PLOS ONE flags math paper over algorithm concerns

PLOS OnePLOS ONE has issued an expression of concern (EOC) for a 2014 math paper after readers raised concerns with its algorithm.

According to the first author of the paper Hafsa Athar Jafree from the University of Karachi in Pakistan — none of the authors agreed to the EOC notice. She told us the paper contains a few typos, which may have made it unclear to some readers, but said the authors had provided all of the necessary information to “justify the presented algorithms.”

A PLOS ONE spokesperson told us the journal decided to issue an EOC after consulting the editorial board, which raised significant concerns about the study.

In 2014, the journal issued a correction to the study to fix several equations in the original article. 

Here’s the EOC, posted July 25:

After publication of the article readers noted a number of concerns about the algorithm presented in the article. Consultation with editorial board members raised significant concerns relating to the claims of utility, novelty and applicability made about the described method. This re-evaluation revealed that the method is numerically unstable and not a reliable approach to compute determinants in high-quality numerical software. There are no numerical experiments to support the findings and no implementation or comparison of the method to standard tools.

The concerns about the methods and reporting undermine the fulfilment of the journal’s requirements for articles reporting methods. The PLOS ONE editors wish to alert readers to the serious limitations of this method that have come to light since publication.

In June 2014, the journal also issued a correction notice to the paper, which fixed multiple equations in the paper, stating:

Several of the equations in this article are incorrect.

The paper, “A Space Efficient Flexible Pivot Selection Approach to Evaluate Determinant and Inverse of a Matrix,” originally published in February 2014, has so far only been cited once (by its correction notice), according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Jafree defended the paper, telling us:

…the only problem with the paper is its typos and the authenticity of the algorithm cannot be questioned on the basis of these typos. We have provided the necessary mathematical work in the paper to justify the presented algorithms.

She also offered a critique of the comments posted by readers about the paper, noting:

The comments that have been made are unauthentic and unjustified. You may see that all the comments were properly responded and justified by us. You may also see that none of the readers raised any further concerns after a justification was given to that person.

Jafree noted:

[Anyone] reading the paper can comment on it using any name as no proper id is required for this purpose. Additionally the [person’s] institution, designation, field of specialization or country is nowhere mentioned.

A PLOS ONE spokesperson told us:

Several readers raised concerns about the reliability of the method presented and its general utility. PLOS ONE editors consulted with members of the Editorial Board, including the handling Academic Editor. This consultation confirmed concerns about the reliability of the method, indicating that the approach lacked stability as well as the validation needed to demonstrate reliability for some of its possible applications, as detailed in the Expression of Concern.

The spokesperson added:

We wish these concerns had been addressed during peer review but in light of the considerable ambiguity that remains about the usefulness and reliability of the method, the PLOS ONE editors decided to alert readers via an Expression of Concern.

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3 thoughts on “PLOS ONE flags math paper over algorithm concerns”

  1. Why are PLOS ONE accepting manuscripts consisting of badly mangled undergraduate level linear algebra that would be desk-rejected by any competent editor of a mid-level mathematics journal?

  2. Ah, the usual defense – “Those commenters didn’t leave their name and address, therefore their concerns are not valid!”

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