Saturday 11 June 2016
Editorial integrity: Publishers on the front line
Thanks to some live tweeting by Anna Sharman (@sharmanedit), I've become aware that the 13th Conference of the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) is taking place in Strasbourg this weekend.
The topic is "Scientific integrity: editors on the front line", and the programme acknowledges Elsevier, who presumably have contributed funding for the conference.
It therefore seems timely to give a brief update of developments following three blogposts I wrote during February-March 2015, documenting some peculiar editorial behaviour at four journals: Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD: Elsevier), Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD: Elsevier), Developmental Neurorehabilitation (DN: Informa Healthcare) and Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities (JDPD: Springer).
To do the story full justice, you need to read these blogposts, but in brief, blogpost 1 described how Johnny Matson, the then editor of both RASD and RIDD had published numerous articles in his own journal, and engaged in frequent self-citation, leading to his receiving a 'highly cited' badge from Thomson Reuters. In the comments on that blogpost, another intriguing factor emerged, which was Matson's tendency to accept papers with little or no review. This was denied by Elsevier, despite clear evidence of very short acceptance lags that were incompatible with review.
Blogpost 2 was prompted by Matson defending himself against accusations of self-citation by pointing out that he published in journals that he did not edit. I checked this out and found he had numerous papers in two other journals: DN and JDPD, and that the median lag between a paper of his being submitted and accepted in DN was one day. (JDPD does not provide data on publication lags). I therefore looked at the editors of those journals, and found that they themselves were publishing remarkable numbers of papers in RASD and RIDD, again with extremely short publication lags. A trio of editors and editorial board members (Jeff Sigafoos, Giulio Lancioni and Mark O'Reilly), co-authored no less than 140 papers in RASD and RIDD between 2010 and 2014, typically with acceptance times of less than 2 weeks. Some of the papers in RIDD were not even in the topic area of developmental disabilities, but covered neurological conditions acquired in adulthood.
In blogpost 3, I turned the focus on to the publisher of RASD and RIDD, Elsevier, to query why they had not done anything about such irregular editorial practices. I did a further analysis of publication lags in RIDD, showing that they had dropped precipitately between 2008 and 2012, and that there was a small band of authors whose prolific papers were published there at amazing speed. I provided all the statistical data to support my case, including interactive spreadsheets that made it easy to determine which editors and authors had been benefiting from the slack editorial standards at these journals.
There was some interesting fall-out from all of this. The second blogpost drew fire from supporters of the editors I had "outed", accusing me of bad behaviour and threatening to complain to my university. Since everything I had said was backed by evidence, this did not concern me. I received heartfelt messages of support from people who were appalled that a particular approach to autism intervention had been promoted by this group of editors, who were in effect using their status to gain the veneer of scientific credibility for work which was not in fact peer-reviewed. I was also contacted by several academics telling me that everyone knew this had been going on for years, but nobody had done anything; this level of passivity was surprising given that many were angry that authors had reaped benefits from their staggeringly high publication rate, while those who were outside the charmed circle were left behind. I was urged to go further and raise my concerns with the universities employing those who were capitalising on, or engaging in, lax editorial behaviour. I do, however, have an extremely demanding job and I hoped that I had done enough by shining a light on dubious practices, and providing the full datasets that provided evidence. However, I now wonder if I should have been more pro-active.
I wrote to express my concerns to publishers of all four journals, and had my correspondence acknowledged. But then? Well, not a lot.
It's clear that Elsevier has taken some action. Indeed, my first blogpost was prompted by Michelle Dawson noting on Twitter that the editorial boards of RASD and RIDD had mysteriously disappeared from the online journals. She had previously noted Matson's pattern of mega-self-citation, and I had written directly to him, with copy to the publisher, some months previously to express concern, when I realised that I was listed as a member of the editorial board of RASD. Elsevier did not acknowledge my letter, but it is possible that the changes to the editorial boards that they had started were linked to my concerns.
The first direct response I had from Elsevier was some weeks after my final blogpost, when they explained that they were looking into the situation regarding unreviewed papers, but that this was a huge job and would take a long time. They were presumably disinclined to rely on the files that I had deposited on Open Science Framework, which show the identity and submission and acceptance data for every paper in RASD and RIDD. They did appoint new editors and a small group of associate editors for both journals, all with good track records for integrity.
I have heard on the grapevine that they are now evaluating articles published in those journals that have been identified as not having undergone peer review; some of those approached to do these evaluations have mentioned this to me. It's rather unclear how this is going to work, given that, across the two journals, there are nearly 1000 papers where the available data indicate a lag from receipt to acceptance of under 2 weeks. I guess we should be glad that at least the publisher is taking some action, albeit at a snail's pace, but I am dubious as to whether there will be any retractions.
Meanwhile, Developmental Neurorehabilitation changed publisher around the time I was writing, and is now under the care of Taylor and Francis. I wrote to the publisher explaining my concerns and received a polite reply, but then heard no more. I note that the Editor in Chief is now Wendy Machalicek, who previously co-edited the journal with Russell Lang. Lang's doctoral advisor was Mark O'Reilly, editor of JDPD, and one of the prolific trio who featured in blogpost 2. Lang himself co-authored 24 papers in RASD and 13 in RIDD, and 35 of these 39 papers were accepted within 2 weeks of receipt. Machalicek has published 11 papers in RASD and 5 in RIDD, and 12 of these 16 papers were accepted within 2 weeks of receipt. She also did her doctorate in O'Reilly's department, and several of her papers are co-authored with him. In an editorial last year, Lang and Machalicek announced changes to the journal, some of which seem to be prompted by a desire to make the reviewing process more rigorous under the new publisher. However, one change is of particular interest: the scope of the journal will be broadened to consider "developmental disability from a lifespan perspective; wherein, it is acknowledged that development occurs throughout a person's life and a range of injuries, diseases and other impairments can cause delayed or abnormal development at any stage of life." That will be good news for Giulio Lancioni, who was previously publishing papers on coma patients, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease in RIDD. He and his collaborators – Jeff Sigafoos, Mark O'Reilly, as well as Russell Lang and Johnny Matson – are all current members of the editorial board of the journal.
It seems to be business as usual at the Springer title, Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. Mark O'Reilly is still the editor, with Lang and Sigafoos as associate editors; Lancioni, Machalicek and Matson are all on the editorial board. Springer's willingness to turn a blind eye to editors playing the system becomes clear when one sees that a recent title, "Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders" has as Editor-in-Chief no less a personage than Johnny Matson. And, surprise, surprise, the editorial board includes Lang, Sigafoos and Lancioni.
One of the overarching problems I uncovered when navigating my way around this situation was that there is no effective route for a whistleblower who has uncovered evidence of dubious behaviour by editors. Elsevier has developed a Publishing Ethics Resource Kit but it is designed to help editors dealing with ethical issues that arise with authors and reviewers. The general advice if you encounter an ethical problem is to contact the editor. The Committee on Publication Ethics also issues guidance, but it is an advisory body with no powers. One would hope that publishers would act with integrity when a serious problem with an editor is revealed, but if my experience is anything to go by, they are extremely reluctant to act and will weave very large carpets to brush the problems under.