Penalties for early withdrawal: irked CONSORT Group authors

Premature withdrawal can lead to frustration and hurt feelings — especially when it comes to publications (please, this is a family-friendly site).

Two cases in point: We recently learned that the International Journal of Surgery, an Elsevier title, had withdrawn two papers from the CONSORT group — an acronym for Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials — an international team of scientists who have been working on ways to improve the reporting of studies.

In 2008, they published a paper titled “Methods and processes of the CONSORT Group: example of an extension for trials assessing nonpharmacologic treatments” in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They followed up in March 2010 with the publication of “CONSORT 2010 Statement: Updated guidelines for reporting parallel group randomized trials.”

As they wrote in the statement:

We developed CONSORT 2010 to assist authors in writing reports of randomised controlled trials, editors and peer reviewers in reviewing manuscripts for publication, and readers in critically appraising published articles. The CONSORT 2010 Explanation and Elaboration provides elucidation and context to the checklist items. We strongly recommend using the explanation and elaboration in conjunction with the checklist to foster complete, clear, and transparent reporting and aid appraisal of published trial reports.

The statement appeared in PLoS Medicine, BMJ, Trials, the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology and other publications. It, and the original CONSORT paper, apparently also caught the fancy of the International Journal of Surgery — but not for long. The withdrawal notices, dated Oct. 16 and Nov. 4, respective, state that the articles have

been withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor.

According to CONSORT co-author Doug Altman — a major figure in clinical trial design — that’s half right, at best:

I am aware of this action by the journal but believe it is a complete mix up. Both of these papers were already published elsewhere and the journal wished to republish them. I knew nothing about withdrawal until I saw the information on PubMed. We are trying to find out what has happened.

So are we. We wondered if this was another example of using the word “withdrawn,” and all of its connotations, when a gentler “technical glitch” word would do.

The subject of blunt instruments and overuse has been on our minds recently. We’ve been looking into the Journal of Hepatology’s own recent run-in with same. It seems that a clerical error, and the response to it, led the publisher, again Elsevier, to issue a “temporary retraction” for two editorials “as ordered by the Editor and Author.” (That notice, which was available here, seems to have been taken down.)

To which Didier Samuel, the journal’s editor (and the author of one of the temporarily retracted editorials) said whoa (or rather, being French, more like attendez une seconde):

We told Elsevier our publisher … that 2 editorials from the January [2011] issue  already online were indicated as “in press.” We asked Elsevier to remove these  2 papers from the in press section since there are online. Someone at Elsevier uses the temporary retraction to do this which is incorrect.

Samuel said the publisher quickly acknowledged its mistake on the papers.

But why a withdrawal or retraction is the only way to deal with a glitch is still making us scratch our heads. At the very least, for the CONSORT papers, the journal should have taken greater pains to contact Altman and his colleagues about its intentions to withdraw the two papers. And if it couldn’t reach them — a highly unlikely proposition — it should not have implied that they were aware of the action in the notice.

Retraction Watch e-mailed the editor of the International Journal of Surgery to hear his version of events regarding the CONSORT paper. We’ll update this post when we hear from him.

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