Editor on retraction details: “I do not think this is the business of anyone but our journal, please”

early education developmentWhose business are the reasons behind a retraction?

Our readers will no doubt know by now that we think they’re basically everyone’s — at least if journals want us to believe that they’re interested in maintaining the integrity of the scientific record. But not all editors seem to agree. Hank Edmunds, for example, didn’t in early 2011, telling us, “It’s none of your damn business.” A chemistry journal editor said, in a similar vein, “the purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail.”

Now, a psychology journal editor joins those ranks. Here’s the notice in question:

“Physical Discipline Use and Child Behavior Problems in Low-Income, High-Risk African American Families,” written by T’Pring R. Westbrook, Brenda Jones Harden, Allison Holmes, Allison D. Meisch, and Jessica Vick Whittaker, published in Early Education and Development, 2012, Volume 23, Issue 6, pages 877–899, has been retracted due to problems with data reporting and participant sample description. As a result, the article should not be cited in the electronic or print version of the journal.

It was when we asked journal editor Susanne Denham, of George Mason University, for some details that we had flashbacks to “It’s none of your damn business.” Denham:

I do not think this is the business of anyone but our journal, please. Of course I can check with our counsel. We will be publishing a corrected version of Westbrook et al. in the very near future.

We’ll take that comment from the end, since the answers get more interesting in reverse. First, if the journal will be publishing a corrected version in the near future, was this actually a correction, not a retraction? Second, does Taylor & Francis have lawyers doing peer review, too? (We’d expect that for Criminology & Law, but that’s not what we meant.)

But it’s the first sentence that deserves the most unpacking. The reasons for this retraction, says Denham, are not “the business of anyone but our journal, please.” Adding “please” certainly makes that a polite way to say something ridiculous, but it doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Here is a list of some people whose business this retraction is:

That’s a lot of people. Fortunately, Westbrook understands her responsibilities just fine, and told us what had happened:

I am embarrassed to say that the problem was the result of a hastily proofed revision.  Fortunately, there was no issue with the actual analyses or the sample.  The original manuscript was revised before being accepted.  On the last revision, a neutral party who had not participated in the original analysis was called upon to do a final proofread and double-check the analysis.  They did so but used the wrong dataset and the findings were similar enough that the mistakes were not caught until after the paper was published.  We have since worked with the journal editor to restore the manuscript to reflect the original sample and analyses that were the basis of the article and that version should be published shortly. No other papers will be affected except that all of the authors will certainly not be so hasty in future reviews of their work regardless of how many times they have already read it!

That had to have been more difficult for Westbrook to do than it would have been for the journal’s editor to do, but she did it anyway. Good for her.

Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 4/8/13: Taylor & Francis, which publishes the journal, tells us:

Through a clerical error, as part of the submission, there were a number of errors with the paper in question. Given the extent of the corrections needed to correct the paper we elected to retract the paper and republish it in a future issue. The revised paper has been submitted and we will publish it shortly. There was no misconduct on the authors’ part, it was just a clerical error that did not get caught as part of the review and editing process.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

7 thoughts on “Editor on retraction details: “I do not think this is the business of anyone but our journal, please””

  1. Another retraction caused by “reproducible research” problems, in that the analysis was done on the wrong data. That’s really amazing. Who keeps track of the data? How was the original analysis performed? Didn’t they save an analysis script with the analysis commands? Of course, no analysis for published work should be done using interactive methods, and if they did that, they should be chastised severely.

  2. If she thinks that the journals business is their’s only, perhaps they should not publish the journal at all!!!!

  3. There is an interesting double standard. A lot of media outlets publish blatantly misleading and false stories with serious implications for our society (don’t get me started with how the NYT went along and facilitated the Iraq war), and yet, the focus seems to be on scientific journals. Society as a whole should think about this…

    1. Concur with Ivan. This is a bit like asking the New England Journal of Medicine why it doesn’t publish astrophysics papers. There’s no double standard — this is a site focused on research journals.

  4. George Mason University has some credible, reasonable people who understand their responsibilities sich as this one.

    However, determined lack of transparency and unwillingness to handle misconduct issues seems institutionalized at the highest levels of GMU, see See No Evil, Speak Little Truth, Blame Others.

    For instance, one can file well-documented complaints, and their rules allow them never to answer a complaint or ever explain the outcome of an investigation. Complaints of plagiairism in PhD dissertations were dismissed as “personnel matters.” After it took 2 years to investigate obvious plagiarism, all fo which was ignored except in a previously-retracted paper, they admitted to misconduct by Prof. Ed Wegman and gave him a wrist-slap in early 2012. Then in the Fall, he was appointed to a 3-year term on the GMU College of Science Promotion and Tenure Committee.

    So, this case may just be the specific Editor’s attitude, or the way that journal works, or part of a broader pattern of GMU’s approach. Hard to tell without further data.

  5. Stay on this guys! I am reading every single one of your updates! In fact, I may BE one of your updates. I am in the middle of a brewing plagiarism charge. I will present to you soon..Dina

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