There was a bit of chatter at the weekend’s BAWC conference about the role of the GWCT in the continuing breaking of the embargo of a scientific paper about burning of heather that will not be published until 23 May. Most people just shrugged and said something rude about GWCT indicating their lack of respect for it these days, but I had a couple of longer conversations with scientists who were as deeply shocked as I am. See previous blogs by me to fill in gaps GWCT burningbloggate, Murky, and Much less murky).
Publishing something that is not yours, without the authors’ permission, and before it is scheduled to be made public is a hanging offence in science. In this case, the GWCT say that they had one of the authors’ permission to use the paper though that has neither been confirmed nor denied by that author from Swansea University (who now may be out of the country). But even so, if (see below) the paper was published in error then the right thing to do would be to take down the blog with the relevant material and come back to the subject when the paper is actually published – but the GWCT refuse to do that.
It might seem quaint, but we scientists (I’m a scientist by training after all) treat these matters very seriously. Breaking scientific embargoes is a bit like not saying ‘thank you’, booing another country’s national anthem or stealing the credit for something that is someone else’s work – nobody dies as a result but those who do it diminish themselves in the eyes of others. Every profession has its standards and those who fall short are noticed – GWCT has fallen far short of the standards of behaviour expected from an organisation that wants to be taken seriously in science. The trajectory of GWCT’s scientific reputation is steadily downwards.
Respecting embargoes is particularly important when the matter in question is at all contentious – and this one is. And it’s particularly important when the contention is about the ‘politicising’ of a debate and the contentious matter only gets to those on one side of the ‘argument’ – in this case to GWCT and YFTB (and The Times).
To recap, the paper was, apparently, put on the Swansea University Open Access website in error for a short while, and downloaded from there by the eagle-eyed Sir Ian Botham and others who are always cruising the internet looking for obscure scientific papers.
GWCT were so keen that people should read this paper that they provided a link to it from their website and sent out a newsletter which directed their members to the blog which had the link.
George Monbiot reacted to the leaking of the paper by writing a blog of his own and I’ve been asked by those close to the GWCT ( in a ‘He did it too!’ attempt at justifying their poor behaviour) why I haven’t condemned George. Well, the reason is pretty obvious, and it’s the reason why embargoes exist. George was reacting, and he reacted quite strongly, to criticism of himself in a paper and he was specifically named in the YFTB press release. He was defending himself. If the paper hadn’t been circulated, press released by YFTB, and written about in The Times (!), then I doubt whether we’d have heard from George until the paper was published. George, had, I am told by the senior author of the paper, had a copy of the paper for quite a while (as had others who didn’t break the embargo and as is normal whenever someone’s work is criticised in an embargoed paper). It wasn’t George Monbiot who broke the embargo, it was the GWCT and YFTB (and The Times) who put all this comment in the public domain.
And I know how George feels, you might have noticed a comment, from a first time commenter, Mark Bebbington, on this blog a few days ago saying ‘And anyway, answer the question this report poses (embargo-ed or otherwise) – has the RSPB, and you, twisted the facts around burning? Unquestionably ‘yes’ in your case.‘ to which I was itching to reply… But there you are, I’m not going to reply because the paper is embargoed and so you can’t read it and judge for yourself. So I’ll let this snide slur stay on my own blog until the paper is published, available to the public, and then you can all make up your own minds about it and we can discuss it properly. But it is so tempting to tell Mark Bebbington where he should go and where he should stick his snide remarks that I’m not surprised that George wrote his blog now and didn’t wait until the end of May when he knows that thanks to the error of one of the authors of the paper (or perhaps, to be fair, someone else in Swansea University) the snide comments are out there and being circulated in the shooting community.
And so, let us address the authors’ role in this – and by ‘this’ I only mean the premature temporary publication of their own paper and the following hoo-ha over it (not what the paper itself says, because we can come to that when it is published).
As the University of Swansea website says ‘This article is brought to you by Swansea University. Any person downloading material is agreeing to abide by the terms of the repository licence. Authors are personally responsible for adhering to publisher restrictions or conditions. When uploading content they are required to comply with their publisher agreement and the SHERPA RoMEO database to judge whether or not it is copyright safe to add this version of the paper to this repository. http://www.swansea.ac.uk/iss/researchsupport/cronfa-support/ ‘
Well, we know that the authors of the paper failed there, and since only one of the authors hails from Swansea University (the others are from other institutes and universities) the finger points to one person (whom I won’t name because I only know his name from the embargoed paper). In any case, it may be that somebody else in the process of uploading the paper at Swansea University (perhaps a technician – I don’t know) actually made some errors in this case. But the cock-up appears to have happened in South Wales.
It is though, quite remarkable, that the paper found its way to GWCT and YFTB. Have they nothing better to do than trawl university websites for papers published in error. Did either of them send it to the other, I wonder? Were either tipped off that the paper was available online (by accident and error we are told)?
It is then remarkable that GWCT disseminated the paper as widely as possible. You only have to look at the paper to see that it is a submitted paper and not the final agreed manuscript – surely GWCT knew that they were dealing with a paper that should be and probably was embargoed. They say that they checked with the Swansea University author and he said, that it was fine to treat it as in the public domain. That’s what GWCT say. We don’t know what the author says as he is not in the country, and wasn’t forthcoming on this subject when he replied to an email from me before he left the country. He will have questions to answer on his return. I know he’ll have questions to answer because I sent them to him but I am guessing that the journal is pretty annoyed too and should be asking similar questions, and that the University of Swansea won’t be best chuffed by this error either and should be asking questions too.
In fact there are lots of questions that should be answered. Here are mine (although I might think of some others too – and so might you):
To the author of the embargoed paper based at Swansea University and to the University of Swansea:
- When was the embargoed paper uploaded to your website in error?
- When was the embargoed paper removed from your website?
- How many copies of the embargoed paper were downloaded from your website?
- How often do embargoed scientific papers get published in error on your website? How many embargoed papers have been published in error on your website in the last twelve months?
- What steps did you take to persuade the GWCT not to publish this embargoed paper?
- GWCT say ‘We checked (with the author there) that this ‘For Review Only’ version was supposed to be in the public domain. He confirmed it was and he kindly reviewed this blog for accuracy before we posted it.’ – would you please confirm that this is true or describe where it is not?
- If it is true then how did you imagine that it complied with ‘It is your personal responsibility to ensure that by uploading the full text of your publication you do not infringe copyright. You are required to confirm your acceptance of copyright responsibility in order to deposit.’ on the University of Swansea website and how did you imagine that it complied with the journal’s instructions?
- If it is true, then how did you imagine that it complied with ‘The preferred date of deposit for published articles is the date of acceptance for publication.’ on the University of Swansea website?
To the GWCT:
- Did you download the embargoed paper from the University of Swansea website?
- If so, when exactly?
- How did you become aware that it was there?
- When precisely did you send out your newsletter to members and supporters highlighting your blog which at the time had a link to the embargoed paper?
- In what way was sending out this paper to your members compliant with ‘Any person downloading material is agreeing to abide by the terms of the repository licence.’ as attached to the download so the paper?
- Did you download the embargoed paper from the University of Swansea website?
- If so, when exactly?
- Or did someone send it to you?
- If so, I don’t expect you’ll say, but who?
- When precisely did you send out your press release on this subject?
- Seen any other scientific papers recently that you’d like us to read?
To the Royal Society and the editor of ProcRoySoc B:
- Are you thrilled that this paper has been circulated widely when it is embargoed and has only, it seems, got into the hands of people on one side of a debate over future land use?
- Do you regard the press release by YFTB on the paper that is embargoed as accurate?
- Do you regard the press release by YFTB on the paper that is embargoed as helpful?
- Have you asked the GWCT to remove their blog which continues to disclose selected aspects of an embargoed paper? If not, why not?
- Have you asked the authors and the University of Swansea to explain this lapse in propriety?
- Have you asked any of the questions listed above and have you had any answers to them?
- What steps are you taking on this matter?
To all the authors of the embargoed paper:
- Since your paper might, once it is published, discuss the ‘politicisation’ of science how do you feel about the widespread dissemination of your embargoed paper by the GWCT? Surely you have a view?
- Since your paper might, once it is published, discuss the ‘politicisation’ of science how do you feel about the press release of your embargoed paper circulated by YFTB? Surely you have a view?
- Since your paper might, once it is published, discuss the ‘politicisation’ of science how do you feel about the article in The Times newspaper which was based on the YFTB press release and your embargoed paper? Surely you have a view?
- Is there anything else you’d like to say about this sorry mess?