Editors decide not to retract microplastics article but “they feel that it is barely justified”

Chemosphere has issued an expression of concern for a 2019 paper on microplastics in the ocean with an uncomfortable degree of similarity to a previously published article in another journal.

However, the editors decided that they could find enough daylight between the two papers that leaving their version unretracted was “barely justified” — a less-than-hearty endorsement of the article and one that’s likely to leave readers with more questions than answers about the integrity of the work.  

The article, titled ‘‘Prevalence of microplastic pollution in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean,” came from a group led by Zhong Pan, of the Laboratory of Marine Chemistry and Environmental Monitoring Technology, part of the State Oceanic Administration in Xiamen, China.  

According to the notice

This expression of concern relates to the publication ‘‘Prevalence of microplastic pollution in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean” by Zhong Pan, Xiuwu Sun, Huige Guo, Shangzhan Cai, Hongzhe Chen, Sumin Wang, Yuanbiao Zhang, Hui Lin and Jiang Huang which was published in Chemosphere, Volume 225, June 2019, Pages 735-744, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2019.03.076. The concern regards a high degree of similarity between this publication and a prior publication entitled ‘‘Microplastics in the Northwestern Pacific: Abundance, distribution, and characteristics” by Zhong Pan, Huige Guo, Hongzhe Chen, Sumin Wang, Xiuwu Sun, Qingping Zou, Yuanbiao Zhang, Hui Lin, Shangzhan Cai and Jiang Huang which was published in Science of The Total Environment, Volume 650, Part 2, February 10, 2019, Pages 1913-1922, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.09.244.

There are overlaps between the two papers: the sampling stations are the same; some figures are the same (although with different resolution and different colours); the coding of the samples is the same; the results for the size distribution are the same. There are some differences between the goals, main contents, perspectives, and highlights of the two studies. Although the Editors of Chemosphere on this occasion have decided not to retract that article, they feel that it is barely justified.

One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that the paper has not been previously published and is not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Re-use of any data should be appropriately cited. Apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

About the expression of concern, Pan told us that his group: 

are very concerned about it as well and we had a serious discussion on the issue as soon as we got the email. We understand there may be some lingering bad feelings. Please accept our sincere apologies. We are truly sorry for causing the confusions about the two papers. We respect the ethical standard and we certainly never intended to violate the ethical rules of the journal.

Although the STOTEN [Science of The Total Environment] paper was cited multiple times in the Chemosphere paper, for example, at Line 12 of Page 736; Lines 28 & 42 of Page 741, we admitted that it is our fault to fail to reference the first published STOTEN paper in the cover letter of the Chemosphere paper during submission process due to our unintentional negligence. In terms of these two papers, we acknowledged that the two papers are from the same study and some data are shared in the two papers, e.g., same sampling stations, same coding of the samples. However, the goals, main contents, perspectives, and highlights of the two papers are clearly different. After the publication of the STOTEN paper, we carefully analyzed the data again and had other new scientific findings in addition to those have published in the STOTEN paper. Thus, we decided to write another new paper based upon the same study.

Pan added that the two articles: 

conveyed different goals, contents, highlights, and novelties. We have discussed the case and explained the issue to the journal editors. Although there has been a violation of good publishing standards, the offence does not warrant the retraction of the paper from Chemosphere. For the best interests of transparency to the readership, an ‘Expression of Concern’ was decided to publish.

Lastly, we learn a lot and gain valuable lessons from this. We will make sure this situation would never happen again. We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude and sincere thanks to the readers for their concerns on the issues. Again, we deeply apologize for any concerns that may have caused. 

Jacob de Boer, the co-editor in chief of Chemosphere, has not responded to a request for comment. 

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2 thoughts on “Editors decide not to retract microplastics article but “they feel that it is barely justified””

  1. I find that including some variant of racial, systemic, social justice will help any unrelated paper to get published, even in math or anthropology.

    1. What does racism and social justice have to do with the non-retraction of a paper on microplastics in the ocean?

      Did I miss the race/sex/gender catch cry? Was there a “trans women are women” or “black lives matter” in their discussion of ocean sampling stations and coding techniques?

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