Academic purgatory: Papers withdrawn before they’re “officially” published

If a paper appears online but then is withdrawn — a kinder, gentler version of retracted — before it is “officially” published, did anyone hear it fall?

Oops, mixed metaphors again. And scare quotes! The latter, however, are because publishers seem to have varying opinions of whether or not something that is freely available online is published. And that has ramifications for whether you can retract a paper like that.

Let us explain with two examples:

Case the first: Sometime between November 2 and today, a paper that appeared online in Behaviour Research and Therapy was withdrawn. (Thanks to Vaughan Bell, who first noticed the withdrawal.) We’re not sure what that paper, “Path analytic examination of a cognitive model of PTSD,” said, because it doesn’t exist anymore. All we learn from the withdrawal notice is the following:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause. The full Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal can be found at

Note to users: Withdrawn Articles in Press are proofs of articles which have been peer reviewed and initially accepted, but have since been withdrawn before being published in this journal. Reasons for withdrawal may be due to a decision by the author and/or editor, accidental duplication of an article elsewhere, or because the content contravenes the Elsevier publishing policy in some way. Withdrawn Articles in Press are only visible to users when following an external link, e.g., an end user following a PubMed or DOI link. Such Withdrawn Articles in Press are not searchable or otherwise available in ScienceDirect.

That’s a lot of potential reasons, some of which may be problematic. And it’s unusual for Elsevier not to spell out the reasons for a retraction — excuse us, withdrawal. They normally go to great pains to do that, and even edit them post-publication.

So we asked the authors of this study what was going on. Southern Illinois University’s Benjamin Rodriguez responded:

The version published online originally as an uncorrected proof was the original version submitted to the journal.  That is an error was made in the publication process and an uncorrected version of the manuscript went online.  A corrected version has been submitted and accepted by BRAT and they are in the process of taking down the incorrect version and replacing it with the corrected version.

Fair enough.

Case the second: The American Journal of Kidney Diseases published a letter online on October 2. Sometime shortly after that, it disappeared, replaced with a withdrawal notice that included even less information than the one above. (On December 2, the letter reappeared. It will be in the journal’s January issue.*) We were curious about that too, so we asked the journal.

AJKD managing editor Nijsje Dorman told us:

The authors of the article in question contacted the publisher at a very late stage in the production process to request that it not appear as an article-in-press so that data in the article could be presented at a meeting in advance of publication, thereby respecting the meeting’s embargo.  Because the article had already been released into the automated path for online publication as an article-in-press, it could not be prevented from posting and thus had to be withdrawn formally in order to honor the authors’ wishes.  The withdrawal notice you saw is also part of an automated process and could not be customized to clarify that the manuscript is being withdrawn temporarily only.  The article will appear in its originally scheduled issue and will be available both in print and online when the issue is published.

I hope that this clarifies that this article has not been retracted, and its content will be unchanged when it is reposted.

A sort of reverse Ingelfinger! (For more on that, you’ll have to read our sister blog, Embargo Watch.) To its credit, the AJKD posted a notice about this letter right on its homepage (in left column at the time of this posting), with an explanation, and made the letter available to anyone who clicked on it, not just subscribers.

There are some differences here. In the first case, it sounds as though this was the publishers’ fault. In the second, it was clearly the authors’.

The reason we highlight that is that a withdrawal presumably sits on a researchers’ CV. (Although, we should note, the AJKD letter now bears no mention of the fact that it was ever withdrawn.) That seems important given that “withdrawal” and “retraction” are often used interchangeably, as they are here by the World Association of Medical Editors.

So if you end up at an abstract, and all you see is “Withdrawn” — or, worse, “WITHDRAWN” — as we did when we came across these two, you might raise your eyebrows a bit and wonder what had happened. It shouldn’t take a call or email to the journal or authors to find out.

Two potential solutions: Let’s either come up with a better word than “withdrawn,” which makes it clear it’s not a retraction, or publishers should spell out the reasons for such withdrawals. (Actually, they should do that in any case.)

Yes, shockingly, we just called for more transparency again.

*Updated 6:30 p.m. Eastern, 12/7/10, with details of when the AJKD paper reappeared on the journal’s site.

3 thoughts on “Academic purgatory: Papers withdrawn before they’re “officially” published”

  1. I have a better example for you. A review paper was accepted and published online in 2008 by the journal Proteomics. The topic was supposedly about mitochondria. However, the authors had an anti-evolution, creationist agenda, and they snuck in two passages that asserted that “a mighty creator” was responsible for the origin of life. Several bloggers including myself and PZ Myers caught it when the paper appeared online:

    After PZ wrote his entry, one of the commenters decided that the authors shouldn’t be trusted and started searching their text. The commenter found that almost the entire article (except the Creationist bits) had been plagiarized, word-for-word, from other articles.

    The Editor-in-Chief eventually retracted the article, but never fully explained despite many demands from scientists and bloggers. I re-visited the issue a year later:
    but the Editor never explained how he allowed such a flawed article in the first place.

    1. It’s a bit much to expect an editor who didn’t recognize plagiarism to explain why s/he accepted the paper. But it’s a bit much for the journal to fail to explain that the article was plagiarized.

      In math there have been cases of plagiarism. Once it was detected that X (nameless) was systematically plagiarizing, the American and European review journals each published one factual description listing the articles for which plagiarism was certain. No articles or reviews were withdrawn. The evidence remains available to all. Apparently math is more transparent than some other parts of science and medicine.

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