Publisher error handling two eye papers leads to retractions, new policy on notices

We can only imagine how Joe Hollyfield felt to learn from us, of all people, that his journal, Experimental Eye Research, had retracted two manuscripts in a recent issue.

The papers, “Mechanisms of retinal ganglion cell injury and defense in glaucoma,” by Qu J, Wang D, and Grosskreutz CL, and “Mitochondria: Their role in ganglion cell death and survival in primary open angle glaucoma,” by Osborne, NN, carried the same retraction notices:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor.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

Because in our experience such unhelpful wording often masks interesting details — read, author misconduct — we called Hollyfield for comment. He graciously walked us through the retractions, explaining the case in detail, until we realized that we were talking about different papers entirely. Hollyfield, it turned out, thought we were asking about the travails of Sangiliyandi Gurunathan, an eye researcher from India whom we’d previously covered and whose work recently had been retracted by Experimental Eye Research and other journals for image manipulation.

But Hollyfield was unaware of the two retractions we’d intended to talk about with him and told us he’d look into them.

Here’s what he learned:

I just heard from the publisher [Elsevier] about the two retractions you brought to my attention. Unfortunately, these papers were submitted for review with the intent that if accepted, they would be included in a Special Issue honoring a recently deceased scientist. The two paper were published prematurely because of administrative mistake at Elsevier. In order for the papers to be included in the Special Issue, it was necessary for Elsevier to retract the earlier paper so that it could be included in the Special Issue, thus avoiding double publication.

The reason it had to be formally retracted was because Elsevier assigned new doi’s/page volume numbers which would confuse readers and, potentially, result in split citations. There is also the suggestion that it might give the false impression of having been published twice – in the Special Issue and previously in a regular issue – which will upset Librarians/subscribers and who knows who else (bloggers maybe?). Notwithstanding the requirement for the retraction of the “reprints”, the implementation on PubMed is very unfortunate (for example, the reason for your contact with me to find out the story behind the retraction), since many who see the retraction (like you) will assume that there is a problem with the original articles themselves. This is further reinforced by the reason for the retraction specified in the notice: “This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause”.

I am told by my contact at Elsevier that they are attempting to change the message on these kinds of retractions. In the future the statement will be: “This item has been withdrawn by the Publisher since it was an erroneous reprint of a previously published article, and was given a different doi from the original article. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this error may cause. The original article is still available as doi………. ”

We’re trying to find out from Elsevier when they intend to make this change, which we wholeheartedly support.

After all, anything that will help readers better understand the reason for a retraction is an unalloyed good. It also should help a little to ease bruised feelings — among authors and editors alike — stemming from future retractions involving publisher error, a problem that we’ve encountered before.

And we thank Hollyfield for his openness. Of course it serves our purposes, but we’re pretty sure it helps his readers, too.

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