“I decline to respond” but “take this history to undermine”

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There are various ways to respond to criticism of one’s work. There is the “well, that’s not pleasant news, but thank you, I’ll correct that straightaway” approach. There’s the “I guess we’ll correct this but hope no one notices” approach. There’s the “I’m suing you” approach — often followed by “never mind.”

And then there’s the approach taken by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Fredrickson is perhaps best known for her work on the “positivity ratio,” around which she has built a significant brand. The idea, in a nutshell, is that you’ll be more successful if you have three positive emotions for every negative one. It is a compelling and bite-sized idea, and has been turned into a book.

It has also been the subject of criticism, as we have chronicled. One of the Fredrickson’s papers on the subject was partially withdrawn, and another has been subjected to an expression of concern. A 2013 paper on a different subject by Fredrickson and a colleague has also been corrected.

In May, Fredrickson was last author of a paper in Psychoneuroendocrinology claiming to show that loving-kindness meditation slowed biological aging, specifically that it kept telomeres — which protect chromosomes — from shortening. The paper caught the attention of Harris Friedman, a retired researcher from University of Florida who had scrutinized some of Fredrickson’s past work, for what Friedman, in an interview with Retraction Watch, called an “extraordinary claim.”

Friedman, along with three colleagues, looked deeper. When they did, they found a few issues. One was that the control group in the study seemed to show a remarkably large decrease in telomere length, which made the apparent differences between the groups seem larger. The quartet — Friedman, Nicholas Brown, Douglas MacDonald and James Coyne — also found a coding error.

Friedman and his colleagues wanted to write a piece for the journal that would address all of these issues, but they were told they could submit a letter of only 500 words. They did, and it was published in August. The journal also published a corrigendum about the coding error last month — but only after having changed the article without notice first.

Friedman had hoped that the journal would credit him and his colleagues in the corrigendum, which it did not. But it was a letter that the journal published on August 24 that really caught his eye (as well as the eye of a PubPeer commenter, whose comment was flagged for us.) It read, in its entirety:

As Corresponding Author of “Loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices: Evidence from a 12-week randomized controlled trial,” I decline to respond to the Letter authored by Friedman, MacDonald, Brown and Coyne. I stand by the peer review process that the primary publication underwent to appear in this scholarly journal. Readers should be made aware that the current criticisms continue a long line of misleading commentaries and reanalyses by this set of authors that (a) repeatedly targets me and my collaborators, (b) dates back to 2013, and (c) spans multiple topic areas. I take this history to undermine the professional credibility of these authors’ opinions and approaches.

When Friedman saw the letter, he went straight to the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, and said it was defamatory, and had no business appearing in a peer-reviewed journal. The letter was, he joked, paraphrasing then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump,  “like shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, right out the open.”

The journal has now removed the letter, and issued a notice of temporary removal. Fredrickson hasn’t responded to our requests for comment.

As Friedman noted, however, the letter’s language, which is undeniably sharp, is “coming from the loving-kindness researcher.”

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7 thoughts on ““I decline to respond” but “take this history to undermine””

  1. I’m sorry that Friedman and colleagues had to deal with this. We need people to perform the often thankless job of correcting the record—they deserve acknowledgement for their work and a fair editorial process.

  2. Seems that one claiming the potentially grand result of having found the fountain of youth, perhaps all but guaranteeing at least one Nobel if not many science prizes and true immortality, would understandably be a little testy at having repeatedly failed to adhere to actual scientific rigor review, and have the resultant implied claim invalidated. It’s quite a come-down, after all. So of course when it comes down to cases, what matters love when immortality is on the dock?

    Two of my professional mentors’ examples come to mind. The First, Gordon Harrington, Ph.D. Clinical Psychology during the time Yale had the program, suggested that the proper role of peer review, as also practiced by their Ph.D. program, is to, (assuming honesty and full journeyman scientific capability by all reviewers) by necessity of producing actual reliable knowledge and facts through actual science, attempt every actual scientific effort in their review arsenal to defeat the proposition of the applicant (candidate, investigator) via equally legitimate scientific principle (or mechanism, if you will). Thus, failing to defeat the candidate or investigator’s proposition/result is a success, because the proof is that the proposition is not true…and so armed with identification of weaknesses, cheerfully back to the drawing board to incorporate, and thereby improve, the effort to achieve fact, as only true adherence to scientific method could produce it. The only other possible result, failure to defeat the proponent’s effort, is also success, for it now has shown to potentially advance the cache of professional and scientific knowledge. Either result is success; either result is scientifically desireable. It is the only way one can, for example, trust that the brakes on your car can be expected to work…etc., etc., etc.

    The second mentor was Zygmundt Piotrowski, who alone of the developers of major “brands” of Rorschach Test development, subjected his “brand” (which he titled Perceptanalysis”) to more than 55 years of CONTINUOUS example (and IN THE RECORD) of the principle described above in doing his scientific investigative work, in the process achieving the only real version of Rorschach that could make such a claim to be truly developed within the complete rigors of science, and as such achieved the only claim to be scientifically be able to stand as empirically supported at every stage. He openly INVITED criticism and peer review, asking for the strongest rigor, so that he might cheerfully take that benefit of many great minds back to the lab for improvement. He told me several times that he could never have achieved what he did (scientific defensibility and potential for trustworthy practical application) without such help, for which he taught me to always be most cheerfully grateful. Otherwise, the brakes on your car might not be trusted to work, and we might not both enjoy the benefit of cheap and comfortable reliable transportation nor the glad assurance that people whom we lovingly transport would not thereby be unavoidably killed. The same can be said for everything from the air transport we enjoy to the targeted immunity treatments that reverse your end-stage metastatic cancer. If you don’t (or won’t) do the science, really you don’t WANT the result.

    Would that all researchers remember that there is a point to genuine, robust peer review, (which is also a form of peer supervision), and criticism.

  3. Although their criticism may be merited, I feel uncomfortable with their effort to have counter-criticism deleted, however outrageous they find it.

  4. So she said she would not comment on their criticism, but did criticize the critics for criticizing her work. Looks like a comment to me, but aimed at the messenger, not the message. Yes, it is defamatory, and yes, it should have been retracted, which it was.

  5. The notice of temporary removal issued by the journal is pointless: the Streisand effect is at work.

    1. I don’t think Streisand effect applies here. The point of removing the reply isn’t to hide the allegations of but to keep to standards of scientific discourse. Comments like those had no business in appearing in a journal

  6. Hmm, I notice that reading that letter to the Editor will cost me US$35.95. I can understand charging for reading the paper, but even letters to the editor cost the same level?

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