A frustrated former editor asked a publishing group for help. He didn’t like what they said.

When the former editor of a public health journal didn’t get a straight answer about why the journal retracted his paper that was critical of corporate-sponsored research, he brought his concerns to an organization dedicated to promoting integrity in academic publishing. He wanted the group to help resolve the impasse he’d reached with the publisher, but was sorely disappointed.

David Egilman, the former editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, had been seeking answers about the paper for a year. In November, the journal’s editorial board resigned, in protest of the “apparent new direction that the journal appears to be moving towards.” They objected to the “unilateral withdraw[al]” of Egilman’s paper, with little explanation, the delay in publishing other papers that had been accepted under Egilman’s leadership, and the decision to appoint a new editor with industry ties.

Amidst all that upheaval at the journal, Egilman still wasn’t getting the answers he wanted about why his paper was withdrawn. So he brought his concerns to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

Last week, the organization forwarded Egilman a response from publisher Taylor & Francis, which said the paper had been flagged for internal review because of the content, and they had declined to publish it. According to Taylor & Francis, the paper was “inadvertently published online,” so the publisher withdrew it. After forwarding Egilman the response from Taylor & Francis, COPE concluded  “we do not feel we can provide any further advice.”

That wasn’t good enough for Egilman, an outspoken industry critic who in the past has published documents obtained via legal proceedings (and once paid $100,000 to a pharmaceutical company for leaking confidential information about one of its products):

I hoped for a more rigorous inquiry.

COPE does not have the ability to “police” journals — something others have complained about, as well — although it can rescind membership for journals who don’t adhere to certain standards; still, Egilman told us:

I expected at least the appearance of a genuine investigation. The system was rigged from the start. For example, they never contacted me or any of the authors whose publications T&F withdrew after acceptance.  That would be a minimum for any investigation. In addition, they accepted T&F’s response without seeking comments from the complaint generators. This is not the hallmark of an investigation focused on getting to the bottom of a complaint.    I hoped to at least find out exactly what had happened.

In a response to Egilman, COPE noted that he was not the original complainant about the article, and as such he was not involved in the review process:

As our goal is to facilitate a productive discourse between our member journal/publisher and the complainant, we do not commonly invite others to offer comment on the case, unless explicitly asked to do so.

In its response to COPE about Egilman’s paper, Taylor & Francis said:

-Following our in-house review, which included seeking legal counsel, we decided that the article was not suitable for publication.
-However, in the meantime, the article had been inadvertently published online on the journal website.
-We informed the author of the article that we were withdrawing the article due to our oversight.

Regarding the other papers that Egilman approved but hadn’t been published, Taylor & Francis told COPE:

Prior to the completion of our investigation, one article was withdrawn voluntarily by the author. Following our in-house review of the two remaining articles, which again included seeking legal counsel, one of the articles was amended following a dialogue with the authors and then published online. We chose not to publish the third article, and copyright was returned to the author, who was then free to pursue publication elsewhere. We explained our reasons for declining to publish the article to the author.

In its response, Taylor & Francis insisted multiple times that Egilman’s paper was “withdrawn,” not retracted; given that both result in the disappearance of the paper, it’s hard to see what the distinction might be. What we’ve seen, however, is that publishers (not just Taylor & Francis) sometimes say it’s unnecessary to include any reason for the withdrawal when it’s not officially “retracted” — something we find ridiculous.

In its response to Egilman, COPE noted:

Upon consideration of the information the publisher has provided, we find that they followed an adequate process to follow up on the concerns identified about each manuscript, in line with the expectations under the COPE Core Practices. As a result, we do not feel we can provide any further advice that would go beyond the actions taken by the journal and the publisher and therefore we will not pursue the matter beyond this point…We would like to note that COPE is not a statutory body, nor a regulatory authority.

COPE sent us a statement:

COPE’s process for handling cases raised to COPE for review involves liaising with the presenter of the case and the journal and publisher involved, with the aim of facilitating a dialogue about the issues raised…COPE does not investigate the underlying allegations of individual cases but rather completes a review of the process involved in the handling of the issue, based on the information provided by the presenter and the journal and/or publisher.

For this specific case, we communicated with the presenter of the case and with Taylor & Francis per our process, but we cannot publicly comment on the details of the case.

Egilman has responded to COPE, protesting the fact that the organization never contacted him before reaching its decision, and claiming the publisher had lied, and hadn’t created a category for “withdrawal” of papers before August of 2017. (However, we’ve identified multiple examples of withdrawals from before that date, including from last year, the year before, and the year before that.)

In its response, COPE told Egilman that even though he did contact the organization with concerns about the retraction of his article, he did not provide all the necessary information they asked for to process the complaint; the case was pursued with a different complainant who did supply the required documentation.

Egilman and some of the board members who resigned from the journal have started a new publication: The Journal of Scientific Practice. He has also republished his paper, “The Production of Corporate Research to Manufacture Doubt About the Health Hazards of Products: An Overview of the Exponent Bakelite® Simulation Study,” in the journal New Solutions, published by SAGE.

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3 thoughts on “A frustrated former editor asked a publishing group for help. He didn’t like what they said.”

  1. Having read through all the case reports on the COPE web site, it’s hard not to feel that they are both toothless and extremely risk-adverse. They tend to advise against doing anything that could get you criticized or, worse, sued; and they don’t go out on a lot of limbs themselves.

    Their advice might be useful on occasion but expecting them to DO anything is generally futile.

  2. “…the organization never contacted him before reaching its decision….”
    I recently published a review of institutional responses to allegations of misconduct and identified fourteen red flags of sham investigations. These include
    -Delaying tactics.
    -Inadequate response, such as stonewalling, willful blindness, and deliberate ignorance of events, evidence, and policies.
    -The organization is inexplicably incompetent in investigating your allegations.
    -Your case is mishandled in such a way that wrongs cannot be redressed.

    Perhaps we need a “me too” movement for victims of cover up by sham investigation.

    1. Or the ability to inform on one’s employers via the whistleblower statute. Instead they bury people in busywork, with the threat of legal action, discouraging all but the most militant.

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