Should journals retract when an author is sent to prison for a crime unrelated to their work?

Should a journal retract a paper when they learn that one of its authors has earned a year-long prison sentence for downloading child pornography?

For Brill’s Journal of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics the answer was no. And experts in publication ethics say that was the right call.

The researcher in question is Jan Joosten, who held the prestigious Regius professorship of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, was convicted of downloading 28,000 child abuse images and videos and  placed on the register for sex offenders in France, according to the Guardian.

On June 22, Brill’s Journal of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics placed this publisher’s notice about one of Joosten’s papers it published: 

This issue contains an article by Jan Joosten, published online first on 8 June 2020, following the customary peer review process and the editors’ imprimatur. On 18 June 2020 the author was convicted of possessing child pornography. The publisher considered initiating retraction proceedings, but concluded that this would not be possible, as the only permissible grounds for retracting an academic article are research misconduct and/or breach of publication ethics.

Research integrity experts told Retraction Watch that they agreed with the journal’s decision. 

Matt Hodgkinson, head of editorial policy and ethics at the open-access publisher Hindawi, now part of Wiley, in London, UK, told us: 

The COPE retraction guidelines I helped rewrite make clear that the focus needs to be on major error[s] in the content or ethical breaches in the scholarship. An author’s actions outside the published work do not directly bear on a decision to correct or retract an article, aside from conflicts of interest – which may include non-financial interests. However, criminal convictions or other sanctions may be a legitimate reason to reassess someone’s work.

Hodgkinson notes that the editorial note published by Brill, the Dutch publisher that runs the journal, does not link to Joosten’s paper, or vice versa. 

He added: 

Brill were unfortunate in the timing and I doubt the publishers of Prof. Joosten’s other work dating back to 1988 will post, or be expected to post, similar notices or consider retraction.

David Vaux, a cell biologist at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, and a member of the board of directors of our parent nonprofit organization, the Center for Scientific Integrity, also stressed that the paper shouldn’t be retracted if it held up scientifically. He noted: 

Retraction of the paper would deprive the readership of what was judged to be sound and interesting research.

Vaux went on to say: 

If the crimes are not related to their work, I do not think they have any bearing on the soundness or publication-worthiness of their research, whether that research was published before or after the crimes. The criminal justice system is there to handle crimes.

Independent research integrity consultant Jigisha Patel based in London, UK, noted that investigations into whether papers should be retracted “should be made in an objective and considered way, not least because there may be innocent co-authors involved.”

Patel added: 

Most definitions of research integrity refer to expected behaviour such as honesty, transparency, and showing care and respect for research participants.  Although the definitions refer to these behaviours in the context of conducting research, I think it’s implied that researchers are expected to exhibit these behaviours in their lives outside academia. It is hard to see how a compartmentalization of these behaviours, such as expecting honesty while doing research, but not otherwise, can be condoned. 

The editors of the journal did not respond to requests for comment.

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15 thoughts on “Should journals retract when an author is sent to prison for a crime unrelated to their work?”

  1. Whether anyone would wish to work with, publish, or cite someone credibly accused or found guilty of such an offence in future is a separate question, which is explored in this blog post by Dr. Daniel Souleles:

    A case in which a conviction was of relevance to the scholarship is discussed here by Dr. Sarah Scullin: This could be considered a form of non-financial COI.

    Here’s a previous case of a criminal charge, of Dr. Amy Bishop, causing scrutiny of a publication:

    1. “[…] This could be considered a form of non-financial COI”

      I don’t think it could; not unless hatred of people such as Holt could be considered a COI as well. After all, by this logic, both (could) effect the authors’ views. Indeed, by this logic, being part of any tabooed or marginalized group could be considered a COI. In my opinion the integration of cultural taboos into the acceptance or rejection of papers represents the beginning of the end of academia. To an extent, this is already visible in the suggestion that people avoid citing papers by authors who they consider transgressive of current taboos.

  2. So the journal decides to give the author an extra-punishment by announcing the court ruling to the academic community in the scientific journal and thus connecting the author’s name to it in eternity?
    Even internet search engines are subjected to the “Right to be forgotten” to avoid infinite stigmatization.

    1. I agree Steffen. This is cruel on the part of the journal, but not unexpected given the infinite cruelty of this society towards those it decides are anathema.

  3. This decision should not have been made public; they are only doing so to protect themselves from criticism. “Hey, we don’t like him either, but we’ve got no choice.”

    Patel: ” Although the definitions refer to these behaviours in the context of conducting research, I think it’s implied that researchers are expected to exhibit these behaviours in their lives outside academia.” Implied by who, and why? As long as the science is not fraudulent, why should it matter if the person doing it is a card cheat, an adulterer, a criminal, etc.?

    Science is not about the scientist.

  4. Are we really confident that science is not about the scientist and the quality of scientific findings is sufficient for publication? The meaning, value, and publish-ability of the Pernkopf atlas are, at the very least, strongly controversial.

    1. But the Pernkopf case is about ethical violations in the science itself. That work violates standards the apply to inclusion of human subjects. The current argument is about acts that occur outside of the science, that don’t directly impact the science itself. So, using Nazis as an example, more analogous to scientific findings that emerged from Operation Paperclip.

  5. The book ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne
    A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary’ Simon Winchester, 1998, seems apposite. To quote the blurb:
    “The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a monumental 50 year task requiring thousands of volunteers. One of the keenest volunteers was a W C Minor who astonished everyone by refusing to come to Oxford to receive his congratulations. In the end, James Murray, the OED’s editor, went to Crowthorne in Berkshire to meet him. What he found was incredible – Minor was a millionaire American civil war surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder and yet who dedicated his entire cell-bound life to work on the English language.”
    I has been 20 years since I read this book. I confess without at any point wondering whether the Minor contributions should have been retracted.

  6. should the conviction for a crime unrelated to the field of research be proven wholly wrong later on based upon new evidence, how does Retraction Watch plan to “unhang” (and/or compensate) the formerly criminal researcher?

    1. Retraction Watch is a news site. They aren’t the ones making any retractions, they simply report them as they happen, with occasional commentary. Note that they didn’t take a position on this issue at all; they simply clarified the issue at hand and reported how this journal, in this circumstance, acted. They didn’t “hang” anyone, and so it is not on them to “unhang” anyone either; any “blame” would be on the journal editors.

  7. The fact that you’re even asking this question shows how low science has sunk under the stranglehold of the totalitarian ideology of Progressivism. The West is now almost indistinguishable from the dystopia that was the USSR, in both cases due to similar cancerous ideologies.

      1. No, I don’t think journals should retract articles if one of the authors is found guilty of a crime not related to his area of research. First, the criminal is already punished, second, the judgement can be erroneous or unjust (not all countries in the world are fail-safe democracies you know), third, the person will serve their term and leave prison and this journal’s notice will very probably stay, fourth, innocent co-authors suffer for nothing. Why should a journal have a say in criminal matters at all as long as they are not related to science ethics/methods? Legal system should be enough.

  8. The first reason we have retraction is to protect the accuracy and reliability of science as a body of knowledge. It seems this isn’t even in question; no one doubts the actual research in question.

    A second purpose is to protect the rights of research subjects by refusing to allow scientists to benefit from violating those rights, and in some cases, removing records that expose the data of the unconsenting.

    I think it’s important to understand here that we don’t do this second kind of retraction simply as a reactive punishment to ensure that all scientists are good, moral, upstanding citizens in general. We do it specifically because publication (and its subsequent benefits to funding, prestige, etc) is the the main *incentive* to violate the rights of research subjects. If scientists know they will not be able to advance their careers and work when they treat their research subjects unethically, that in fact they could find they have squandered huge amounts of time and funding on unpublishable work, then the incentive is strong to make sure participants rights are fully protected.

    In this case, the researcher has certainly violated the rights of lots of people. However, since they were not scientific research participants, retraction won’t serve the purpose of deterring the bad behavior or restoring privacy to the victims.

    Consider this is a crime with consequences that are likely to include jail time, job and career loss, loss of close associates and probably even family ties, public revilement, hate mail and death threats. Is there really a child porn distributor out there who is going to be willing to take all those risks, but decide not to download those images because *their paper might be retracted* if they get caught? Obviously not.

    Retraction of unrelated work would be nothing but a virtue-signaling gesture, to say we have such high moral standards in our field that we won’t even let data stay here if it came from morally tainted people. And WOW, do I NOT want that to be the business of science.

    Which crimes exactly will we treat this way? Sexual harassment and discrimination, for example, is actually much more related to the scientific enterprise–it is a widespread problem in STEM that not only harms the victims, but exacts a massive toll on the field via brain drain of talented survivors who abandon careers in research. But is it a bad enough crime to get all your papers retracted? What if you aren’t actually convicted, but your university board finds against you and you are fired. Is the preponderance of evidence enough?

    Even if we stick to convictions of the most heinous crimes, like sex trafficking and murder, are we going to take mitagating circumstances into account? And are we going to account the fact that, at least in the US, the justice system is horrifically racially biased against people with dark skin? Will editorial boards just accept the determination of courts with known biases, or will they privately relitigate each case to determine how plausible they find the court findings, or to decide if they think the crime was bad enough to warrant retraction? Will we accommodate differences in the law in different countries? Or will moral-purity retractions just consistently conform to the standards of American and Western European academia?

    If it isn’t obvious yet what a horrifically bad idea it is to go down the extremely subjective path of retraction based on assessment of general character or convict status, here’s a final thought to consider. It’s also bad for science to do this because it treats scientific publications as primarily being awards of recognition for their authors, instead of treating them as primarily scientific records that benefit the community as a whole. It’s exactly that kind of prestige-first mentality that makes retraction on scientific grounds so difficult and slow in the first place. This is exactly the wrong way to think about published research.

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