We — and others — have been scratching our heads about the real reasons for the formal retraction on March 21 of a Frontiers in Psychology paper since the journal issued a statement on the subject on Friday that seemed to contradict the retraction notice and that certainly differed from accounts on some blogs. Today, we learned a few more details about what happened in the year between when the paper was provisionally removed and then formally retracted from a post by Stephan Lewandowsky, one of the co-authors of the paper.
The March 21 statement, writes Lewandowsky,
was the result of negotiations between the lawyer for Frontiers and a legal representative of the authors in the U.K., and it formed part of a formal retraction agreement signed by both parties. Although we disagreed with the journal’s decision, we were provided with sufficient information to understand it. Our position on the decision was shared by officers of the Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Lewandowsky has remained involved with the journal, as co-editor of an upcoming issue, reviewer, as author of a paper in press. But the statement released by the journal on Friday gave him pause:
…the journal seemed to imply that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” This stands in contrast to the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of both parties, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.” It also sits uneasily with public statements by Frontiers’ lawyer, such as “Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it’s obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound…”
Second, in its recent statement Frontiers also stated that it had received no (presumably legal) threats. This claim sits uneasily with the public statement of at least one individual who explicitly stated that he had threatened the journal. Moreover, another complainant publicly alleged defamation, and asserted that the journal’s apparent concern with “defamation liability” was justified: Details were provided by Graham Readfearn earlier. The journal’s recent claim also sits uneasily with the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context. I pointed out earlier that this legal context involved English libel laws in force prior to 2014. Those laws were sufficiently notorious for their chilling effect on inconvenient speech for President Obama to sign a law that makes U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S.
Third, the journal revealed the existence of a new paper that we submitted in January 2014 and that according to their latest statement “did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.”
Lewandowsky summarizes the events of the past year “to resolve those discrepancies between retraction-related statements.” On June 14, 2013, the journal told him
…they had decided that there were no academic or ethical grounds for a retraction of Recursive Fury, but that changes might have to be made to the paper to safeguard against the legal risk of defamation.
The journal then told him on August 28 that the risk — under English libel laws — “was too great” and that the article would have to be retracted, but that he and his co-authors could “submit a replacement article that dealt with the issues identified in the various reviews and assessments.” They did so on January 1 of this year, “by which time English libel laws had changed significantly.” The new version of the paper, says Lewandowsky, was quite different, but the journal rejected it, “claiming that it failed to deal adequately with the defamation issue.”
First, one could generously propose that the phrase “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is simply a synonym for “defamation risk” and that the updated statement therefore supports the contractually-agreed statement. This is possible but it puts a considerable strain on the meaning of “synonym.”
Second, one could take the most recent statement by Frontiers at face value. This has two uncomfortable implications: It would imply that the true reason for the retraction was withheld from the authors for a year. It would also imply that the journal entered into a contractual agreement about the retraction statement that misrepresented its actual position.
Third, perhaps the journal only thought of this new angle now and in its haste did not consider that it violates their contractually-agreed position.
Or there are other possibilities that we have not been able to identify.
We’ve contacted Frontiers — who handled the original withdrawal clumsily — for comment, and will update with anything we learn.
Update, 9:30 p.m. Eastern, 4/7/14: Steve McIntyre has posted the requests for ethics approval for the study.
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