We receive our fair share of tips, and most are well-intentioned attempts to clean up the scientific literature. However, sometimes would-be critics can veer into personal attacks. As chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, Virginia Barbour has seen a lot. But nothing quite prepared her for being cyberbullied by someone the organisation had agreed to listen to when they raised a complaint about a published paper. In this guest post, Barbour tells the story of how COPE’s attempts to assist led to hundreds of harassing emails and unfounded accusations of a cover-up, which the complainant spread indiscriminately.
By its very nature, publication and research ethics often includes issues that are hard to resolve and it’s not uncommon for journals to receive concerns from individuals about specific papers. COPE has guidance for its members on what to do when they are contacted by such individuals. We urge and support editors and publishers in taking issues raised seriously. Nonetheless, such individuals (whether anonymous or not) can experience difficulties in getting their cases heard and, in rare and unusual cases, face extreme measures to silence them.
At COPE, we therefore also have a mechanism whereby readers can raise concerns about an issue in a COPE member journal, if the journal and publisher have not been able to resolve the issue. We have devoted increasing resources to this mechanism, even though is not the primary reason for which COPE was set up. As a membership organisation, COPE does not have regulatory authority over journals or publishers, but we can review the process the journal or publisher followed to determine if best practice was followed.
Therefore, when we received an email in 2015 from a reader with a complaint about a published paper, we reviewed the initial correspondence and, as it appeared to be a legitimate issue, opened a file on the case and assigned council members to work on it according to our procedures.
Over the course of the next year as we worked to address the issue, we received at least 300 emails from the complainant, which — although superficially polite — became increasingly odd, including accusing us of being part of a “cover up.”
The emails to COPE were, it turned out, the least of our issues. While the case was being reviewed by COPE, several council members and staff, including (and especially) me, had cases filed against them by the complainant to their employers or other organisations. In my case, at least five organisations were contacted. Any individuals or organisations that declined to be drawn in were themselves then accused of being part of the “cover up,” and in turn had complaints raised against them.
Despite repeatedly indicating that we were handling the case, the emails continued and we were finally and regretfully forced to divert the emails to our lawyer and to cease direct communication with the complainant.
The complainant’s emails continued nonetheless (and still continue), becoming increasingly bizarre and scattergun. For example, a completely unrelated individual with the same surname as me was assumed to be my husband, and was accused of being part of the “cover up.” In another exchange, which gives a flavor of the type of email being sent, the complainant demanded in an email chain to a university administrator that if Dr X (a female senior academic that the complainant had contacted about me) would not sack me that “I would therefore like to ask you to contact the husband of Dr X and tell the husband of Dr X that he must order his wife that she must sack immediately Dr Virginia Barbour. It is of course no problem at all to contact another male relative (dad / oldest son / son of a brother of her dad, etc.) in case Dr X has no husband.”
Faced with our refusal to engage on his terms, the complainant turned to social media and the allegations of a cover up appeared in a number of places—for example on comment threads on unrelated blogs.
Our response was twofold.
First, in regard to the case that the complainant had brought to us, we had been in contact from the very beginning with the publisher and their representatives, as well as with reputable scientists who had legitimate concerns. We took steps to confirm that the allegations raised were being appropriately investigated by the journal and the publisher.
Second, with regard to the complainant’s emails, once we had decided to only conduct correspondence with him via our lawyer, we simply ignored other emails to us and only responded if clarification was needed to other professional colleagues.
What value is there in publicizing the case now?
At the time of writing, the harassment of COPE council members and others continues and we intend this to be a public record of the incident.
Furthermore, by speaking out we hope to engage a wider debate on creating the academic web we want. This individual, is, sadly, not unique in the methods he employs. The Guardian’s campaign for “The web we want,” about combating online abuse, is an important initiative that needs to be translated to the academic sphere, where too often this type of behavior seems to be tolerated, or at least not addressed head on. Speaking up to support others is fraught with the risk that the attention of the individual will be turned on them (as happened here), a classic pattern in what is, essentially, bullying.
But some of the behavior went far beyond bullying. The repeated false accusations of participation in a cover up were potentially libellous; the combing over of mine and other colleagues’ affiliations and systematic targeting of our outside colleagues felt like harassment and stalking.
Lastly, it is important to highlight what this meant for COPE’s aims as an organisation — to ensure the integrity of the published literature. The individual concerned apparently wanted to cast doubts on the organization and its members (past and present) and, perhaps, its wider purpose. We see other individuals doing the same: Despite all their comments, these individuals are quick to criticize but rarely (if ever) are willing to put the time in to offer — let alone implement — constructive solutions.
COPE, by contrast, aims collectively and individually to practically address the problems that occur in publication and research integrity in a rigorous and professional way. Yet we are increasingly witnessing that an acknowledgement by authors or journals of a mistake and a subsequent correction is not seen to be enough. Vilifying authors or editors with public humiliation – driven often by a crowd mentality — seems to be what some in this arena want. As one tweeter said (hopefully ironically)– a “public lashing” may even be expected. We strongly refute this way of thinking. With such a climate it is hard to see how we could ever develop a culture of no blame correction, which is a prerequisite for a reliable published record.
We are in a tumultuous time in publishing. The way we publish and what the academic literature looks like and how it is critiqued pre and post publication will be very different in the next few years, and that’s only to be encouraged. What we can’t do is allow this change to be accompanied by a race to the bottom in the behavior that we accept. We need to build the academic web we want.
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