Step Up, Editors

What’s behind paper retractions? (9)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 03/2012

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

It’s time for journal editors to stop acting as if they have no power!

As gatekeepers to the vault of scientific information, journal editors would seem to be in positions of enormous power over authors. So, why do they so often allow themselves to be played like a fiddle?

Consider the way the journal Cytokine dealt with a paper whose authors couldn’t agree on the wording of a retraction notice. The protracted dispute, which was played out in the publication’s pages for several years, involved questions of authorship and the appropriate use of laboratory data that had either appeared already in another article or had been submitted to another journal.

The senior author wrote an initial retraction notice, which included the fact that he had not known about the paper before he saw his name on it in print. But when that appeared, the co-author, a graduate student in the lab, complained to the editors that the wording was prejudicial to his future career. To accommodate his concerns, the journal issued an erratum toning down the notice but the former student complained again – necessitating yet another retraction notice that, in the end, dismissed the whole affair as an “administrative” snafu.

Administrative error (on the part of the journal, that is) indeed! To be sure, authors of retracted articles ought to be given a chance to explain what went wrong, and even help shape the text of the notices that will run about their discredited work. But allowing the pages of a journal to become little better than a playground courtroom isn’t helpful to anyone, readers in particular.

There are worse examples. At the Journal of Neuroscience, editor John Maunsell told us that he will “retract an article at the authors’ request at any time without requiring explanation”. He does that, he said, because “authors are generally reluctant to retract articles, and we do not want to impose any requirements that could discourage authors from removing flawed articles from the literature”.

The problem, however, is that the journal had allowed Naoki Harada to publish one of those “no explanation” notices, even while he was under investigation. His university eventually found that he had committed misconduct in 19 papers and dismissed him. That means the Journal of Neuroscience gave him cover.

Maunsell is not alone. One of the editors of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry told us about a vague notice, “The purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail.”

At the very least, asking readers to follow the bouncing ball of errata and retraction notices is unreasonable. Beyond that, journals need to be seen as strong principals, not weak-kneed and indifferent enforcers of the rules of publishing. And one of those rules, surely, is that editors have the right to police their own pages as they see fit.

The ongoing saga of Yoshitaka Fujii, a Japanese anaesthesiologist believed to have committed fraud in as many as 193 papers, shows how high the stakes can be when editors don’t act decisively.

In 2000, several anaesthesiologists published a letter in Anesthesia & Analgesia effectively accusing Fujii of fabricating his results. Their attack included statistics indicating the impressively long odds against the researcher’s findings being real. The responsible editor, at the time, allowed Fujii to reply in the same issue, a response that reads like a rather long “says you”.

Had the journal acted more forcefully to investigate the matter, it might have prevented Fujii from publishing scores of additional studies over the following decade. It might even have barred him from publishing again in Anesthesia & Analgesia – but it did not; at least one other paper appeared in his name in the journal several years later.

Journal editors, who certainly seem to know how to use their muscle when wrestling big papers away from competing journals, like to throw up their hands and say they’re powerless when institutions won’t disclose the results of investigations.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Researchers need to publish and institutions need to see their scientists’ work in print. Journal editors really do have power. Luckily, there are good editor role models. Steven Shafer, current Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, as it turns out, has taken the bull by the horns on several occasions when authors under suspicion of misconduct were reluctant to retract. And Steve Goodman, editor of Experimental Biology and Medicine, has done the same.

Of course, we don’t mean to argue that journals should be arbitrary or autocratic. And we certainly aren’t suggesting that they fall back on inscrutable or anodyne retraction statements when authors can’t agree on the wording of such notices.

But in general, it’s time for editors to step up.

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 13.07.2012