The International Journal of Primatology has a commendably open notice this month about a 2012 paper on the dietary habits of monkeys — “Western Purple-faced Langurs (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor) Feed on Ripe and Ripening Fruits in Human-modified Environments in Sri Lanka” — with echoes of a 2007 article by the same Sri Lankan researcher:
This notice clarifies the relationship between this publication and a previous publication by the same author. The purpose of this notice is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity.
Subsequent to the publication of this paper it has been brought to my attention that it overlaps substantially with a previous report by the same author ([Jinie D. S.]Dela 2007). The International Journal of Primatology participates in the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE, http://publicationethics.org/) and acts in accordance with their guidelines relating to the integrity of the work submitted to, or published in, the journal. Following the COPE guidelines with regard to suspected redundant publication in a published article I examined the two papers and identified partial overlap, i.e., when authors present some new findings in an article that also contains a substantial amount of previously published information. I contacted the author to request an explanation. The reply was unsatisfactory, so I informed the author that I would need to publish a correction notice clarifying which aspects of the 2012 paper had been published previously. Here, I consulted the COPE guidelines on retraction and corrections. I invited the author to write this statement, but this offer was declined. I then drafted a notice and sent it to the author in an attempt to agree a form of wording that is clear and informative to readers and acceptable to all parties. Unfortunately, however, we were unable to agree on the need for a correction. The purpose of this notice is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity.
The letter, which continues with more than a page of detail about the overlap between the two papers, is signed by IJP editor Joanna Setchell. It concludes:
To avoid redundant publication, the 2012 paper should have presented all previous conclusions in the introduction, and made the relationship between the analyses in the two papers clear to the reader. All repetition of previous analyses should have been removed from the results. This would leave a brief paper making the distinction between ripe or ripening fruits versus fruits eaten just for seeds. This is unlikely to have been acceptable for publication in this journal.
The new paper has yet to be cited, but the 2007 article has been cited 16 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
We asked Setchell why she opted for an erratum over a retraction — which seems like it might have been warranted here — and she replied:
I decided on a correction rather than a retraction because the overlap between the two papers concerned is not complete. In other words, the redundancy is only partial. I had hoped that this was clear in the notice itself.
Some editors may have opted for retraction, but regardless, we certainly think Setchell deserves praise for her transparent handling of the matter — her journal also published a commentary by Oxford researcher Vincent Nijman, who told us about this case, about referencing problems with Dela’s two papers — and suggest other editors consider it a useful guide for their own notices.