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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Primate journal cites duplication in erratum, but does not retract

with 8 comments

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.

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8 Responses

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  1. It appears that your second-to-last sentence was originally meant to accompany the phrase separated by a dash from the main clause of the last sentence. As it stands, the last sentence is confused and incorrectly formed. Please repair the damage.


    July 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  2. The wording of the editor’s notice indicates that the editor feels that the article, stripped of its repetitions, would not be substantial enough for publication standing alone. This implies to me that the editor would have preferred a retraction. In fact, the notice suggests to me that the editor has the patience of a saint. Don’t you think the impulse to retract is overwhelming in this case, lacking only the author’s consent? (It sounds as if the author is in complete denial.)

    Conrad T Seitz MD

    July 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

  3. The second publication used the same dataset as the first, but said so and cited the first paper. The reviewers and editors considered the second paper, and judged that it should be published, which it was.
    Now the editor publishes an “erratum” saying that it was a partially redundant publication that was (in retrospect) “…unlikely to have been acceptable for publication in this journal.”
    So, why did the editors and reviewers accept it in the first place? Is one editor saying the other editor and the reviewers were wrong?
    And what of the author? He wrote a paper that cited his earlier publication in the same journal, submitted it to the journal, had it accepted and published, but now the journal not only publishes an erratum notice by an editor, but also a commentary by an Oxford researcher that also criticizes the paper. And for good measure the Oxford researcher notifies RetractionWatch, even though the paper has not been retracted.
    This strikes me as most peculiar, and suggests there is much behind the scenes…It would be interesting to know what the reviewers and editor who accepted the paper think about the erratum, and what prompted the other editor (Dr Setchell) to re-visit their decision.


    July 17, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    • Please don’t shoot the messenger.

      I am the Oxford researcher that alerted Retraction Watch.

      When I read the Erratum it came across as a retraction (“…I consulted the COPE guidelines on retraction and corrections”), and indeed the first response from Adam when I alerted him was “Seems like a retraction in all but name to me”. We cannot be the only ones to think so [see comment above from CT Seitz] – hence its relevance to this forum.

      The Comment I wrote is, at least from my side, unrelated to the above. The two papers in the International Journal of Primatology are somewhat peculiar in that they report on a study conducted in 1985-1987, hence 20 years prior to publication of the first paper in 2007. It reads as if the papers were indeed written decades ago, updated with more recent references mainly from the International Journal of Primatology: other than the author’s own work, the most recent papers on Sri Lankan primates that are cited date from the period the research was conducted. This is what I pointed out in my Comment.

      Vincent Nijman

      July 18, 2012 at 5:24 am

      • I’m trying to see it from the author’s angle. They submitted a paper that cited their earlier paper, so I don’t think they can be accused of plagiarism or self-plagiarism; the editors and reviewers must have judged it to be worthy of publication in IJP. I can understand that a paper should be withdrawn if it has fabricated data or plagiarized text that fooled the reviewers and editors, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. To me, it appears as though Dr Setchell has formed a different opinion to the original reviewers and editor, but rather than criticizing them, she has overturned their opinions, and retrospectively rejected the paper.
        The relevant COPE flowchart (What to do if a reader informs you of suspected duplicate publication in a published paper) says this would be a “minor” case because there was no deliberate attempt to hide the earlier paper, and suggests “Discuss publishing a correction giving reference to original paper”. In short, although the editor says she has acted in accordance with the COPE guidelines, this does not appear to be the case.


        July 18, 2012 at 8:24 am

      • All is not what is seen
        I am a senior academic in Sri Lanka who was recently involved in a webdebate (wht.lk) on the validity of the erratum and commentary which appeared in the IJP in connection with Dr Dela’s 2007 and 2012 papers. The latter was recognized as a key paper for colobine research by an expert reviewer appointed by the IJP editor in chief. Dr Nijman’s allegations against Dr Dela’s paper in his commentary, which formed the basis and objectives of the commentary in the IJP on Dela’s 2012 paper, are unsubstantiated and unfair (See debate on wht.lk Primate revisited, on whether the commentary meets with its stated aims of showcasing a dozen papers that Dela had not cited deliberately to make her work look unique or even whether these papers should definitely have been cited by a researcher publishing a serious paper in a journal such as the IJP, etc). The commentary is surprisingly published in the same issue of the IJP (Vol.33 no 4) as the Erratum by the editor of the IJP.
        I would like to add my comments to this blog which I feel misleads the reader and to make a connection with the arguments in the wht.lk blog. It is extremely fortunate that MichealBriggs on the Retraction Watch blog sensed that all was not right in the IJP editor’s so called erratum (not really an erratum). I like to present these questions.
        • Why did the Editor in chief of the IJP pretend/mislead that she saw the 2007 and 2012 papers only after an anonymous person drew her attention to substantial overlap after publication of the 2012 paper? She was reviewer/handling editor of the 2012 paper, and had read both papers before the second paper was published. The COPE guidelines specify that editors should seek out related papers and also apprise reviewers. In this case, the 2007 paper (in the same journal) was mentioned many times and was cross–referenced in the submission sent for review.
        • As pointed out by MichealBriggs, the Editor in chief has clearly not followed the guidelines and flowcharts when she condemned Dr Dela’s 2012 paper. This paper does not fit into the flowcharts scheme at all. It cites the first paper 17 times, and was sent to the same journal, it explores a different aspect of feeding from the 2007 paper and does not duplicate the introduction, results, analysis or discussion, and was reviewed by the editor herself. The erratum, both papers, and the reviewers reports should be closely examined to see whether the editor’s allegations are real. If they are not, is this fraud? I like to know.
        • Why did the Editor in chief not take note of the advice by an expert on redundancy (who said that in his opinion Dr Dela’s 2012 paper was not redundant according to the COPE guidelines) and submit the case for resolution to COPE as advised by him? (As the editor did not heed her request for action recommended by COPE guidelines for deputes between the editor and author, Dr Dela contacted Sri Lanka National Science Foundation and obtained comments of an eminent and independent international expert. Dr Setchell was sent the full report with the name of the reviewer).
        • Why did the editor not discuss her perceived overlaps, point by point, with the author if she had real concerns when the author volunteered to do so? Why did the editor say the results were impressive and exhaustive in her first review, which would have been after reading the 2007 paper? Why did she not bring up her concerns during paper revision if she had any?
        • How did the erratum appear in the same IJP issue as the commentary? By the time the commentary went online (obviously the papers for Volume 33(4) IJP issue were finalized by then) the erratum (then only an author proof stage with Dr Dela’s name on it) had been taken off the Springer Publication System (as informed by Springer). Then who fast tracked the erratum into the same issue of the IJP in which the commentary was appearing? And Why?
        With regard to editorial responsibility for Nijman’s Commentary: Did not the editors and reviewers check the dozen papers that Nijman claims to have furthered Dela’s research and alleged she should have cited, and also alleged that Dr Dela did not cite them to make her work look unique. Why did the editors not wake up to the facts at least when Dr Dela sent in her reply and at least then check the validity of the serious allegations – before the Commentary was published? Why did not the IJP Editor, if genuinely concerned about research integrity, call for retraction of the Commentary, if the claims made in it are not factual and also misrepresents Dela’s paper? Overall my concerns are:
        • How and why did a prestigious journal such as the IJP (the flagship journal of the International Primatological Society) permit an erratum and commentary that do not justify their aims?
        • The relevant national authorities in Sri Lanka will also need to scrutinize the papers cited in Nijman’s commentary for ethics issues as one Samantha Mirandu’s statements on the WHT.lk blog raises alarming publication ethics questions in some; check whether the OBU researchers or their institutes had contacted the relevant authorities for the post 2005 wpfl work in Sri Lanka (including interviews), and check whether any laws of the country were violated in the process. All these, once checked, may prove to make them worthy of retraction. Perhaps the information could be sent to RW for action.
        The unfair treatment to Dr Dela from the erratum and commentary cannot merely be viewed as personal to her. This matter is a serious national and international ethics issue that could happen again to any researcher/author from any country. All researchers, and teachers with students working under them on biodiversity and primates are stakeholders in this issue, and that is my concern. I hope Retraction Watch will be fair by all parties, consider all aspects of the story, and get the Editor of the IJP to answer my questions. I hope RW will retract its article on this matter until all facts are cleared.

        UKGK PADMALAL (Ph D)
        Head Environmental Science
        Post Graduate Studies on Environmental Science and Wildlife Ecology
        Open University, Nawala, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka
        Principle Investigator of the Sri Lanka Slender Loris Conservation Project (ZSL-UK)


        September 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm

  4. I am the author of the primate paper being discussed on this blog. I am not in denial as suggested. I am presently seeking redress through various initiatives on what appears to be a bizarre effort to denigrate a seminal paper – exemplified by Nijman contacting Retraction Watch and other websites, barely a week after the so called erratum went on line on 12 July 2012. michealbriggs showed great perspicacity. I can assure him that the editor was not overturning the decision of other reviewers or editors. Dr Joanna Setchell (Durhum University, UK), Editor-in-Chief of the IJP was herself the handling editor and reviewer #2 of the 2012 paper which I submitted to the IJP in January 2010. She was fully aware of the 2007 paper, she referred to it in her very first review report of June 2010, we both referred to it during paper revision which went on for about another year (I have proof via emails and uploaded revisions), and she finally accepted the paper knowing full well the differences between the 2007 and 2012 papers and the merits of the 2012 paper. So before RW decides on who is a sinner or a saint (as someone says on this blog) I would like to present the facts. (Documentary proof is already lodged with the NSF Sri Lanka and ICSU).

    The details are: I had published a previous paper in the IJP in 2007 on the feeding behaviour of a particular monkey in Sri Lanka. As correctly befits a second paper, on a related subject which emanated from the same study (but explored a different and crucial aspect of feeding), I submitted the second paper to the IJP (same journal) in January 2010. In the second paper, I referenced the first paper more than adequately (in the introduction, methods and discussion) to enable the reviewers and editor to refer the 2007 paper and make an informed decision whether the submitted paper was valid and acceptable as a stand alone separate publication for the IJP. The decision was explicitly implied when, in June 2010 I was informed by Dr Setchell, that she had reviewed my manuscript “carefully” herself; both she and reviewer # 1 found the paper “impressive”, and she said it could be accepted with amendments – mainly structural. She also stated that the results were “impressive and exhaustive”. Reviewer # 1 stated that the second paper was “a must for publication” as it challenged prior arguments about why colobine monkeys could not feed heavily on ripe and ripening whole fleshy fruit (attributed to digestive inhibitions) as my quantitatively presented data showed they could. The above comments also confirmed that this was a seminal paper. There was NO mention of overlaps or redundancy then or later, and the review did not require any change of data presentation or data analysis. The second paper was published online in November 2011 and was in print in 2012.
    • In view of the above facts, and my numerous explanations, the editor’s statements implying that the author did not provide adequate explanation is totally out of order. It is she who should explain how she saw ‘substantial overlap’ after publication of the paper when she knew all about the 2007 paper from the outset: during the lengthy paper review and revision (The COPE guidelines requires that an editor should seek and apprise the reviewers about even related unreferenced papers).
    • Many facts withheld by the editor in the erratum, misleads the reader to think that the author had engaged in publication misconduct or that the editor was courageously overturning the wrong decision of another editor/reviewer.
    • Dr Setchell herself checked the final para of the introduction, in which the second paper links up with the first, and which provides the hypothesis and predictions of the second paper; and she also did some final edits on this. If this para was not clear or sufficient to show the linkages between papers (as she says in her erratum), this para is what she wanted (a word document with editor’s final edits of this para in track changes is available).
    • During paper revision, I explained that the second paper challenged a 20+ year argument on colobine ability to digest ripe and ripening fleshy whole fruit. She accepted this.
    • Publication of the second paper online in November 2011 was followed by a commentary on it submitted by Dr Nijman (before December 4th 2011) to the IJP, and my reaction to it was conveyed to Dr Setchell.
    • This was followed by a complete turnaround of opinion by Dr Setchell’s in January 2012, when she suddenly perceived substantial overlap between my 2007 and 2012 published papers.
    • My repeated detailed explanations showing errors in Dr Setchell’s reasoning about duplication, requests for discussion and to let me know specific technical points that she perceived as redundant so that I could explain the actual position, were summarily dismissed (e-mail correspondence exists).
    • Without being specific about what was perceived as duplicated (specific text, table, figure, etc.) Dr Setchell then requested me to write a correction or to jointly author it with her, stating that she would publish it anyway even if we did not agree. I declined as I clearly saw no reason for a correction as per the COPE guidelines and flowcharts which the editor sent me.
    • My pointing out discrepancy between the COPE flowcharts and Dr Setchell’s draft corrigendum, a request to be informed of text and data that she thought could be deleted from the second paper had I referred to the first paper (as said in her draft) and a request for an independent conflict resolution mechanism as per COPE guidelines for editors were ignored.
    • Shockingly, in June 2012, a final author proof of Dr Setchell’s corrigendum (now called an erratum) under my name was sent to me by the Publisher, accidentally.
    • At this point, to overcome the seeming impasse with the IJP, I referred this problem to the Sri Lanka National Science Foundation (NSF), a Member of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). ICSU got my papers read and assessed by an independent international expert (unknown to me and the editor) who has advised COPE on redundancy issues before.
    • The expert concluded that, although not a primatologist, according to his personal opinion based on the 2 papers made available to him, application of the COPE Guidelines did not show the second paper to be redundant: the papers, though from the same data set, had different analysis and arrived at different conclusions, they were sent to the same journal and the first paper was referenced on 17 occasions, and there was no apparent intent to hide the first paper. Hence he advised that the Editor contacts COPE to resolve the matter as he felt that the erratum would damage the editor’s reputation as well as mine.
    • ICSU communicated this report to Dr Setchell, but she did not contact COPE, and published the supposed erratum online in July 2012 under her name. It is now in the same print issue as the Commentary [which went on line in June 2012 with other papers for issue 33 (4).].
    • The few points she gives in the erratum as supporting substantial redundancy are not valid; she says that she compared both papers only after someone drew her attention to substantial overlap and withholds vital information about the review and that she was a reviewer!

    Of note is that on 4 December 2011, I was informed of a commentary submitted to the IJP by Dr Vincent Nijman (Oxford Brookes University, UK), as a Reply to Dela, 2007 and 2012, and was invited to reply. Dr Nijman alleged I had not referenced important recent work on purple faced monkeys in Sri Lanka (many of them by researchers from Oxford Brookes University) that furthered my findings. He also more seriously implied that the omission was deliberate to make my work seem unique. A detailed debate between Dr Nijman and Dr Padmalal on the claim made in Nijman’s commentary that he was presenting a dozen relevant papers that I should have cited but did not, can be read on the wht.lk Primate revisited an Apology to Jinie Dela webpage. The debate clearly shows that the commentary makes unsubstantiated and unfair claims, and cites papers (which I am criticized for omitting) that may have questions regarding publication ethics of their own; and some papers cited by Nijman were published after I submitted my paper to the IJP in January 2010 ! However, the commentary was published by the IJP, but my reply was rejected as I had not followed ALL the reviewers comments; namely I had mentioned non-adherence to research procedures in the country, I had not made the reply shorter (as it already had less words than the commentary) and I had pointed out glaring errors in the commentary point-by-point (the ‘reviewer’ had said line-by-line corrections were out of order).

    I hope Adam and Ivan will investigate this case and revise their opinion of whether the editor has acted transparently and wisely and whether other editors should emulate the said editor! Be assured that this matter is not closed from my side.

    Dr Jinie Dela, an unfairly targeted author seeking redress

    [More on this is on the wht.lk blog Research Highlights: Primates revisited: an Apology to Jinie Dela]

    Dr Jinie D S Dela

    September 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm

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