Thursday, 24 March 2016

Can a review article be too confrontational? Apparently not.

By Alastair Potts

Recently, Guido Grimm and myself published a review examining the theoretical underpinnings of the so-called Coexistence Approach; this is a method that has been used to reconstruct ancient climates using plant fossils and the present-day distributions of analogous plants.

I will admit that the tone of the paper is aggressive. I have never before, and probably will never again, write in such a confrontational manner. But given what we found, I believe it entirely justified. To put it mildly, we suggest that the method is fundamentally flawed and the results from the last 15 years of publications should be ignored.

Harsh? Definitely! Too harsh? Well, yes, if, and only if, the authors and other Coexistence Approach users were not given a fair opportunity to respond to the paper.

However, this was not the case. The manuscript was submitted to the journal Climate of the Past, which has an open review system. This system means that the manuscript is placed on-line for two months for all to see and anyone in the scientific community can provide reviews or comments. In addition, two anonymous reviews (the standard scientific model) are obtained by the editor.

The manuscript was published on-line on the 18th of December, 2015.

On the same day, we emailed all of the authors of a recent review of the Coexistence Approach (Utescher et al., 2014) to alert them of the manuscript and the due date (12 Feb 2016) for comments.

Needless to say, we received no comments or reviews beyond those of the standard two anonymous reviews, who could not find any substantial flaws in the argument.

We have to assume that by not engaging with our review, the proponents of the Coexistence Approach could not fault our logic. We could not have provided an easier or transparent avenue for our manuscript to be lambasted. Nothing was forthcoming, so we have to assume that our assertion, i.e. that the method is fundamentally flawed, has to be correct.

How a such a flawed method could have survived for so long is another question entirely.

Update: I see that has picked up on this: Prehistoric climate scientists get into modern-day turf war. Unfortunately, another example of why I don't entirely trust science journalists - they can't even get simple author attributions right (and my ego is offended :). But apparently not engaging with any criticisms of the Coexistence Approach is current strategy. Rather, any criticisms are tarnished with "personal".


2014. Utescher T, Bruch AA, Erdei B, François L, Ivanov D, Jacques FMB, Kern AK, Liu YS, Mosbrugger V, and Spicer RA. The Coexistence Approach—Theoretical background and practical considerations of using plant fossils for climate quantification. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 410:58-73.


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