Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Family Practice affair: Diabetes paper pulled for redundancy, which journal calls “honest error”

without comments

Family Practice has retracted a 2009 review article on diabetes whose author had published a similar — in spots identical — paper two years earlier in another journal. We think the notice is nine-tenths solid, but there’s a part at the end that raises an important question about how much, or little, editors should do to accommodate the embarrassments of their authors.

The notice:

The Editor and Publisher of Family Practice have retracted the following article:

Heisler, M. ‘Different models to mobilize peer support to improve diabetes self-management and clinical outcomes: evidence, logistics, evaluation considerations and needs for future research’.

Family Practice (2010) 27(suppl 1): i23–i32

(http://fampra.oxfordjournals.org/content/27/suppl_1/i23.abstract)

After investigation, it has been concluded that this paper constitutes a case of redundant publication due to its close similarities with a paper previously published in Diabetes Spectrum (Heisler, M. ‘Overview of Peer Support Models to Improve Diabetes Self-Management and Clinical Outcomes’).

Diabetes Spectrum (2007) 20(4): 214–221

(http://spectrum.diabetesjournals.org/content/20/4/214.full)

We would like to state that this situation was due to an honest error on the part of the author but would like to apologise for any inconvenience this causes to readers of Family Practice.

“Honest error” can mean a lot of things, of course. And while we don’t know what Heisler (who is Michele Heisler, of the University of Michigan) was thinking when she submitted her article to Family Practice, she had to have been aware that the text was identical in places to her previously published paper — a clear violation of publishing protocol. Even the abstracts of the two articles should have been enough to alert the editors of Family Practice to a problem had they been screening the manuscript for plagiarism.

From the 2007 paper in Diabetes Spectrum:

This article provides a brief overview of different approaches to mobilize peer support for diabetes self-management support and evidence to date on the effectiveness of each of these models with an emphasis on research into ways to extend face-to-face programs using innovative technologies. It concludes with a discussion of directions for future research in this area.

And, from Family Practice:

This background paper provides a brief overview of different approaches to mobilize peer support for diabetes self-management support, discusses evidence to date on the effectiveness of each of these models, highlights logistical and evaluation issues for each model and concludes with a discussion of directions for future research in this area.

Or, from the backgrounds section of each, Family Practice first:

Higher levels of social support—especially illness-specific or regimen-specific support—are associated with better diabetes and other illness self-management.1,48 Moreover, providing social support to others may result in health benefits comparable to—or even greater—than receiving support. Individuals, who provide social support through volunteering experience less depression,9,10 have heightened self-esteem and self-efficacy,11 and improved quality of life, even after adjusting for baseline health status and socioeconomic status.12,13 Furthermore, providing support to others can lead to improved health behaviours on the part of the helper,14 decreased mortality risk15,16 and improved health outcomes and function.12,17,18 These benefits are especially strong among those who are elderly and have fewer opportunities to contribute to the well-being of others.10,19 Many older diabetes patients, in particular, not only lack an extensive social network but also opportunities to be of service formerly available through jobs or taking care of children.

And Diabetes Spectrum:

Higher levels of social support—especially illness-specific or regimen-specific support—are associated with better diabetes and other illness self-management.1,48Moreover, observational studies suggest that providing social support to others may result in health benefits comparable to—or even greater than—receiving support. Individuals who provide social support through volunteering experience less depression,9,10 heightened self-esteem and self-efficacy,11 and improved quality of life, even after adjusting for baseline health status and socioeconomic status.12,13Furthermore, providing support to others can lead to improved health behaviors on the part of the helper,14 decreased mortality risk,15,16 and improved health outcomes and functioning.12,17,18 These benefits are especially strong among those who are elderly and have fewer opportunities to contribute to the well-being of others.10,19Many older diabetic patients lack not only an extensive social network, but also opportunities to be of service formerly available through jobs or taking care of children.

We drew these samples at random, and we’re guessing we could find the same overlap elsewhere in the papers.

It’s hard both to overstate and understate the importance of cases like this. Heisler has published extensively and it’s clear she wasn’t simply trying to pad her impressive CV, which lists nearly 100 peer-reviewed articles since 1996 (a vigorous but not improbable pace of about six papers a year). Several of those papers have been cited more than 100 times. And from what we can tell, the Family Practice paper — which has been cited 12 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge — was published (first online) in a supplement dedicated to peer support in diabetes research.

Still, that doesn’t make it any less of a publication. And someone with Heisler’s experience ought to have known better than to submit a virtually identical, previously published manuscript. After all, Family Practice‘s author instructions clearly state that:

Submission of a manuscript implies that it reports unpublished work and that it is not under consideration for publication elsewhere.

Update,  4:15 p.m. Eastern, 8/2/12: We reached Heisler in France, and she explained by email that the Family Practice paper was part of a supplement for a United Nations meeting looking at diabetes issues (we’ve inverted the order of the exchange because it best presents her comments):

The fp paper was in the supplement of the un papers. That was the compilation of the discussion papers prepared for the meeting. The problem was redundant info/overlap. If you pull the paper you will see it was a pretty informal discussion of different peer support models that is a basic information piece not an academic research paper but redundancy of info is still definitively not acceptable!

Because I did not consider the piece academic research (as it was not a systematic review but just a preparatory piece to facilitate discussion with no rigorous methodology), I was not sufficiently vigilant about reviewing the content when i agreed that the working paper could be included in the supplement of the discussion papers prepared for the meeting. I learned an important lesson that any publication should be considered as academic even nonrigorous discussion pieces and thus to be vigilant that content is not duplicated.

Written by amarcus41

August 2nd, 2012 at 10:56 am

Comments
  • Conrad T Seitz MD August 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Given the “honest error” explanation, what should be hard to explain (for the author to explain, that is) are the differences rather than the similarities between the articles. This would be because identical articles (or portions thereof) could be explained by inadvertent en bloc duplication…whereas small changes would suggest deliberate modification.
    Unless, of course, the author wishes to state that she has memory loss from a medical problem, such as a head injury (?), or whatever it is in the movies which always causes this selective memory loss (eg Jason Bourne)…

  • Rafa August 2, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Oh, honestly!

  • YouKnowBestOfAll August 5, 2012 at 4:21 am

    The very same excuse – I did not know that this (earlier publication) counts as “previous publication” – is always used when cases of redundant publications are revealed.

    And always the real motive is the same – to deceive the readers (and the funding authorities as well) that the “new” work is novel and original, thus should count when (the public) grants are awarded.

    However, such cases are per se attempts (most of which, regrettably, are successful) to obtain public money by deception, which is a crime in most jurisdictions.

    This just proves that IT’S TIME TO OUTLAW PUBLICATION MISCONDUCT!

  • AnonEditor August 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    While duplication of original data is clearly morally and professionally wrong, many authors try to argue that duplication of whole sections from review articles doesn’t count as redundacy because the “original” publication contained no “original” work. What are the RW reader’s thoughts?

  • Reviewer #3 August 11, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Actually, the author seems to be saying the opposite of what the prior commenters are interpreting: she is saying not, “I didn’t think the prior publication counted”, but “I didn’t think that the new publication counted.”

    There are a number of cases of informal publication where it is in fact appropriate to include no original material, such as magazine articles, editorial pieces, etc. These will typically end up having very different text anyway, however, due to the difference of audience. One of the key flags for these types of publication is that they typically have no peer review.

    From the author’s explanation, this sounds like it might have come from a grey area, such as a non-published working group meeting (where duplicated reviews are appropriate and even desirable) that is later converted to published via a post-proceedings (where duplication is not appropriate). These types of situation have to be carefully navigated—in some cases, the author may not even know, unless they specifically inquire, whether the post-proceedings will be subject to independent peer review.

    I don’t, of course, know whether that’s the case here or not, but it’s important to understand that this is not as cut and dried a situation as the prior commenters seem to believe.

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