Elsevier on Retraction Watch: “scholarly publishing is better for it”

It’s fair to say that we’ve been watching Elsevier over the past two-plus years, and we’ve also known they’ve been watching us. Last year, Tom Reller, the company’s vice president of global public relations, wrote that we “represent the new breed of science watchdog that is able to promote the results of their own investigations quickly via the internet.”

But as Reller notes in a thoughtful post today at ElsevierConnect:

My colleagues and I didn’t quite know what to make of Retraction Watch when it first launched a little over two years ago. We wondered if they had a sincere interest in improving transparency in scholarly publishing, or if they were just out to embarrass publishers and editors by over sensationalizing and demonizing the small percentage of what’s wrong in science,at the expense of the high percentage of what’s right.

Reller says since then, Elsevier “could quibble over a post or two,” and as he knows, we could quibble over how they’ve handled some retractions. But as our archive of posts about Elsevier journals makes clear — and as Ivan said on On The Media about a year ago — the publisher is actually one of the most consistent when it comes to retraction notices. It’s rare to see a completely opaque notice, and it’s even more rare to see a notice behind a paywall — this at a publisher who is often the whipping boy for open access advocates.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that after a few years of watching Retraction Watch, Reller concludes:

Elsevier’s and Retraction Watch’s objectives are quite aligned in that we both want more transparency in publishing. Our journals, and academia overall, do better when shining a light on bad actors and bad science. For certain, investigative journalists and their subjects will always often have different views on just how much transparency is ideal, but Retraction Watch is playing an important role and I think the world of scholarly publishing is better for it.

We particularly hope that editors at Elsevier journals and elsewhere heed Reller’s recommendations:

My advice to anyone receiving an email from Retraction Watch is to always at least respond to various inquires for information. Usually the retraction notice says as much as an editor is able to say about an event, but they should always consider the request and answer additional basic questions when they can. And when they can’t, they should simply say as much.

You can read the whole post here. Reller welcomes feedback, as do we.

13 thoughts on “Elsevier on Retraction Watch: “scholarly publishing is better for it””

  1. More important than yet another watchdog is an instance that collects and systematises retractions for the quick and easy information of practiciing scientists. That was my idea about Retraction Watch when I stumbled accross it some years ago. In the future, it will become a great service to science, if researchers can quickly search your archives for finding out whether a particual study is trustworthy.

  2. I concur with RW that Elsevier has done a more consistent job, even in the awkward case where an author is fighting very hard to avoid retraction and the editor in chief was resisting it. See Strange Tales and Emails. for the history. Elsevier responded straightforwardly to complaints, explained the process and forced a retraction.

  3. It’s a good feather in RW’s cap. Let’s hope editors of non-Elsevier journals also take notice.

    Actually the assertion that Elsevier is quite consistent in the level of transparency in its retraction notices got me interested in another question: how consistently transparent are retraction notices per major publishing house, and are professional societies-cum-publishers more likely or less likely to provide consistency and transparency?

  4. CH: A data point.
    Wiley has shown a different approach from Elsevier, in its WIREs:Computational Statistics.:

    1) Two of the three editors-in-chief wrote two papers that were mostly plagiarized, one mostly hacked-together from Wikipedia articles, i.e., mosaic plagiarism.

    2) After multiple complaints, Wiley let them quietly revise the articles, with no admission of any problem.

    3) However, after months of further complaints, Wiley did retract the two editors, although not the articles, and still with no notice of any problems. The third Editor-in-Chief is now the only one.

    4) For more background on the early complaint history: PDF @ See No evil, Speak Little Truth…, pp.31-32, 50-52.

  5. First I should declare my interest. I’m ex Editor-in-Chief of an Elsevier journal, The British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, which later moved to Blackwell (long story – don’t ask!), and currently a receiving Editor of the Eur J Obstet Gynecol & Reprod Biol, another Elsevier Journal.

    Although I’ve no close personal experience of retractions, I’ve always found Elsevier a professional and well organised publisher. I’m not at all surprised to see them taking RetractionWatch seriously.You’re doing a good job. .

    Elsevier’s supposed opposition to Open Access may also be relevant. If your journal’s success depends on subscribers, you need to keep a close eye on quality. If it depends on author’s fees why not let a little plagiarism through! Who will care?

    1. More info on Elsevier’s open access policies (much more! It’s been a controversial issue for a few years now) can be found by googling “Elsevier open access policy”. The first four screens of hits are enough to get a good idea of what’s been said recently.

      Does Elsevier foresee an increase in plagiarism among articles published as Sponsored Articles (the Elsevier version of gold open access)?

      By the way, next week is Open Access Week.

      1. Jim, thank you for your comments, and for serving as an editor for one of our journals. And Karen this would pertain to your comment as well. “Supposed” is a good word because Elsevier is not in fact opposed to open access but is open to any business model that can expand access in ways that maintain the integrity and quality of the scientific record (for more background, we posted a new article today welcoming OA week – http://elsevierconnect.com/elsevier-celebrates-open-access-week/, and a full list of our access initiatives are here – http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/intro.cws_home/access_initiatives).

        We might worry about quality in the broad sense if there were a rush to all-OA, where the business model shifts entirely from reader to author. But in an hybrid environment (mix of articles per journal or mix of options within a publisher) we would not expect to see a negative impact on quality provided that peer review remains rigorous and ethical standards are followed by all participants. We have seen some OA publishers that do not follow such rigorous standards, but this is fortunately not typical. Trade bodies for open-access-only publishers have emerged, for example OASPA, which takes a very firm line with members about the importance of maintaining quality.

        For further discussion the topic of quality and other issues came up in an interview I participated in here (http://adametkin.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/an-interview-with-tom-reller-vice-president-global-corporate-relations-elsevier/).

        Thank you.
        Tom Reller, Elsevier

  6. I am probably a bit older than the Retraction Watch fellows and have been at this longer, but also I report on these kinds of issues. In fact, I have an extensive interview in my October issue of my national monthly newsletter, Report on Research Compliance, with the head of the Office of Research Integrity and the director of ORI’s Division of Investigative Oversight.

    If you ever fear getting a call from THEM, you need to read my article, “Truth Telling: ORI Officials Offer Details On Case Settlements, Oversight Reviews,” which includes details about when retractions are required and how ORI sometimes pens such letters itself to protect collaborating researchers from “collateral” damage that can be caused by “self-serving” errant investigators who write their own retraction letters.

    I also have a sidebar on ORI’s growing set of forensic tools.

    Theresa Defino, Editor
    Report on Research Compliance

  7. Elsevier have shown recently (in some cases) some changes in the right direction and I have congratulated them (see my comments here http://www.retractionwatch.com/2012/09/20/slew-of-retractions-appears-in-neuroscience-letters/)
    However, Elsevier is still silent about duplicate publication (in Gaceta Sanitaria) combined with copyright irregularities (Elsevier Reference: 120325-000342 and Reference: 120324-000411).
    This reluctance of Elsevier to demonstrate consistency in treating duplications (in this case combined with copyright irregularities) suggests only one thing – applying double standards.

  8. I am happy and this report only confirms what I always believed in. If you consistently do good work with sincerity- you will be noticed no matter where and how you publish. Well done retraction watch. I only hope that you get more like minded persons to join you in this endeavor. I am ready to offer my services for free if needed by your guys.

    1. Double standards and hipocrisy. That is how I would describe Elsevier forced perception related to authorship, and, by extension, ethics and its enforcement. Allow me to provide the proof, and use a clear case in one of horticultural science’s premier journals, Scientia Horticulturae:
      February 3, 2014 (Scientia Horticulturae web-site) “Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, and interpretation of the reported study.”
      February 3, 2014 (Elsevier web-site) “Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study.”

      Either Elsevier standardizes its definitions for all its journals, or it cannot enforce double standards upon its authorship. Any retractions based on false authorship at least until a finite across-the-board definition exists for all its journals, should be hotly contested by any author whose paper was retracted based on this “excuse”.

      This fact in itself should be the spark for a boycott, not finances. “Ethical” rules based on a foundation of sand are bound to be self-destructive.

      In case you couldn’t spot the difference, compare the conjunction “or” vs “and”. One conjunction, as I have stated before, makes a world of ethical difference.

      1. I wish to report a case of potential duplication/plagiarism. It involves two key figures of the horticultural community, Prof. Gregory E. Welbaum and Prof. David Tay. The latter professor is in fact my greater focus of attention since Prof. Welbaum serves on the editor board of Scientia Horticulturae, published by Elsevier Ltd. Prof. Welbaum has always been copied on my complaints to the editor board of this journal and to the publisher, especially about these contradictory and thus invalid ethical guidelines. Yet he has never responded to or taken collective responsibility for these claims. His silence is of great concern to me. Yesterday, I sent an e-mail to the entire editor board of Scientia Horticulturae, including at least 6 Elsevier officials, as well as the entire faculty/staff of the Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech, about this apparent data, figure and table duplication. I will update as soon as I can although Virginia Tech has already offered to contact ORI, upon my suggestion, although I have already voiced my concern about the effectiveness of ORI in the light of recent debate held here at RW:

        The PDF files of both papers listed below can be provided to any reader (RW blogger) upon academic request.

        I remind readers that duplication is considered to be a serious academic offense, including by Elsevier, the publisher of the Welbaum/Tay paper:


        A.M. Mweetwa, G.E. Welbaum, D. Tay (2008) Effects of development, temperature, and calcium hypochlorite treatment on in vitro germinability of Phalaenopsis seeds. Scientia Horticulturae Volume 117, Issue 3, 23 July 2008, Pages 257–262

        The following is duplicated (i.e., identical):
        A) Large tracts of text, for example the first few paragraphs of the introduction, most of the methodology, in both manuscripts, and sections of the results and discussion.
        B) Table 1 of both papers is identical.
        C) Fig. 1 of both papers is identical.
        D) Fig. 2 of both papers is identical.
        E) Fig. 3 of AH is identical to Fig. 5 of SH.
        F) Fig. 4 of AH is identical to Fig. 6 of SH.
        G) Neither paper references the other nor indicates the existence of the other.

        Prof. Welbaum is a respected member of the horticultural community. Incidentally, Prof. Welbaum has only one paper on Elsevier’s http://www.sciencedirect.com, the above paper published in Scientia Horticulturae.

        The key questions that will ultimately need to be responded to are:
        1) Which of these papers was submitted first, or were both papers submitted simultaneously?
        2) Which paper needs to be retracted in order to correct the literature such that only one copy exists in the literature?
        3) What are the positions of Elsevier Ltd. and the International Society for Horticultural Science, the ISHS (www.ishs.org) regarding competing copyrights for the same data set, figures and tables?
        4) Did Prof. Welbaum receive any grant money from Virginia Tech, his host institution, to travel to the ISHS meeting in San Antonio, Texas, from where the paper was born?
        5) What is the position of Dr. Daniel Leskovar, the editor of this issue of Acta Horticulturae (http://www.actahort.org/books/782/index.htm)? Interestingly, Dr. Leskovar is an editor board member of the Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology (JHSH) (http://www.jhortscib.com/board_editors.htm). Recently, a serious case of fraud was detected in JSHS, and will result in a retraction in May, 2014 (see my February 27, 2013 comment here: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/01/07/journal-dumps-grain-paper-for-controversial-data/#comments).
        6) In Virginia Tech, do professors like Prof. Welbaum, receive additional grant money, a better position, or any tangible benefit if they have duplicate papers?

        I will update as soon as I have any new information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.