Miffed at exclusion from a meta-analysis, researcher writes own “expression of concern”

On June 10, Psycho-Oncology, a journal that publishes research on the “psychological, social, behavioral, and ethical” side of cancer, received a complaint.

In a letter, Ad Kaptein, a researcher at the Leiden University Medical Centre, in the Netherlands, wrote to say that a review and meta-analysis published by the journal that month hadn’t adequately cited the relevant literature in the field, including seven studies co-authored by Kaptein himself. The authors of the original paper say they had considered citing Kaptein’s work but decided against it, for various reasons.

The journal considered Kaptein’s complaint valid enough to publish his letter. But the letter carries the title “Expression of concern” — a term usually reserved for editorial notices issued by the journal to warn readers about some aspects of an article. But in this case, the author supplied the term, not the journal — yet the letter is tagged as an Expression of Concern on PubMed, giving the impression the paper has received a formal editorial notice.

Journal Co-Editor Maggie Watson told Retraction Watch:

There was no formal Expression of Concern issued by the journal.

The title was provided by the author of the Letter and there was no discussion about the inclusion of the phrase during the peer review process.

In his letter, Kaptein said, “Illness representations, coping, and illness outcomes in people with cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” which first appeared online in August 2016:

is based on only a fraction of the relevant papers, as defined by the authors. Therefore, their paper presents an incomplete picture of the area the authors claim to review …

Furthermore, a number of papers in which I happen to be an author are missing in the … paper.

The original paper has been cited once, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Editors accepted Kaptein’s submission July 8 and ran it in early September, with the title “Expression of concern — inadequate review of the literature.”

As a result, on Pubmed, the entry for Kaptein’s letter has been tagged as an EoC for the original article. A spokesperson for the National Library of Medicine told us that the tag was:

Based on an automated review of the journal’s citation data when it was uploaded by the publisher to PubMed.

This is a standard process that is run… The phrase “Expression of Concern” at the beginning of a publication title is an indication that the article is an Expression of Concern as noted by such organization as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors…

The spokesperson added:

The intent of the citation creation and indexing process is to reflect what has been published, not to provide interpretation.

Kaptein did not responded to Retraction Watch’s request for comment.

The authors of the original article have published their response to his letter, saying they had considered many of the studies mentioned by Kaptein, but decided against including them; they note that two of Kaptein’s studies mentioned in his letter hadn’t been published at the time they submitted their manuscript.

Here is the guideline on official EoCs issued by journals from the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE):

Journal editors should consider issuing an expression of concern (EoC) if: they receive inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors; there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case; they believe that an investigation into alleged misconduct related to the publication either has not been, or would not be, fair and impartial or conclusive; an investigation is underway but a judgement will not be available for a considerable time.

Even official editorial EoCs have not always strictly followed those guidelines — for instance, issuing these notices even for papers without research misconduct issues. Readers may recall a recent story where a publisher issued an EoC about a controversial paper claiming same-sex parenting put children at greater risk of depression and abuse. The journal issued the EoC despite a lack of evidence of misconduct, because critics had suggested the study suffered from methodological flaws and a neo-Nazi group cited the study in a homophobic poster put up in Minneapolis and Melbourne, Australia. And in June, Nature Methods added two editorial notices, including an EoC, to note “technical criticisms” surrounding a paper that suggested CRISPR gene editing in cells led to widespread, unpredicted consequences. Again, there were no suggestions that misconduct had taken place.

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2 thoughts on “Miffed at exclusion from a meta-analysis, researcher writes own “expression of concern””

  1. ARP,

    Thank you for the tip re. this paper.

    EoC are definitely underutilized.

    I believe that COPE should provide clear guidance indicating that EoC are issued for ethical concerns.

    Also current guidance that EoC can be issued without author input is important.

    This can drive correction of the literature, which is an urgent issue in today’s climate.

    Editor’s notes should be created as a separate and distinct category and should be reserved for non ethical issues.

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