Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Heir claims part of review about political scientist is defamatory, journal partially retracts

with 4 comments

European Journal of CommunicationA communications journal has retracted parts of a paper about a famous German political scientist after her great-nephew threatened the journal with legal action, claiming bits of the paper were defamatory.

The European Journal of Communication (EJC) retracted the parts of the paper that reviewed a biography of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, published in Germany in 2013. The biography was titled Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: Demoskopin zwischen NS-Ideologie und Konservatismus;” a Google-translate of that title gives “Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: pollster between Nazi ideology and conservatism.”

Noelle-Neumann is most well known for her mass communication theory, the “Spiral of Silence,” which refers to the tendency to remain silent on a subject when your view opposes that of the masses. Because parts of the paper are now redacted, it is unclear what statements were potentially defamatory.

According to a spokesperson from SAGE, the journal’s publisher, the author of the biography in question has since retracted some statements following legal threats; once that occurred, Ralph Erich Schmidt, the great-nephew and adoptive son of Noelle-Neumann, asked the publisher to retract the part of Splichal’s paper that reviewed the biography. The SAGE spokesperson told us “all parties” agreed to the final decision.

Here’s the partial retraction notice:

The following article has been partially retracted and a previously published electronic version has been removed for legal reasons at the request of Dr Ralph Erich Schmidt. If you have a concern about this, please contact SAGE.

Splichal S (2015) Legacy of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: The spiral of silence and other controversies. European Journal of Communication 30 (3): 353-363. doi: 10.1177/0267323115589265

The retracted part of Slavko Splichal’s article reviewed Jörg Becker’s biography of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Since this biography was published in Germany in 2013, Jörg Becker has retracted a series of statements in the legally binding form of cease-and-desist declarations subject to penalty.

On June 12, the journal issued an expression of concern for the paper, which reads:

The Journal Editor(s) hereby issue an expression of concern for the following review article:

“Legacy of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: The spiral of silence and other controversies” by Slavko Splichal, European Journal of Communication, 2015, Vol. 30(3), 353–363. DOI:10.1177/0267323115589265.

An investigation is currently in process in relation to this article in response to a threat of legal action submitted to the European Journal of Communication in which it is claimed that the article contains false allegations and defamatory statements. These claims do not reflect the views of the editors of European Journal of Communication who remain fully confident of the integrity and expertise of Professor Splichal.

The journal is committed to publishing ethical works of high integrity. This relies on all those involved behaving ethically. Authors, reviewers, editors and interested readers should consult the ethics section of SAGE and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) website for guidelines on publication ethics.

SAGE Publications is committed to defending our authors’ rights to express their opinions.

The review — written by Splichal, a professor of communication and public opinion at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia — has so far been cited once, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

A SAGE spokesperson told us:

Dr Schmidt claimed that Becker’s book review, and therefore Splichal’s reference to it, was unfavourable to Elisabeth Noell-Neumann’s memory and reputation. Unlike with English Law, in German law descendants of the deceased can take up legal action to protect the deceased’s reputation against libellous and defamatory statements.

The spokesperson added:

The retracted part of Splichal’s article reviewed Becker’s biography of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Since this biography was published in Germany in 2013, Becker has retracted a series of statements in the legally binding form of cease-and-desist declarations subject to penalty. The EJC editors, at Dr Ralph Erich Schmidt’s legal request, agreed to a partial retraction of the article, to remove this part of the book review.

According to the spokesperson, Schmidt claimed that several statements in Splichal’s report were “untrue” or “defamatory” to Noelle-Neumann’s reputation. After “extensive consultation” with Schmidt, Splichal, and EJC’s editors, SAGE addressed all the claims made by Schmidt in line with the COPE guidelines, the spokesperson told us, adding:

Some of these were disagreements on points of academic wording. It was agreed by all parties that the portion of the book review concerning Professor Becker’s book would be retracted.

Schmidt, a psychologist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, claimed that Splichal had been on “friendly terms” with Becker for many years, and therefore had a potential conflict of interest. He added:

In our view, the EJC and SAGE should have retracted the whole article according to COPE guidelines because of Splichal’s dissimulated conflict of interest. From a legal point of view, we could only ask for retraction of the part of the article that reviewed Becker’s book.

For your reference, here’s a link to the retraction guidelines from COPE, which state:

Retractions are also used to alert readers to cases of redundant publication (i.e. when authors present the same data in several publications), plagiarism, and failure to disclose a major competing interest likely to influence interpretations or recommendations.

We’ve reached out to Splichal, who referred us to the editors of the journal. Becker told us he wouldn’t have time to comment before we went to press. We’ll update the post with anything else we learn.

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  • Semyon July 6, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    There is some sort of comedy in content about ‘the tendency to remain silent on a subject when your view opposes that of the masses’ being removed because someone disagrees with it.

    • Mike Schaper July 7, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      I think you missed the whole point of the article. Has nothing to do with the Spiral of Silence.
      A little more complicated than simply disagreeing…

  • herr doktor bimler July 6, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Noelle-Neumann’s heirs provide their side of the story here:

    At least nine reviews have been retracted or corrected (in the face of litigation), and indeed the book itself was retracted a year or two after publication.
    And the list isn’t even complete! — an Austrian on-line magazine retracted its review “In light of an ongoing legal issue”.

  • Andy Patterson July 7, 2016 at 9:16 am

    In the USA, the dead (or their estates) cannot sue for defamation (libel or slander). Did not realize that the rule in Germany must be different?

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