A paper on chemical safety was accepted one day after submission. Was it peer reviewed?

Toxicology Reports

Some scientists raise their eyebrows when they see a paper was accepted only a day or two after being submitted — which is exactly what happened during an academic debate over a controversial topic: e-cigarettes.

In 2015, a group of Harvard researchers published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives suggesting the flavoring added to e-cigarettes could be harmful; the next year, another group criticized the paper in the journal, noting the chemicals may not be as dangerous as the original paper claimed. The Harvard researchers then fired back, noting that the criticism cited two papers that were accepted within one and three days after submission, and therefore “appear not to have been peer reviewed.”

However, a little digging suggests otherwise. 

The editor of the journal that published both of the cited papers in question — Toxicology Reports — told us the papers were peer reviewed at Toxicology, but transferred to his journal as part of a process known as portable peer review.

Here are more details from Lawrence Lash, editor-in-chief of Toxicology Reports from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan:

Toxicology Reports receives two types of submissions: 1) Direct, de novo submissions and 2) referrals from one of the other toxicology journals published by Elsevier.

The goal for the referrals is to provide an outlet for publication of sound science that may be descriptive or even report negative data that is not considered novel enough or mechanistic enough for our other peer-reviewed journals.

This isn’t the only publisher to adopt such a system. A 2013 article in The Economist notes, for example, that Genome Biology, the flagship journal of open access publisher BioMed Central, passes around 40% of its content to “less prestigious” sister journals with referee reports attached. The JAMA family of journals also does the same.

But a side effect of the process is that being transferred from other journals may result in the jumbling of submission, acceptance and publication dates, especially if papers are transferred after peer review. A similar scenario took place in the case of Toxicology Reports, according to Lash, where both papers were transferred after being peer-reviewed — but deemed not worthy of publication its more eminent sister journal, Toxicology.

Lash added:

In the case of post-review referrals, we usually obtain the reviews from the referring journal. In some cases, those authors will treat their transfer to Toxicology Reports as a revision and make appropriate changes to their paper and include a point-by-point response to the previous comments.

He noted:

If the previous reviews are deemed to be thorough and the responses appropriate, the manuscript can be accepted.

Here are some details about this specific case.

In the original paper, Harvard researchers led by first author Joseph Allen and last author David Christiani, published “Flavoring Chemicals in E-Cigarettes: Diacetyl, 2,3-Pentanedione, and Acetoin in a Sample of 51 Products, Including Fruit-, Candy-, and Cocktail-Flavored E-Cigarettes,” in December, 2015. In the paper — cited four times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science — the researchers conclude:

Because of the associations between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans and other severe respiratory diseases observed in workers, urgent action is recommended to further evaluate this potentially widespread exposure via flavored e-cigarettes.

In response, Jennifer Pierce and her colleagues based at Cardno Chemrisk — a firm that has been involved in litigation matters for diacetyl and diacetyl-containing flavorings — argue that:

…it is important to understand that hundreds of consumer products (e.g., tea, coffee, citrus juices, butter) contain naturally occurring diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione…

Furthermore, it notes that

…the mere presence of these compounds in a particular product is not indicative of a risk of lung disease…

Allen and colleagues responded by critiquing this response, and questioned two references cited by the Cardno ChemRisk group (including one co-authored by Chemrisk’s Pierce):

We further note that Pierce et al. (2015) and Gaffney et al. (2014) appear not to have been peer reviewed, based on the short time between submission and publication (received, revised and accepted all in 3 and 1 days, respectively). Also, the 2 papers are on the same topic, were received by the same journal within 2 days of each other, and contain 6 identical and 12 nearly identical sentences…

Allen et al conclude that they stand by their work:

Considering the history of severe and irreversible lung disease associated with some workers who inhaled diacetyl, and the similar exposure pathways for consumers of flavored e-cigarettes, it is prudent to evaluate this potential hazard further, restrict access by youth, and provide consumers with information and warnings similar to those given to workers.

Although it’s now clear the papers were peer reviewed, Allen told us by email that only one declared its funding source, adding:

The issue of portable peer-review is one for the Editor to address — the quality of the work and issues we point out speak for themselves, regardless. The Editor should have picked up on these issues.

Pierce is also the last author of a 2016 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene affirming the safety of asbestos roofing products, which the journal said it will retract following facing heavy criticism. According to critics, the paper was incorrectly published as a case report, provided misleading information, grouped different materials with various asbestos exposure levels together, and failed to disclose the approving editor’s links with the asbestos industry.

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