fund his research once his final project is completed later this year.

Smithsonian officials directed its inspector general to examine Soon's ethical practices regarding funders and launched separate internal and independent reviews of its ethics and disclosure policies. Soon remains a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian staff, though Smithsonian has distanced itself from his work, saying it "does not support Dr. Soon's conclusions on climate change."

Here are the responses from the nine journals:

Ecological Complexity

Publisher: Elsevier

Journal disclosure policy: All authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work.

Response: Bia-lian (Larry) Li, editor:

Thank you for your message and mail, Director Davies. I was the Chief Editor when his paper was published. Our journal policies are set up by our publisher Elsevier, not us. The case you presented here, to my view, should be author's responsibility. We generally focus on scientific merit of the research papers. However, your concern is now well noticed.



Ecology Law Quarterly

Publisher: UC Berkeley School of Law, Boalt Hall

Journal disclosure policy: None found.

Response: Elise O'Dea, editor:

I want to thank you for bringing this issue to our attention; both ELQ and the law school take it very seriously. Your email brings up an important topic not only for ELQ, but for all the law journals on campus. Thanks to your alert, we are exploring the possibility of developing a conflict of interest policy of some nature for our law journals.



Interfaces

Publisher: The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

Journal disclosure policy: None found.

Response: Miranda Walker, director of publications INFORMS:

Thank you for your letter of February 20, 2015 sent to Dr. Srinivas Bollapragada regarding the journal Interfaces and our conflict of interest policy. Maintaining the highest ethical standards is of paramount importance to Interfaces, our editors, our peer reviewers, and of course, those who read the articles published in our pages. We appreciate the information that you and others have shared with us and will ensure that it receives careful and deliberate attention. Please direct all future questions regarding or relating to [this article] to me.



International Journal of Forecasting

Publisher: Elsevier

Journal disclosure policy: All authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work.

Response: Rob Hyndman, editor:

We have referred the matter to Elsevier and they have an ethics team investigating. We have also received correspondence from Dr. Soon and from his lawyers which we have passed to Elsevier. We will not be taking any action until we have received advice from the Elsevier ethics investigators.



Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics

Publisher: Elsevier

Journal disclosure policy: All authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work.

Response: Robert Strangeway, editor:

I am aware of the New York Times article, and I have contacted the Editorial Office of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics for guidance as to what the Journal should do in response to the allegations in the New York Times article. I have also forwarded your email and the associated attachments to the Journal Publisher. While we have not yet determined what action the Journal will take, the Publisher of the Journal has made it clear that such allegations are taken very seriously.



Astronomy and Astrophysics

Publisher: EDP Sciences

Journal disclosure policy: None found.

Response: Dr. Thierry Forveille, editor:

I am a bit puzzled that you contact me. (The paper) makes no claim whatsoever of any relevance to climate. It therefore clearly falls well outside the purview of Dr. Soon's contract with Southern Company Services for "publication of both original and review papers on solar variability and climate change and various environmental impacts of that related change in leading scientific journals for the advancement of climate and meteorological sciences." Astronomy & Astrophysics has no funding disclosure requirements, since astronomy is sufficiently removed from any monetary consequences that we have never found that necessary, but had we known about Dr. Soon's contract we would have judged its existence irrelevant to the evaluation of the paper. That Dr. Soon included this totally irrelevant paper in the Year 1 Report, which you forwarded me, certainly does not reflect very well on his ethical standards, but this is an issue that I don't think the journal has standing to act on.



Journal of Climate

Publisher: American Meteorological Society

Journal disclosure policy: All funding sources should be identified in the manuscript. Authors should disclose to the editor any financial arrangement with a research sponsor that could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Response: Ken Heideman, director of publications at American Meteorological Society:

AMS has amended the 2009 paper that Willie Soon coauthored with a publisher's note and an amendment to the acknowledgments that make clear his funding source.



New Astronomy

Publisher: Elsevier

Journal disclosure policy: All authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work.

Response: Gianfranco Brunetti, receiving editor:

I received your documents (via mail), thanks a lot. In the last several [months] we had a discussion within the board of editors about this situation, I guess that similar discussions were taken by other boards and journals involved. Obviously I cannot reveal the details of the discussion and the outcome, however I would expect...a "fair note"...from Elsevier.



Physical Geography

Publisher: Taylor & Francis Online

Journal disclosure policy: Authors must declare any potential conflict of interest – be it professional or financial – which could be held to arise with respect to the article. Authors must disclose all sources of funding for the research reported in the paper.

Response: Carol Harden, editor:

Thank you for keeping us informed about this. An important piece of information missing from the letter you sent is that Physical Geography was not published by Taylor & Francis in 2009, and it did not have a financial disclosure policy at that time. That means that Physical Geography cannot make the claim that Dr. Soon violated the journal's policy. 

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