Hassan Dallal, 9, receives medical treatment at a hospital the day after a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, in April 2017.

Mohammed Karkas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Prestigious journal pulls paper about chemical attack in Syria after backlash

In an about-face, a prestigious journal has decided not to publish a controversial paper that casts doubt on the Syrian government’s responsibility for a 2017 chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. Science & Global Security (SGS) had originally accepted the paper, but reversed itself after a backlash from scientists who accused one of the authors, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge professor emeritus Ted Postol, of pushing conspiracy theories.

“The Editors have decided to return this manuscript to the authors without prejudice and not proceed further with considering it for publication,” an update posted on the journal’s website on Saturday says.

Postol, one of 17 members of SGS’s editorial board, calls the decision “totally wrong and untenable” and says he has resigned from the board. (He has not been involved in deliberations about the paper, he says.)

The paper concerns an attack with sarin gas in the rebel-held city of Khan Shaykhun, Syria, on 4 April 2017. The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that the Syrian government had dropped a sarin-filled bomb on the town, as did U.S. intelligence agencies. But Postol, mathematician Goong Chen of Texas A&M University in College Station, and other authors used computer modeling to argue that the impact crater believed to be the site of the sarin release was not formed by a bomb, but by an artillery rocket armed with a small explosive warhead. Postol, a respected expert on missile defense, has argued in interviews and blog posts that the Syrian regime is not responsible for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack and two others he has examined. In fact, he says he believes sarin was not used at all in Khan Shaykhun.

Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says the paper’s aim was clear: “While on its surface, Postol’s article appeared to revolve around a narrow technical question about whether a rocket or a bomb created the crater in Khan Sheikhoun, the purpose of the article was in fact to challenge the impartiality and competence of the OPCW and JIM,” he says.

In emails last month, Koblentz urged SGS not to publish the manuscript, saying it would be “misused to cover up the [Assad] regime’s crimes” and “permanently stain the reputation of your journal.” Initially, the journal’s three editors said they planned to go ahead with publication. Later, they decided to hold off, writing that they had identified a “number of issues with the peer-review and revision process” and would “examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.”

The Editors have decided to return this manuscript to the authors without prejudice and not proceed further with considering it for publication.

Science & Global Security

The newly posted update makes clear that the decision not to publish the paper is final but does little to explain it. “The Editors have determined they cannot now rectify the problems that were identified, while others are outside of our control—including the manuscript, some comments from reviewers, and the authors’ responses now being in the public domain,” the statement says. “As a result, the Editors do not see a viable path to providing an independent, fair, effective, and conclusive blind peer review of this article by this journal.”

An email to the authors that Postol shared with Science says the paper was sent to two reviewers who were divided, but is equally opaque about exactly what happened. In emails to Science, SGS’s editors declined to provide further detail.

Koblentz says he would like to better understand what happened: “Science & Global Security could do the nonproliferation community a great service by explaining why this article was unsuitable for publication and how it has strengthened its peer-review process based on lessons learned from this incident,” he adds. The editors made the right call, Koblentz adds, but they “missed an opportunity to send a strong signal that this type of disinformation dressed up as technical analysis has no place in the pages of a peer-reviewed scientific journal.”

*Clarification, 15 October, 4:55 a.m.: This story originally said SGS had rejected the paper. The journal’s editors insist it was not rejected; they just could not reach a judgment.