September 2019
From the Editors

Questions have been asked of this journal and its editors about a decision to consider for publication an article "Computational Forensic Analysis for the Chemical Weapons Attack at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017" by Goong Chen, Cong Gu, Theodore A. Postol, Alexey Sergeev, Sanyang Liu, Pengfei Yao, and Marlan O. Scully. These questions included concerns about the technical merits of the analysis in this article as well as the value of publishing the article given the sensitive and contested issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The editors take these matters very seriously.

The mission of this journal since it was founded thirty years ago has been to provide a scholarly forum to help develop the technical basis for policy initiatives to reduce the risks from nuclear, biological, chemical, space and cyber technologies to international peace and security and to provide a resource for further scholarship and policy analysis. International security issues are often strongly contested, but we believe that most controversial debates can benefit from a technical discussion aiming to address specific arguments.

The attribution of responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a matter that falls within the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and of the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism which reported on this matter to the United Nations Security Council. The article in question presents a technical analysis using forensic computer simulations of one hypothetical scenario and models a specific aspect of the chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun, namely the formation of the crater that was determined to be the source of the sarin release. The authors claim this analysis calls into question some key conclusions of the Joint Investigative Mechanism. The editors believe further analysis or new evidence would be required to confirm or contradict such a claim.

To ensure the high standards of editorial control, integrity, and rigor that this journal has always sought to maintain, we conducted an independent internal review of the editorial process for this manuscript. This review identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process. As a result, the editors have decided to withhold the publication of this article to examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.

The editors accept responsibility for the oversight, and we apologize to the authors, the reviewers, and our readers.

UPDATE 12 October 2019:

Having examined the concerns about the peer-review and revision processes for this article that led to the withholding of publication, 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.

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

As Editors, we reaffirm the importance of the journal not shying away from controversial policy debates concerning global peace and security. The goal, as we see it, should be to inform these debates through careful scholarly technical analysis that focuses attention on specific issues and arguments where, in principle, agreement can be reached on an answer. In this case, to our regret, we do not see a path to reaching such an answer.