Journal of Neuroscience still won’t explain author-initiated retractions

journal of neuroscienceThe Journal of Neuroscience hasn’t changed its policy of not explaining retractions if authors don’t want to, as this October 8 notice attests.

Here’s the notice for “Coordinated Regulation of Hepatic Energy Stores by Leptin and Hypothalamic Agouti-Related Protein:”

At the request of the authors, The Journal of Neuroscience is retracting “Coordinated Regulation of Hepatic Energy Stores by Leptin and Hypothalamic Agouti-Related Protein” by James P. Warne, Jillian M. Varonin, Sofie S. Nielsen, Louise E. Olofsson, Christopher B. Kaelin, Streamson Chua, Jr., Gregory S. Barsh, Suneil K. Koliwad, and Allison W. Xu, which appeared on pages 11972–11985 of the July 17, 2013 issue.

The paper has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

A few years ago, the journal’s editor, John Maunsell, gave us an explanation for its policy. The whole thing is worth a read, but the money quote on why they don’t explain some author-initiated retractions is this:

We believe that authors are generally reluctant to retract articles, and we do not want to impose any requirements that could discourage authors from removing flawed articles from the literature.

He also suggests that scientists wondering what happened to the paper can find out by “contacting the authors directly for complete details.”

So we did. We also asked Maunsell, but no one has responded yet. We’ll let you know if they do.

Hat tip: Richard Tomsett

13 thoughts on “Journal of Neuroscience still won’t explain author-initiated retractions”

  1. Calling this “author-Initiated” or “withdrawn by authors” suggests a voluntary action by the authors. Commonly, without certain external pressure, authors rarely charge ahead to retract their problematic papers (although of course there are encouraging examples of such brutal honesty as well).
    E.g, STAP papers were retracted by Nature only after all authors have officially agreed, so basically they were also retracted by authors, even if most of the key authors in that case did all they could to resist retractions.

    1. I personally think it is fundamentally wrong when a paper that was publically available for all to see is suddenly retracted, without a public explanation. Whether that retraction is author-initiated, or editor-initiated is irrelevant, I believe. A look at the Instructions for Authors PDF file [1] shows that there is absolutely no clause that defines authorship. Moreover, nowhere in that PDF file can the term “COPE” or “ICMJE” be found. This in itself is fascinating.

      However, the top page of the retracted paper does have some information regarding author contributions: “Author contributions: J.P.W., J.M.V., and A.W.X. designed research; J.P.W., J.M.V., S.S.N., L.E.O., and C.B.K. performed research; C.B.K. and G.S.B. contributed unpublished reagents/analytic tools; J.P.W., J.M.V., S.S.N., L.E.O., C.B.K., G.S.B., S.K.K., and A.W.X. analyzed data; J.P.W., C.B.K., S.C., S.K.K., and A.W.X. wrote the paper.” In particular, the clause stating that authorship is attributed to the contribution of unpublished reagents/analytic tools could indicate that something is not quite right here.

      Also, from that PDF, on page 8, are some interesting definitions of responsibilities of submitting and communicating authors: “J. Neurosci distinguishes submitting and communicating authors. The submitting author is the author who submits the manuscript. A manuscript can have only one submitting author. The submitting author acts on behalf all other authors, and is the only author with authority to resubmit, withdraw, correct or retract manuscripts and published articles. The corresponding author is the person identified on a published article as “corresponding author”. This author is responsible for responding to reader queries about the article. While submitting author is often the corresponding author, that is not necessary. J. Neurosci allows either one or two authors to be designated as “corresponding author”. When two are listed, no priority is given to either. Corresponding authors do not have authority to correct or retract a published article; only the submitting author as noted above.”

      I believe that these stated responsibilities clash directly with the statement made on the last page of the PDF, related to author-initiated retractions (p. 18): “J. Neurosci will retract an article at the authors’ request at any time without requiring explanation. At the authors’ option, the retraction notice may simply state that the article has been retracted at the authors’ request. Alternatively, the authors may provide a brief explanation of the error(s) prompting the retraction. However, statements of retraction may not assign blame to specific authors or laboratories. To request a retraction, the corresponding author should contact the Editor-in-Chief”

      On page 8, it suggests that only the submitting author has the responsibility and authority of retracting a paper. On page 18, it suggests that any author, or all authors collectively, can retract a paper. These contradictions in wording of long and wordy guidelines for authors, many of whom no doubt have no patience to read and sift through 18 pages of policies before submitting a paper, except to perhaps follow the style requirements, indicate how dangerous the world of science publishing in fact is, because it is the contradictions of the fine print that will often fall on the authors’ shoulders, while the publisher washes its hands free of responsibility.

      So, given this split responsibility used by this journal, who exactly were the submitting and corresponding authors of this paper? So, who exactly did RW contact?

      Going back to my initial statement, it is irresponsible to not publically state the reason for a retraction. It induces mistrust, it indicates that the lack of transparency is acceptable and a “normal” modus operandus, and that accountability can just be floated freely, without assigning it to anyone in particular.

      I then entered “Author-Initiated Retraction” into the search function, and found one more retraction from 16 April, 2014 [2]. Interestingly, that notice states “The authors report, “This article described the effects of elevating brain magnesium on preventing and reversing cognitive deficits in an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. During recent efforts to extend this work, we discovered errors in the quantification of the expression and/or phosphorylation of a subset of signaling pathways, particularly related to Figures 4 and 5D. Despite these errors, the major conclusions of the paper remain substantiated. As any correction will require substantial rewriting of the manuscript, we ask to withdraw the article. A corrected treatment will be published in the future. We apologize for any confusion caused by this error.”” I could neither find a corrected statement or a new paper by this group of authors using Google search or on major data-bases…

      Finally, I entered “Editor-Initiated Retraction” into the search function, and found none. This then suggests that the edtorial and peer functions at this journal are perfect?

      [1] http://www.jneurosci.org/site/misc/Information_for_Authors.pdf
      [2] http://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/16/5733.short?sid=6986ab6c-7db8-4fa7-9943-4f1aa9998482

      1. JATdS, the thing with submitting vs communicating author has practical reasons. Quite often, the first author (lets say it’s a PhD student of the group) submits a paper but for instance the group leader/principal investigator is the corresponding author. I find that completely normal and ok. A lot of journals don’t really explicitly state how they handle that situation officially. This journal states that this setting is ok and that in the entire submission process, they communicate only with the submitting author, who has the responsibility to act on behalf of all authors. Once the paper is published, the corresponding author is the one who primarily acts on behalf of the paper world and the authors for the outside and who is the first contact person for anyone outside.

        The only thing is that indeed only the submitting author has the “authority to correct or retract a published article”. This might seem strange, but I think it just reflects the fact that the journal never had any other direct contact but with the submitting author. So even post-publication, they formally accept communication authors-journal only via submitting author. I would believe this is their general guidline how to handle this. I would not think it’s a law. If the submitting author is nowwhere to reach or dead, I am quite sure the journal would accept a retraction request from the corresponding author.

        Is it really necessary to uplift such guidlines to the state and quality of a criminal law and should we really take them apart like lawyers? Common sense and good will should suffice. In the end, we are all peers and colleagues.

        As to publishing the reason for retraction: Of course we all agree that it is best to give a good explanation. But I do understand Maunsell’s point. Yes, it does induce mistrust, but that really is a problem for the authors. They can prevent mistrust againt them by simply giving a good explanation. If they don’t want to, everyone can draw own conclusions.

        1. Genetics, these are good counter points. I can appreciate the discernment between submitting author and corresponding author (CA). Actually, the function of the submitting author is very redundant and is almost equivalent to the function of a secretary. In that sense, I have always advocated for contacting ALL authors during all essential steps of the publishing process, namely submission, any publisher-related notices or acknowledgements, revisions, or editoral decisions. That way, no author has any excuse of saying “I didn’t know”. In addition, I strongly advocate for the publication of all authors’ emails in a published paper, much as BMC or MDPI journals do, because very often students do not continue their careers in science, and thus the risk of losing contact with the entire fleet of authors becomes minimized when all their contacts are available. How many times have you tried to contact the CA of a paper whose email bounces or who refuses to respond to a query or request? In my case, more than 50% of requests are unsuccessful precisely because e-mails are restricted to the CA. My critique of the JoN author guidelines – other tan its excessive length and inherent contradictions – is that it attempts to dilute or minimize the publisher’s responsibility, and while I can appreciate that some errors do in fact originate from the authors, ultimately it is the publisher who has carried the paper and who should thus assume the final responsibility (simply because they have also drawn benefit from the authors’ research in the form of a paper and signed-over copyright). I am not specifically criticizing Prof. Maunsell, who appears to be simply sticking to his journal’s stated policies, but I am critical of the fact that between authors and publisher, this game of tip-tap-toe leaves the public and the scientific community in the dark as to what the probems actually are that led to this retraction. So, in essence, 18 pages of author guidelines feel useless in a case like this.

          Was it an authorship issue? Was it a data problem? Was it an experimental design or execution problem? Was it something more sinister? If authors are not willing to come forward – and they have been given that opportunity by RW – then the publisher must assume that responsibility. We simply cannot have authors just retracting papers willy-nilly without explanations.

          1. I would venture that the knockout animals were later examined and found to be heterozygotes; then you don’t know if the data previously generated is robust.
            You can redo all the knockout experiments again, or a slightly different series of experiments, and legitimately republish the retracted work that involves WT.

        2. As to publishing the reason for retraction: Of course we all agree that it is best to give a good explanation. But I do understand Maunsell’s point. Yes, it does induce mistrust, but that really is a problem for the authors. They can prevent mistrust againt them by simply giving a good explanation. If they don’t want to, everyone can draw own conclusions

          ————————————

          If the authors inform any journal that they want the paper retracted, what choice do the editors have, explanation or not? Of course they have to retract the paper, with or without explanation.

          What should a journal do when they’re forced to retract without any explanation? What about blacklisting the authors?

          1. FooBar, if I one day say to Retraction Watch, please retract 100% of my comments because I no longer share the same ideology I used to, or because, as an individual, I changed my mind about sharing my ideas in public, is RW compelled to retract all my comments, or even any desired one, simply because I ask? I think yes, as you do. But, I think we are in very tricky unchartered waters here, and the best way is to be fully transparent, i.e., stop hiding the truth either behind the authors’ back, or behind the journal / editors’ backs. Science was meant to be raw, open and to expose the truth. Gradually, with this lawyering-up of the whole process and the frankly corruption of the publishing process caused by economics and marketing, in a bid to soften or plasticize the raw image of science, the raw state of scientific discovery and disclosure is becoming lost, or hidden. There is already mistrust, and to leave the public to make its own conclusions goes against the grain of transparency. And the longer the journal or authors take to actually disclose the reason, the worse it will be for their image – both their images – because this starts to look like a circus. Ultimately, I believe, both will lose: as for the authors, in the future, other scientists might not appreciate, or even trust their future papers. As for the journal, neuroscientists might take offense at this apparent game of cat and mouse, and move away from The Journal of Neuroscience towards another, less known, less “elite” journal, a concept expounded upon here [1]. Surely, given the criticisms already leveled here publically at both parties, it would be best for the journal and authors to come to a sensible compromise and release a public statement SOON?

            [1] http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/10/20/growing-impact-of-non-elite-journals/#comment-147015

          2. Problems were noted that could not be fixed so they retracted the paper. Hundreds of paper are published daily…is it surprising that some have faults. As for the explanation, it’s just like breaking up with a boy/girlfriend. It’s nice to get something, but nothing is owed to you.

          3. > As for the explanation, it’s just like breaking up with a boy/girlfriend.
            > It’s nice to get something, but nothing is owed to you.

            Seriously? Maybe I am a paying subscriber to that journal and want my money’s worth. Maybe we used that paper in our research and we are confused now. If you feel that you have no responsibility towards you readership you should be writing fiction, not scientific papers.

          4. Quite true. If a journal recieves a letter signed by all authors that simply states “we wish to retract our paper”, period, the journal has no choice but to simply retract. The editor could add that the authors opted not to give any reasons. Indeed, we would all have to live with that and draw our own conclusions…..

          5. I don’t think that blacklisting authors who wish to retract a paper is the right thing to do. Retracting a paper is not a trivial matter, and leading to that decision is undoubtedly a painful path. Therefore, consequences, if any, must not be trivialized either. So, punishing authors in that way should be reserved exclusively for extreme cases, or events. That said, what if the ideology of an author conflicts with the ideology of a journal, its editor board, or a publisher? Can that author then demand that his/her papers be retracted based on what he/she may consider irreconcilable differences?

            In my case, for example, I believe that I have been unfairly victimized by an Elsevier journal, led by an editor board that I perceive to be biased. In my battle with this leadership, that has spanned some years now, I have ultimately lost the battle, having been made “persona non grata”. However, very soon, a final decision will be made of one final paper that is in the final stage of peer review. Then, it is time to settle straws. I will propose a peaceful, frank and open resolution to the conflict that guarantees my freedom of expression to complain, in moderation, and will demand, for the negotiation to be fair, that a fair system be applied to all authors equally. Should the journal turn down the offer for a peaceful resolution, then I may revert to formally requesting that my papers, one by one, be retracted, in formal protest. At the end of the day, like a client in a store, the author is always right, unless proved wrong. No proof has ever been made available to me, or to the public, despite repeated calls to Elsevier to provide proof of their claims, and thus radical measures to silence my voice must be met with equally radical moves to expose the truth and to counter the injustice.

            If indeed, the author has the legal right to determine if and when their paper should be retracted, absent the decision by the publisher in the case of misconduct, then surely formal protest is one valid reason for retraction, is it not? Especially in the case where a copyright has been signed over, since carrying the copyright by a publisher is not equivalent to ownership of the intellectual rights, it is simply a temporary “lease” of the rights to use (and abuse) of that information (usually to generate profit). So, retraction of a paper in protest, thus rescinding the publisher’s rights to use and abuse a scientist’s work, ultimately benefits the author, and damages the publisher’s image and trust in it by the scientific public. I have never seen such a case, but I am not afraid to sacrifice years of my intellect and painful efforts to produce what I have produced, to make the point clear: we, the grass-roots of the publishing world, have the ultimate rights.

            The story I am referring to was covered here:
            http://retractionwatch.com/2014/04/10/following-personal-attacks-and-threats-elsevier-plant-journal-makes-author-persona-non-grata/

  2. In response to a 2011 Journal of Neuroscience article by Eric Leuthardt’s group, a letter was written to the editor by 4 individuals from different labs around the country, detailing a multitude of errors related to: faulty signal processing, lack of correction for multiple comparison, and masking images with semi-transparent white boxes(!). These fundamentally undermined the conclusions of the article. Although Leuthardt’s group attempted a response, the fact remains that the conclusions aren’t supported by their data, and they masked their images (which is against the policy of every major journal in the world). Yet J Neurosci does not appear to have made an effort to retract the article (it continues to be cited with ~50 citations thus far). My opinion is that J Neurosci has become a glamour journal, favoring story over science, and Maunsell is the one that made it that way during his tenure as editor-in-chief.
    The Leuthardt article is here:
    http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/6/2091.short
    The letter is here:
    http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/6/2091.short/reply#jneuro_el_85967

  3. There is a new author-initiated retraction up online at the Journal of Neuroscience (Feb. 11), and to their credit, the authors have spelled out fairly clearly what went wrong in their initial data analysis. Perhaps I am in the minority here, but I agree with Maunsell (former editor of JN) and understand the rationale for leaving it up to the authors to decide if they want to explain their retraction. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a retraction without further explanation is very good evidence of misconduct.

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