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.
A month after a journalism investigation that led to resignations and turmoil at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, researchers including a Sloan Kettering scientist have quietly corrected at least two papers to add disclosures of financial conflicts of interest.
A toxicology journal has issued an expression of concern for a group of papers about the controversial herbicide glyphosate after concluding that some of the authors didn’t adequately disclose their ties to the maker of the product.
At issue are five articles that appeared in a 2016 supplement to Critical Reviews in Toxicology, a Taylor & Francis title, about the chemical, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s blockbuster weed-killer Roundup. Although the authors of the articles don’t overlap perfectly, Keith Solomon, of the University of Guelph, in Canada, appears on three of the articles; Gary Williams, of New York Medical College, appears on three as well.
Williams was caught up in a ghost-writing scandal after court documents revealed that he had put his name on a published paper written by Monsanto employees. Solomon served on a panel funded by Monsanto that undercut the conclusions of a report from the World Health Organization that glyphosate is probably cancerous to people.
An emergency medicine journal has retracted a letter to the editor, saying it didn’t include the author’s relevant commercial interest—which the author says he tried to disclose when he submitted the paper.
The author, Guy Weinberg, told Retraction Watch he had noted his conflict of interest when he submitted the letter last March, but said he did not use the journal’s disclosure form. He added that his primary concern is that the editors didn’t reach out to him to discuss the issue prior to retracting the letter.
A journal retracted a paper about how conflicts of interest might be influencing research into the link between vaccines and autism because — wait for it — the authors failed to disclose conflicts of interest.
According to the retraction notice, the editors retracted the paper without the authors’ agreement, because the authors had a host of personal and professional interests in the field they didn’t declare, such as being associated with organizations involved in autism and vaccine safety. What’s more, the article also contained “a number of errors, and mistakes of various types that raise concerns about the validity of the conclusion.”
When examining the roles of conflicts of interest in academic publishing, most research focuses ontransparency around the payments authors receive. But what about journal editors? According to a newPeer J preprint, two-thirds of editors at prominent journals received some type of industry payment over the last few years – which, at many journals, editors are never required to disclose. (The findings echo those reported byanother recent paper in The BMJ, published six days later.) We spoke withVictoria Wong at The Queens Medical Center in Hawaii, first author of the Peer J preprint.
Retraction Watch: In studies of academic integrity, most people concentrate on the authors who submit to journals, and on the articles published by journals, as a way to assess the integrity of science publications. What drew your attention to the individual editors and their possible influence on the process?
A computer science journal has retracted two papers, after discovering “a conflict of interest between the handling editor and one of the authors.”
Matt Hodgkinson, head of research integrity at Hindawi Limited, which publishes the journal Scientific World Journal, told us that the conflict of interest stemmed from the fact that Zheng Xu, an author on both papers, and Xiangfeng Luo, the handling editor on the papers, were “frequent collaborators.”
Xu—who is based at The Third Research Institute of Ministry of Public Security in Shanghai—and Luo—a professor in the School of Computer Engineering and Science at Shanghai University—have co-authored dozens of papers together, including several that were cited in the now-retracted articles. Luo also told us that Xu was his former PhD student.
Take this case: In a court transcript from Feb. 23, 2017, Bryan Hardin testified that he was a peer reviewer on a 2016 paper in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, which found that asbestos does not increase the risk of cancer. In the deposition, Hardin—who works at the consulting firmVeritox—also said that he has testified in asbestos litigation on behalf of automakers, such as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, but said he had not disclosed these relationships to the journal.
Last year, the first author of the 2016 review withdrew a paper from another journal (by the same publisher) which concluded asbestos roofing products are safe, following several criticisms — including not disclosing the approving editor’s ties to the asbestos industry. In this latest case, the journal told us it believes the review process for the paper was up to snuff, but two outside experts we consulted said they believed Hardin’s relationships — and failure to disclose them — should give the journal pause.
We obtained a copy of the transcript from Christian Hartley, who was representing a man suing a mining company because the man developed cancer after being exposed to asbestos at work. When Hartley asked Hardin whether he had told the journal about testifying for companies involved in asbestos litigation, Hardin responded:
When authors are faced with filling out a journal’s conflict of interest form, deciding what qualifies as a relevant conflict can be tricky. When such omissions come to light, only rarely do they result in retractions – and certainly not author bans. But there are exceptions.
In October, the journal Chest retracted a 2015 review article exploring how mechanical ventilation can be used most effectively to manage acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) after finding that the authors failed “to disclose all relevant conflicts of interest.” What’s more, the journal initially planned to ban the two authors with undisclosed conflicts from submitting papers to the journal for three years, but ultimately decided against it.
The Committee on Publication Ethics says that retractions may be warranted in cases of undisclosed conflicts of interest, but in our experience, most notices that cite that reason mention other problems with the paper, as well. Not this case – here, the only thing that seemed wrong with the paper was the authors’ failure to mention their ties to a ventilator company. The authors requested a correction – the usual fix, one accepted by the other journals they contacted – but to Chest, that wasn’t enough.