Saturday, 13 March 2021

Time for publishers to consider the rights of readers as well as authors


I've just been reading this piece entitled: "Publication ethics: Barriers in resolving figure corrections" by Lataisia Jones, on the website of the American Society for Microbiology, which publishes several journals.  Microbiology is a long way from my expertise and interests, but I have been following the work of Elisabeth Bik, datasleuth extraordinaire, for some time - see here. As Bik points out, the responses (or more often lack of response) she gets when she raises concerns about papers are similar to those seen in other fields where whistleblowers try to flag up errors  (e.g. this Australian example). 

It's clear that there are barriers to correcting the scientific record when errors are identified, and so I was pleased to see a piece tackling this head-on, which attempts to explain why responses by journals and publishers often appear to be so slow and unsatisfactory. However, I felt the post, missed some key points that need to be taken seriously by publishers and editors. 

The post starts by saying that: "Most figure concerns are created out of error and may present themselves in the form of image duplication, splicing and various figure enhancements." I think we need to have that "most" clarified in the form of a percentage. Yes, of course, we all make mistakes, but many of the issues flagged up by Bik are not the kinds of error made by someone going "oops" as they prepare their figures. I felt that on the one hand it is crucial to be aware that many papers are flawed because they contain honest errors, but that fact should not lead us to conclude that most cases of problematic images are of this kind. At least, not until there is hard evidence on that point. 

The post goes on to document the stages that are gone through when an error has been flagged up, noting in particular these guidelines produced by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). First, the author is contacted. "Since human error is a common reason behind published figure concerns, ASM remains mindful and vigilant while investigating to prevent unnecessarily tarnishing a researcher’s reputation. Oftentimes, the concern does not proceed past the authors, who tend to be extremely responsive." So here again, Jones emphasises human error as a "common reason" for mistakes in figures, and also describes authors as "extremely responsive". And here again, I suggest some stastistics on both points would be of considerable interest. 

Jones explains that this preliminary step may take a long time when several years have elapsed between publication and the flagging up of concerns. The authors may be hard to contact, and the data may no longer be available. Assuming the authors give a satisfactory response, what happens next depends on whether the error can be corrected without changing the basic results or conclusions. If so, then a Correction is published. Interestingly, Jones says nothing about what happens if an honest error does change the basic results or conclusions. I think many readers would agree that in that case there should be a retraction, but I sense a reluctance to accept that, perhaps because Jones appears to identify retraction with malpractice. 

She describes the procedure followed by ASM if the authors do not have a satisfactory response: the problem is passed on to the authors' institution for investigation. As Jones points out, this can be an extended process, as it may require identification of old data, and turn into an inquiry into possible malpractice. Such enquiries often move slowly because the committee members responsible for this work are doing their investigations on top of their regular job. And, as Jones notes: "Additionally, multiple figure concerns and multiple papers take longer to address and recovering the original data files could take months alone." So, the institution feeds back its conclusions (typically after months or possibly years), which may return us to the point where it is decided a Correction is appropriate. But, "If the figure concerns are determined to have been made intentionally or through knowingly manipulating the data, the funding agencies are notified." And yet another investigation starts up, adding a few more months or years to the process. 

So my reading of this is that if the decision to make a Correction is not reached, the publisher and journal at this point hand all responsibility over to other agencies - the institution and the funders. The post by Jones at no point mentions the conditions that need to be met for the paper to actually be retracted (in which case it remains in the public domain but with a retraction notice) or withdrawn (in which case it is removed). Indeed, the word 'retract' does not appear at all in her piece. 

What else is missing from all of this? Any sense of responsibility to other researchers and the general public. A peer-reviewed published article is widely regarded as a credible piece of work. It may be built on by other researchers, who assume they can trust the findings. Its results may be used to inform treatment of patients or, in other fields, public policy. Leaving an erroneous piece of work in a peer-reviewed journal without any indication that concerns have been raised is rather like leaving a plate of cookies out for public consumption, when you know they may be contaminated. 

Ethical judgements by publishers need to consider their readers, as well as their authors. I would suggest they should give particularly high priority to published articles where concerns have not been adequately addressed by authors, and which also have been cited by others. The more citations, the greater the urgency to act, as citations spawn citations, with the work achieving canonical status in some cases. In addition, if there are multiple papers by the same author with concerns, surely this should be treated as a smoking gun, rather than an excuse for why it takes years to act.

It should not be necessary to wait until institutions and funders have completed investigations into possible malpractice. Malpractice is actually a separate issue here: the key point for readers of the journal is whether the published record is accurate. If it is inaccurate - either due to honest error or malpractice - the work should be retracted, and there is plenty of precedent for retraction notices to specify the reason for retraction. This also applies to the situation where there is a realistic concern about the work (such as manipulated figures or internally inconsistent data) and the author cannot produce the raw data that would allow for the error to be identified and corrected. In short, it should be up to the author to ensure that the work is transparent and reproducible. Retaining erroneous work in a journal is not a neutral act. It pollutes the scientific literature and ignores the rights of readers not to be misled or misinformed.

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