Editor inadvertently spurns reviewers; retraction ensues

jvmacoverThe Journal of Multivariate Analysis has retracted a paper it was never meant to publish — a problem, it seems, of multivariate analyses.

The article, titled “Regression estimation with locally stationary long-memory errors,” came from a pair of statisticians in Chile, Wildredo Palma and Guillermo Ferreira.

It appears that the article did not pass muster with the reviewers, but that the editor somehow missed the message. As the retraction notice explains:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief, who noted an administrative error. The EiC accidentally accepted while the reviewers’ recommendation was to reject. We apologize that this was not detected during the submission and review process.

The editor in chief of the JMVA is Jan de Leeuw, a UCLA statistician and founder of the department. We spoke with de Leeuw, who told us that the article had been a “straight rejection” — that is, no possibility of revision for eventual acceptance — at the level of both the reviewers and the associate editor.

My idea was that I would follow that and reject the paper but for some reason it wound up in the editorial system as an accept.

Whether the moment of error occurred when de Leeuw clicked the wrong button on his screen, with the editorial office in India or whether the mixup happened with the online editorial manager itself, he doesn’t know.

Once a paper is approved, he says, an article is out of his hands completely as it wends its way through the Elsevier production process.

de Leeuw said one of the reviewers, who had written a particularly negative review, alerted the associate editor, who informed him that the paper had been published.

de Leeuw moved to retract. The authors were unhappy —  “They had every reason in the world not to be happy,” he said — and urged him to reverse the retraction.

They asked us to reconsider the retraction, and we didn’t because it was clear that it was clerical error.

We’ve seen these sort of mistaken acceptances before.

0 thoughts on “Editor inadvertently spurns reviewers; retraction ensues”

  1. I’m not happy about this example. I think once an article is published it should only be retracted if there are sufficient grounds to warrant a retraction and then those grounds should be stated. I don’t think administrative error at the journal (by itself) is sufficient grounds to retract a paper.

    If this paper is so bad that it should have been rejected without revision, and is so bad that a reviewer went out of his or her way to call attention to it, then I think it should be bad enough to retract in the usual way, with explanation.

  2. I’m curious if anyone is aware of the legal implications of this. It’s there is a potential for real damages to the authors… a rejection sucks, but in private, while this retraction is an undeserved public shaming.

    Isn’t a “we’ll accept your paper” a contract? If I send someone a check for $500,000 (which, the paper could be worth in grant money), I can’t just send a “woops,” I meant to tell you that I wasn’t giving you any money so I’ve put a hold on the check. I’d get sued and lose the money. I smell damages here. Thoughts from those who know what they are talking about?

  3. “If I send someone a check for $500,000 (which, the paper could be worth in grant money), I can’t just send a “woops,” I meant to tell you that I wasn’t giving you any money so I’ve put a hold on the check. ”

    Actually, yes you can. In the case of a gross and obvious clerical error (writing $50000 in place of $500.00) you can cancel or refuse to honour the check, especially when it is clear that the expected payment is on the order of 1/2k instead of 50k.

    I do see the point here that the authors have been publically shamed. What I suppose de Leeuw (who is quite a good editor, by the way, and highly-respected in his field) saw was a major technical error in the paper — as identified by the reviewers — so having the paper in the literature would mis-lead other workers.

    What might be a good solution now would be to leave the paper and publish an Editor’s Note on these technical issues, and link it to the published paper.

  4. “The EiC accidentally accepted…”
    That’s good since hopefully it will make it clear that the retraction was the editor’s fault and not the authors’.

    “…while the reviewers’ recommendation was to reject”
    That’s bad cause it violates the authors’ right to confidentiality of the peer review process.

    “We apologize that this was not detected during the submission and review process.”
    A more explicit public apology directly to the authors in the retraction notice would have been good.

    Hopefully the editor, editorial office staff and publisher are undertaking a careful audit of the manuscript management and production process and software to see if additional safeguards against this potentially very damaging sort of situation need to be built in.

  5. I was involved as a reviewer with a somewhat similar case that was handled differently. The submitted manuscript did not follow journal guidelines for data submission (among other problems), but the review was not seen by the editor. The reason for this was unclear but, like the case above, appears to have been a clerical mix-up. The manuscript was accepted for publication and immediately published online, although the editor later said that it could not have been accepted had the review been seen. While the paper was not retracted and most of the issues raised in the review were never addressed, an update was requested from the authors prior to final publication in order to comply with journal guidelines.

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