A nursing journal makes two online critiques disappear

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A series of back and forth publications about a 12-year-old study of nursing education ended with some unusual editorial decisions.

Darrell Spurlock, a professor of nursing at Widener University and director of the university’s Leadership Center for Nursing Education Research, co-authored a study of the Health Education Systems, Inc. (HESI) nursing test in 2008. He and his colleague found that the test was a poor predictor of failure on the National Counsel Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN).

More than a decade later, a critique of the paper, by Dreher et al., appeared out of the blue, published last year in Nursing Forum, a Wiley journal. Spurlock takes issue with the way his research was portrayed in the critique, which paints a more positive picture of the HESI test.

For instance, the critique says “It should be noted, however, that Spurlock and Hunt1 did not report the N for their study.” Spurlock’s paper reports a sample size of 179 for analysis.

The next sentence reads, “Furthermore, Spurlock and Hunt1 reported only approximate pass rates, rather than exact pass rates.” Spurlock contests that his rates were exact. The critics also expressed doubt that his sample was large enough to support his claims. 

Spurlock says he isn’t sure why the authors now decided to critique his 2008 study, which has been cited 22 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Spurlock outlined these and other concerns in a rebuttal he published in the journal in October 2019, and says the test is still problematic because students can do well in their courses throughout a nursing program and fail to graduate because they did poorly on the exit exam.

Spurlock was thrown for a loop when the editor published the 2019 critique without giving him a chance to respond. The editorial decisions only got more unusual.

He says the HESI test has come under another wave of scrutiny in recent years, notably with a controversy at Duquesne University in 2017. At that school students who did poorly on the HESI exit exam didn’t receive diplomas at graduation. This kind of conflict, Spurlock says, is common at nursing programs, and, along with studies like his, which question its predictive ability, have led to scrutiny of the HESI test.

Spurlock says the editor of Nursing Forum told him via email in January 2020 that the authors of the critique were publishing a response to Spurlock’s rebuttal response as a letter to the editor, to appear only in print.

Dreher’s letter to the editor was published alongside another letter with similar complaints by Susan Morrison, who helped develop the HESI test and is still affiliated with HESI, and Ainslie Nibert, who has also been affiliated with HESI. Neither groups of authors could be reached for comment. 

The letters showed up online in mid-April 2020, despite the editor saying they would be print only. Spurlock contacted the editor, then Wiley, the publisher. He screenshotted these letters before they were deleted. Now the original publication URLs go to 404 error pages.

Wiley’s publishing guidelines strongly recommend against deleting published work, but list circumstances under which it’s permissible.

These include: A violation of privacy of a research subject, errors which could endanger a member of the public, defamatory comments against others in the field or their work and when an article is retracted

because for example it contains errors, has been accidentally submitted twice or infringes a professional ethical code of some type.

The guidelines also add that even with deletion,

bibliographic information about the deleted article should be retained for the scientific record, and an explanation given, however brief, about the circumstances of its removal.

(On Friday, we reported on another case of a Wiley journal making a paper disappear.)

The editor of Nursing Forum told Retraction Watch in an email that the two letters to the editor would only appear in print. 

In follow up emails, she said the journal receives few letters to the editor, and wrote:

Quite simply,.the items were erroneously published online and were subsequently removed.

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One thought on “A nursing journal makes two online critiques disappear”

  1. The editor of Nursing Forum told Retraction Watch in an email that the two letters to the editor would only appear in print.

    In follow up emails, she said the journal receives few letters to the editor, and wrote:

    Quite simply,.the items were erroneously published online and were subsequently removed.

    What a bizarre editorial policy. I could understand (but not entirely condone) circumstances in which some on-line content of a journal does not appear in print (for instance, “supplementary materials” with a huge amount of imperspicuous data that can only be comprehended with computer aids; or lengthy computer programs that, again, are not very well understood in printed form). I cannot imagine any circumstance in which a “letter to the editor” should be treated in this way. Did the editor of Nursing Forum offer Retraction Watch any justification, at all, for that policy?

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