Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Should journals reject papers solely on ethical grounds?

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Recently, an ecology journal received a submission that made them pause. In order to conduct their research, the authors had to kill thousands of fish. The study had been approved by conservation authorities, but it still wasn’t sitting well with the journal.

So it rejected the paper, on ethical grounds.

Biological Conservation explained its decision in a recent paper, noting the killing of thousands of vertebrates (marine and freshwater fish) in a protected area was “unnecessary and inappropriate,” and adds the journal will continue questioning and rejecting papers that “do not meet reasonable standards of practice.”

This is not a universal practice, however — years ago, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published the results of a research project that resulted in 90 people becoming infected with HIV. Again, that study had obtained the necessary ethical approvals — but should the journal act as the final judge?

According to the editors of Biological Conservation, yes. In “Field work ethics in biological research,” they write:

We urge scientists to conduct research in ways that are respectful to nature, and minimise harm to species and ecosystems…We recognise that the damage to biodiversity caused by research is almost always minor in comparison to the widespread and extensive damage caused by other activities, such as logging, farming, fishing, mining, water pollution, ranching, and urbanization. However, scientific methods should minimise disturbance and stress to biodiversity, and any impacts should be explicitly justified.

The editors note that the authors of the rejected paper, which the journal does not identify,

had the required approvals from the conservation authorities for this work and argued that alternative non-harmful methods, such as camera-traps and baited video, or capture-release methods, would be too time-consuming and expensive because of the species’ low population density.

The journal has also rejected another paper for similar reasons, and one of its editors has declined to review a different study that used “indiscriminate” methods to kill hundreds of vertebrates, the editors add:

These papers intended to demonstrate phenomena already known from other studies in different locations. In our opinion, these studies provided poor justification for harming species where the research simply confirmed a well-known phenomenon already known from other studies in different locations.

Richard Primack, editor-in-chief of Biological Conservation from Boston University, told Retraction Watch that even though some of the studies the journal rejected had obtained ethical approvals, these committees 

focus on the species being studied, and not on the impacts to the related species of the surrounding environment.

It’s not always an easy decision. In the article, the editors mention a 2011 study published in Biological Conservation, in which researchers James Cane and John Neff tested the mortality rates of soil-nesting bees at different intensities of fire. According to Primack, the journal asked the authors to justify the experiment, since it involved killing numerous bees. The journal ultimately accepted the paper, because, as the editors explain: 

Such fires are widespread, both deliberate and accidental, and this was the first and only practical way to assess their effects on these important pollinators.

Cane, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Utah State University in Logan, told us he agrees that some studies should not pass ethical muster:

Passive trapping techniques for wild bees now enables a researcher to kill 100,000+ bees in the course of a single project. One should ask if this excess is scientifically justified in terms of insight gained, particularly for bee conservation objectives. Would it ever be tolerated for modern studies of any vertebrates?

A representative of the journal told us they did not know if the rejected papers had been published elsewhere.

P. Dee Boersma, director of the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels at the University of Washington in Seattle, said it should not fall within journals’ remits to address this issue:

I think it is for animal care committee to prevent abuse. If animal care is not working then journals should expose the failure. Rejecting papers on ethics should not fall on journals to do. Flawed studies should not get by animal care review.

She added:

Science often destroys some pieces of nature to learn important interactions. We infect animals to develop cures for diseases and save human life. I think there has to be some balance between the damage done and what we learn.

But the founders of the organization WildTrack, Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai, disagreed, saying journals should weigh in on the ethics of animal research:

…not only is it fair that journals reject papers solely on ethical grounds, but it is absolutely essential to the progress of animal welfare, species conservation, and data validity. Ethically, we as conservation biologists are conducting our science in the 20th century – it is time we move on to emulate at least the basic standards we demand when working with our own species.

Not all journals follow Biological Conservation’s approach — even when it comes to studies involving human subjects.

In 2000, NEJM published a controversial study in which doctors tracked the spread of HIV in 415 couples living in Uganda where one partner was infected, and the other wasn’t. The controversy lies in the fact that the researchers didn’t tell the uninfected person that their partner was infected — but did urge people to tell their partners of their status, and provided free condoms and information on how to prevent transmission. However, by the end of the study, 90 more people were HIV-positive.

NEJM’s editor-in-chief at the time, Marcia Angell, justified the journal’s decision to publish the paper in an accompanying editorial, which reads:

For me, the decision was admittedly a very difficult one. The study had been approved by the AIDS Research Subcommittee of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, the human subjects review boards of Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University, and the Office for Protection from Research Risk of the National Institutes of Health. The subjects were said to have given oral informed consent (although interviews with subjects of similar studies have indicated that it is very difficult for them to understand that they may not receive effective treatment within the study…

She added:

After its submission to the Journal, the paper was approved not only by the outside peer reviewers, but also by the relevant editors on the Journal‘s staff. When the paper crossed my desk for final approval, I asked two prominent ethicists who are familiar with research on HIV in developing countries to review it. One thought the study was not ethical; the other thought it was. In the face of these divergent opinions and the favorable views of the other editors and reviewers, I decided to approve publication.

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Written by Dalmeet Singh Chawla

November 15th, 2016 at 11:30 am

  • Dean November 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

    The journal’s publisher is a private entity, and has the right to refuse to publish a paper for any reason. End of story. There are plenty of other journals for the authors to approach.

  • Christian Munthe November 15, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    All agree that journal have the power to decide their own criteria, and no one suggests they should be forced to do specific things. But I think the question about what they SHOULD do still stands and poses some reason for reflection.

  • Miguel Roig November 15, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Some related questions come to mind: Should/would the journal later reject a paper that uses the published version of the rejected manuscript as a key reference of the newer work? Also, some researchers have quite high ‘ethical thresholds’ -and some quite low!- for what constitutes ethically conducted research, even when such research may already be part of the scientific record. Imagine if individual authors start considering studies based on their own ethical standards rather than those that are generally accepted.

  • David Vaux November 15, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    A related issue is whether and when journals should reject a paper solely on ethical grounds after it is published.

    In the first correction (Nature 481, 534 (2012)) to Raj et al. (Nature 475, 231-234 (2011)) the authors wrote

    “We have also been unable to verify without doubt that the image in Supplementary Fig. 9b shows four different mice within the treated and untreated groups and therefore wish to replace this figure.”

    The corrected figure showed pictures of mice with ulcerating tumours, and tumours far larger than permitted by animal ethics regulations.

    In a second correction (Nature 526, 596 (2015)) the authors wrote

    “some tumours on some of the animals exceeded the maximum size (15 mm in any dimension) permitted by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).”

    “The tumours in eight mice in Fig. 2b, d (same mice in Fig. 1a, b in the [first] Corrigendum) also exceeded the tumour size approved in the IACUC protocol of the principal investigator…”

    Nature allowed the authors to withdraw the unverifiable data from the original paper, and to withdraw the data that breached the IACUC protocols from the first correction.

  • Dave Fernig November 16, 2016 at 5:16 am

    Only a few words required here and I will use one of them


    It is grossly negligent of an ethics committee to approve the Ugandan study.

    I would note that in the medical sphere these studies generally involve vulnerable people, which should raise further alarms.

    Given that an ethics committee can get it wrong (the Macchiarani scandal illustrates this point, in multiple institutions in multiple countries), then having further layers of protection is necessary.

    • aceil November 17, 2016 at 9:51 am

      Totally agree with you. Who knows what kind of training, if at all, committe members have received? Unethical research should not be published nor be cited.

    • Gary November 17, 2016 at 11:41 am

      In the Tuskegee case, participants were deliberately prevented from obtaining effective treatment that was available. Do you have any evidence that this occurred here? What we do know is that through participation, people had free access to condoms and education. The information withheld (partner’s infection status) was not information the spouses would have had otherwise … obviously. So it appears that in no way did this study increase risk – or if there was an increased risk, four separate bodies – plus the editor – found it reasonable.
      “Grossly negligent” my foot.

  • Charlie November 16, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Asa private entity they can refuse it! Nothing is wrong!

  • oliver November 19, 2016 at 4:40 am

    I think that journals can do what the hell they damn please. Noone can force them to publish a paper. Having said that, I find it absolutely horrible that in the fish study they had to kill that many fish “because of the species’ low population density”.
    Hello! A species with a low population density to start with, needs to be killed to study it?

  • agender November 19, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    I do hope that any study with endangered animals is rejected(except this is the only hope for the population to survive, like pandas in zoos and the Tasmanian devil)

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