An awkward correction later, these researchers have a warning for would-be authors

Mitchell Knutson

Mitchell Knutson learned to take a journal’s policies seriously the hard way.

Early in 2017, Knutson, a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville who studies iron metabolism, had findings he and his team were excited about publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). So they submitted a manuscript on January 30.

The reviews came back shortly thereafter. They were positive, but suggested new experiments using more mice.

One of the reviewers wanted us to repeat all the behavioral analyses with 9-12 mice, both male and female, and do a manganese depletion study.

That meant 64 additional mice, which Knutson found reasonable.

The reviews themselves were very helpful. We knew we needed to do this, we even said in the original submission that a manganese depletion study was ultimately needed.

But he also knew the experiments would take more than six months. PNAS told him on the phone — but not in its decision letter — that the paper would be considered a new submission if it took that long, but was also told that the “resubmission” designation was just for their records.

Still, says Knutson,

We wanted to publish in PNAS.

The team got to work. The experiments went as planned — but they took long enough that another group they had been working with, along with two others, published findings that corroborated some of the key results in their manuscript. They made note of that in their discussion:

Indeed, while our manuscript was under revision, three groups independently reported the prominent alterations in Mn metabolism in Slc39a14−/− mice…(25, 56, 57)

Knutson and his colleagues resubmitted their manuscript on November 29, 2017. It was accepted on January 12, and published on February 7.

Then, on April 11, an email came from PNAS noting that a reader had contacted the PNAS editor to demand a retraction of the statement, “Indeed, while our manuscript was under revision, three groups independently reported the prominent alterations in Mn metabolism in Slc39a14−/− mice…(25, 56, 57),claiming that two of the papers cited were published 4-5 months before the Knutson manuscript was submitted.  

Knutson doesn’t know who wrote the letter, although he suspects it was a competitor. (PNAS declined to identify the author when asked by Retraction Watch, saying they consider that information confidential.)

We were all really shocked that we got this email because we were surprised that someone would take the time to write to PNAS and moreover to demand that we would retract that sentence.

What had happened was an unforeseen consequence of the PNAS revision policy. If revisions extend beyond the maximum time allowed (150 days), the manuscript is treated as a resubmission with a new submission date—and the published submission date for resubmitted mansucripts is the date of resubmission, not the date of the original submission. The PNAS editor suggested that it might be appropriate to remove the phrase “while our manuscript was under revision” in a correction that explained the situation. 

Knutson understood the problem, and although he wasn’t sure a correction was needed, he went along. But deleting that line completely wouldn’t give the full picture of what had happened, so he submitted a somewhat different correction that noted the original submission date. It was published on May 7 of this year:

Our manuscript was initially submitted to PNAS on January 30, 2017, and a revision was invited on April 4, 2017. Due to time constraints in generating cohorts of male and female mice to complete the requested additional experiments, we were unable to submit a revised manuscript within 180 days, and were therefore required, as per editorial policy, to resubmit as a new submission on November 29, 2017. We regret that we did not update the sentence in our discussion ‘Indeed, while our manuscript was under revision, three groups independently reported the prominent alterations in Mn metabolism in Slc39a14−/− mice…(25, 56, 57)’ to note that in the final version of our article references 25, 56, and 57 had all been published prior to our second submission to PNAS.

Overall, still not a big deal. But a lot of effort for a handful of words. Knutson’s takeaway?

The most important thing is, you really should be aware of the journal’s policy on submissions, resubmissions, dates, and factor that into your equation. If you think about it, when we originally  submitted our manuscript in January, we were the first.

But by the time the paper was “officially” submitted in November, three papers had already appeared.

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3 thoughts on “An awkward correction later, these researchers have a warning for would-be authors”

  1. Wanna gamble on whether one of the authors of the 3 papers was the obfuscatory PNAS reviewer demanding all the new experiments?

    This is why preprints are good. First you have a precedent date. Second the reviewers know the story is already out there, so any attempt to suppress it with an unreasonable list of demands is futile.

  2. This is serious issue, IF it turns out that one of the reviewers was also an author on one of the published papers. PNAS can determine that easily, and act appropriately. Although we live in a world of angels, this sort of thing would not be unheard of…

  3. I’m not so sure preprints are that good, or if this story alone is a good case for it. After all, I think the jury is still out on the requirements to cite work that appeared in preprints that haven’t been peer-reviewed.

    Moreover, getting “scooped” is not limited to unethical reviewers. It’s almost impossible to do research in isolation. Even before work is submitted, it might be presented as a non-peer-reviewed poster or it might be discussed very casually over drinks at the end of a conference. Or how about a student talk to another student of another lab?

    But, I think this story is a good lesson as to why PNAS would support a reviewer knowing that the experiments would take longer than the period of revisions established by PNAS. Certainly, it is their rules and thus they have the power to “bend them” under certain circumstances. Like any other journal, PNAS wants high-quality works and would be happy if authors picked them before other journals. Maybe a good lesson for authors (those involved and all of us reading) to know when to go with another journal when such an initial response is given to them…

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