Watch out for predatory journals, and consider retract/replace, suggests medical journal group

Darren Taichman

The challenges facing science publishing are ever-evolving, and so too are the recommendations for how to face them. As such, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) frequently updates its advice to authors. In December, 2016, it made some notable changes – specifically, asking authors to pay closer attention to where they publish, in order to avoid so-called “predatory” journals, and encouraging more authors to consider “retracting and replacing” a paper with an updated version when the problems stem from honest error (something more journals have been embracing). We spoke with Darren Taichman, Executive Deputy Editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine and Secretary of the ICMJE, about the changes.

Retraction Watch: The first set of recommendations was issued in 1978 — how have they evolved, generally speaking, since then?

Darren Taichman: The first set of recommendations (then called the “Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals,” or “URMs”) addressed formatting issues to assist in standardizing the preparation of manuscripts.  The initial impetus for this effort is credited to Augusta Litwer, an administrative assistant who sought an end to the painstaking chore of re-typing a manuscript’s reference list when a rejected paper was submitted to another journal with formatting requirements that differed from the prior journal.  While this might seem trivial today, recall that there was no such thing as automated reference management systems or even computerized word processing at that time.  Everything had to be typed by hand, which was no small task.  Many of us can recall what seemed a miraculous leap forward when typewriters with correcting ribbons came along and you no longer needed to use “White Out” to make a correction.  Even then there was no such thing as “backspace” or “delete” buttons on your keyboard!

So, the earlier versions of the URMs dealt largely with the standardization of manuscript preparation.  Over subsequent years, the editors went beyond such formatting issues to address editorial and publishing policies. The goal has been to promote the highest scientific standards of integrity through improvements in the conduct, review and reporting of clinical science.  Examples of topics addressed have included the informed consent of study participants, conflicts of interest, retractions and clinical trial registration.  The document was eventually reorganized and renamed, “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals.”  This document is reviewed by the ICMJE regularly and updated as needed.

RW: We see that in the section about “predatory publishers” – who allegedly publish any paper as long as authors pay – you changed the wording from “authors should be aware of” a journal’s integrity to “authors have a responsibility to evaluate” it. This seems to be stronger language, and ask more from authors – can you speak more about that?

DT: The scientific community needs to be vigilant in understanding the practices of some entities that advertise themselves as legitimate peer review journals, yet do not uphold appropriate standards.  Defining what have been called “predatory journals” has been challenging. The World Association of Medical Editors has, for example, been working to provide resources to help the scientific community in this matter. The ICMJE up-dated the Recommendations to draw added attention to the imperative that authors carefully evaluate the editorial and publishing practices of a venue before deciding to send their work to it.

RW: Another big change that’s of obvious interest to us is the ICMJE’s decision to  note the option of replacing certain papers that had to be retracted due to honest errors. What led to that decision?

DT: The overall goal of ICMJE’s Recommendations regarding retractions and republications is to ensure transparency and clarity in informing the scientific community when changes to published papers are necessary to correct the scientific record.

Not all errors represent that someone misbehaved.  If an honest error is serious enough to invalidate a study’s findings, a retraction may be needed.  But, when an honest error (e.g., a miscoding or miscalculation) results in a major change to the results and conclusions of the study, yet the corrected results and conclusions are found to be valid upon review, a republication (also termed, “replacement”) may be more appropriate.

RW: You cite the Committee on Publication Ethics frequently throughout the guidelines — why issue a separate set of recommendations, given that COPE’s flowcharts and recommendations cover many of the same topics?

DT: While there is certainly some overlap in the topics covered by ICMJE’s Recommendations and the extremely valuable resources provided by the Committee on Publication Ethics, the two are in many areas complimentary.  The ICMJE’s work, begun as noted above in 1978, focuses on providing guidance for general clinical medical journals.  It outlines the policies shared specifically by the editors of general medical journals on the committee (currently 13).  COPE, established in 1997, is an open membership organization with thousands of members and serves a somewhat different audience that is focused less specifically on clinical medical journals but in scientific publishing in general.

RW: Anything else you’d like to add?

DT: Many people have inquired regarding the work we are doing in the area of data sharing.  ICMJE put out a call for input regarding proposed rules for sharing the data that underlie the results published in our journals.  In response, we received hundreds of helpful comments from individuals and groups.  We’re currently working to help resolve some of the important challenges in this area necessary to help investigators responsibly share data.  We anticipate adopting new requirements accordingly.  The goal is to maximize what is learned from the volunteer efforts of clinical trial participants.

I’d also like to note that, like any other member of the ICMJE, I represent my own journal, the Annals of Internal Medicine, on the committee.   ICMJE does not have an official spokesperson – our website contains our official statements in editorials and our Recommendations document.  So, while I serve as the group’s secretary, what I’ve said here are my thoughts and others on the committee might see or state things somewhat differently.

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