Conflicts of disinterest: Why does it take a publisher 18 months, and counting, to correct papers?

Taylor & Francis

On February 23, 2018, Stephen Barrett — a physician in the United States perhaps best known for his work at Quackwatch — sent Dove Press this message:

I believe you have published 20 articles in 6 of your journals in which the lead author did not make a full conflict-of-interest disclosure. Please email me directly with the name and email address of an individual to whom I should report.

The lead author in question was Marty Hinz. As Barrett writes in a summary of the case

For many years, Hinz has claimed that amino acid supplements can improve Parkinson’s disease and various other conditions by balancing neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. Since the mid-1990s, he has developed a network of companies that market his ideas and clinics that use his protocols to treat patients.

Hinz — who did correct two other disclosures in Dove Press papers, but has not responded to a request for comment from Retraction Watch — has been using the 20 papers published by Dove, Barrett said, to market his work. As he notes:

In 2011, the FDA filed a complaint and obtained a permanent injunction under which Hinz, his daughter, and their companies were required to (a) remove from their product labels, labeling, promotional material, websites, and other media all representations that their products or the ingredient combinations in their products cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease, and (b) notify all previous customers that the products could not be sold for such purposes.

A Dove representative responded quickly to acknowledge the February message and ask for more information, and on March 11 Shay O’Neill, Dove’s peer review and research integrity manager, wrote to Barrett:

Thank you for alerting us to the possible conflict of interest issues with several articles published by Dr Hinz. I have been forwarded the information you have provided.

At this stage I am investigating this case and I will update following the investigation or if I require more information.

And yet a year and a half after Barrett’s original message, the publisher has done nothing to flag the 20 papers, despite several follow-ups from Barrett and assurances that they are treating the inquiry as a priority. In October, Barrett asked them to look into additional issues beyond the conflict of interest questions.

O’Neill responded to Barrett again on February 25 of this year, a day after emailing him to say that Dove was “currently waiting for a report from an independent and external associate:”

Currently, we are still reviewing the papers involved. Part of this review extends to the conflict of interest statements that you have raised. We are reviewing the issues raised as a whole and, as such, we cannot make a decision on the conflict of interest without reaching the other conclusions of our investigation.

Given the nature of this particular case and the number of articles involved this will, unfortunately, take some time, however I do appreciate your frustrations in the delay with our decision. I would like to assure you that this matter still remains a priority for us and we are doing all we can to reach a decision as quickly as possible.

Barrett responded:

This is a very serious matter because the articles, as they now exist, are part of a marketing system that I believe is dangerous.

I don’t see why the conflict-of-interest matter has to wait for the rest to be adjudicated. 

For at least 3 months, you have had enough information to conclude that the original COI disclosures were inadequate.

At minimum, I believe you have enough information to publish an editorial calling attention to the problem and ensure that proper COI statements are embedded in all of the online documents so that they are apparent to people who download them in the future. The rest can wait until you and your consultants have reviewed the matter to your satisfaction.

Barrett is of course correct that the conflicts of interest concerns are much easier to adjudicate than the rest of the allegations. We asked O’Neill for an update, but he didn’t respond, instead forwarding the message to the public relations arm of Taylor & Francis, which owns Dove. They sent this:

Your query has been forwarded on to us in the Newsroom team. As I’m sure you’ll appreciate given the number of papers involved, it is taking considerable time to look into this and so we do not have an update for you at present. We will come back to you when this process has concluded. 

We told them that response — which echoed their comments when we asked about this case in April — was basically a non-response, and followed up to ask why it takes 18 months to adjudicate clear failures to disclose conflicts of interest.

After all, it took just a month for other journals to make such changes after a front-page story in The New York Times. And journals have other tools — such as Expressions of Concern — to flag papers when investigations take a while. Dove hasn’t made use of that option.

Taylor & Francis sent another non-response, saying that 

…this is an extremely complex issue involving multiple papers, considerable history and involving more than conflicts of interest. We are keen to conduct the investigation as fully in the round as possible before coming to any conclusion so I’m sorry that we’re unable to provide any update until we reach that point.

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