Why editors should stop ignoring anonymous whistleblowers: Our latest LabTimes column
A retraction notice appeared a few months ago in the Biophysical Journal:
This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).
This article has been retracted at the request of Edward Egelman, Editor-in-Chief.
The editors have noted that there is a substantial overlap of figures and text between this Biophysical Journal article and D. Rutkauskas, V. Novoderezkhin, R.J. Cogdell and R. van Grondelle. Fluorescence spectral fluctuations of single LH2 complexes from Rhodopseudomonas acidophila strain 10050. Biochemistry, 43 (2004) 4431–4438, doi:10.1021/bi0497648. The submission of this paper was inconsistent with the Biophysical Journal policy which states: “Manuscripts submitted to Biophysical Journal (BJ) must be original; papers that have already been published or are concurrently submitted elsewhere for publication are not acceptable for submission. This includes manuscripts previously submitted to BJ, as well as material that has been submitted to other journals while BJ is considering the manuscript. If some part of the work has appeared or will appear elsewhere, the authors must give the specific details of such appearances in the cover letter accompanying the BJ submission. If previously published illustrative material, such as figures or tables, must be included, the authors are responsible for obtaining the appropriate permissions from the publisher(s) before the material may be published in BJ”. We are therefore retracting the publication of the Biophysical Journal article.
Ordinarily, such duplications go to the bottom of our list of retractions to cover, despite how common they are. There’s usually less of a story behind them than there is behind a completely opaque notice, or behind one that sports a whiff of fraud. But they’re still important, as Bruce Chabner, the editor of The Oncologist, pointed out in a recent issue of his journal in which a duplication retraction appeared:
It requires effort and thought to write about the same subject in an original way in multiple publications. It is much easier to simply cut and paste from an earlier work. While most authors are well aware of the proscriptions against use of material published by others, it may be less obvious that self-plagiarism is an equally serious transgression, with consequences for the responsible author’s career and academic standing. There are legal reasons as well for prohibiting plagiarism of material written either by others or by oneself. In allowing publication of a manuscript, the author must assign copyright to the journal’s publisher, and obviously it is illegal to assign copyright of the same material to multiple journals and publishers. While the immediate reaction to self-plagiarism might be less punitive (one is after all stealing from one’s own work), the copyright issue is still a serious legal problem. Second, it is unethical to represent the work as original in a second publication, and from an academic standpoint, to expand one’s bibliography with multiple versions of the same material. The proliferation of journals that publish reviews, often ghostwritten, without peer review, and often under sponsorship by commercial interests, has markedly increased the potential for self-plagiarism, and as this incident illustrates, abuses are likely widespread.
Duplication is a problem for people writing reviews about others’ work, too, and for meta-analyses: The same trial will be counted twice, or even more times, if it’s published separately. That amplifies the apparent importance of many findings that may not be terribly significant.
There’s a specific reason why we mention the Biophysical Journal retraction: We know how the duplication came to light. It was, in fact, the same way that the retraction in The Oncologist emerged: “Clare Francis” alerted the editors to the overlap, after running the now-retracted study through plagiarism detection software.
Clare’s name — or, more correctly, his or her pseudonym — may be familiar to Retraction Watch readers. Clare frequently alerts us to retractions and other news, so “Clare Francis” often shows up in our hat tips. But not everyone thinks Clare deserves any credit. In our most recent column for LabTimes, we note that some editors refuse to investigate anything Clare sends them, because they don’t know who Clare really is — and Clare doesn’t feel the need to tell them. The Committee on Publication Ethics doesn’t seem terribly worried about anonymous tips, so what gives? As we write:
[W]e’re baffled as to why editors and institutions ignore private emails from anonymous whistle-blowers. Unless, of course, they’re trying to find ways not to do the work of investigating the claims – work that, one way or another, is their responsibility.
What if a tipster is just using anonymity to bash someone’s work, or, worse, the person himself? Our thoughts:
[W]e treat anonymous tipsters the same as we treat tipsters who send us plenty of information about themselves. We don’t demand their real names or affiliations. Editors should do the same. That’s because facts are stubborn things and we haven’t seen any evidence yet that people who identify themselves have any more of a monopoly on them than those who want to remain anonymous – sometimes for excellent reasons.
You can read the entire column, which features an email exchange between us and one editor who doesn’t like anonymous tips, here. And we of course welcome comments below.