Journal editors still don’t like talking about misconduct. And that’s a problem.

by Chris Richmond, via Flickr

In early 2011, less than six months after we launched Retraction Watch, we came across a retraction from a surgery journal. The notice was scant on details, so co-founder Adam Marcus called the editor to ask why the paper had been retracted.

The answer: “It’s none of your damn business.”

It turns out that’s still the answer from some journal editors. In a recent paper, Mark Bolland, of the University of Auckland, and colleagues — including one journalist — found that when they contacted a dozen journals that had published nearly two dozen clinical trials “about which concerns had been previously raised,” “none of the 10 responses was considered very useful.” (The trials were all co-authored by the late Yoshihiro Sato, who is now up to 42 retractions.)

Unbeknownst to the authors, a Retraction Watch reporter was also contacting the same journals. How did we fare?

“Of the 12 journals potentially contacted, 7 responded to Retraction Watch, Applying the same classifications we used, 2 responses were very useful, 2 of limited use, and 3 of no use.”

In other words,

This independent attempt at contacting journals confirms that journals often do not respond, and when they do, the information provided is usually of limited or no use.

The study was small, as the authors acknowledge. But their results, broadly speaking, jibe with our experience over the last eight years. While some editors are forthcoming, many simply refer us to corporate media relations departments (who generally say little), some simply refer us to an opaque notice, and others ignore us altogether. That behavior suggests that many editors are either ill-equipped to talk about scientific misconduct, or are loathe to — perhaps because lawyers are in the room — or both.

To be fair, there are some journals that have seen the light. In a 2015 editorial, then-interim-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biology Chemistry (JBC) Peter Guengerich acknowledged that

The JBC’s practice of saying very little in retraction and withdrawal notices has been described by many in the community as opaque—and rightfully so.

Moving forward, he wrote

JBC retraction and withdrawal notices now will explain, with as much detail as possible, why papers have been withdrawn or retracted.

The Journal of Cell Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology have made similar moves over the years. As has PLOS ONE, which say recently that it acted in part due to getting too many calls from reporters at Retraction Watch and elsewhere. To get back to the subject of the new study, it would be far less urgent for editors to respond to questions from academics or reporters if their retraction notices simply contained more information — a recommendation endorsed by the Committee on Publication Ethics.

But these journals are the exceptions. And that’s bad for science.

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3 thoughts on “Journal editors still don’t like talking about misconduct. And that’s a problem.”

  1. You might be interested to note that requests for more information about Climate Change papers by people who want to examine it critically are invariably met by accusations of harassment.

    The classic quote is from Dr Phil Jones of UEA, who, on being asked for some details of his calculations, replied:

    “…We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it…”

  2. It would be enlightening to hear RW’s experience with magazines such as Science and Nature, which are known to have started with having no peer review all, and appear to only reluctantly admit editorial mistakes until today.

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