Digging into the hole

I want to share this story, this has just reached a crazy level of absurdity. Long story short: the name of a colleague of mine was forgotten on a paper, and it took more than a year to realize it. When he did so, my colleague wanted to correct that mistake. It was not a shift-of-paradigm kind of paper, but we academics like to keep the record straight, don’t we? It turned out to be an interesting experience. Oh, by the way, this is a journal published by Elsevier. Just saying.

It is quite unusual (or at least I hope so) to forget authors name on a paper, but here it was a genuine mistake. The corresponding author provided the following explanations:

In short words, a first draft of the paper was made about 3 years ago with all 6 names as authors. The original paper was never published and forgotten for more than one year. A brand new one was written from the initiative of the first author with the help of the other 3 published names. Although the authors to be included (XX and YY) did not take part of the final organisation and writing of the published paper, they made a significant contribution respectively to the execution and discussion of the reported study in its very first version.

As all the authors agreed to correct the record, the corresponding author of the published paper contacted the editor in chief of the journal, and his request was denied by both the editor in chief and the journal manager (some kind of admin people at Elsevier)(this involved several email exchanges). Adding authors to a published paper as a Corrigendum is an unusual procedure but it is well described in Elsevier’s publication policy (emphasis is mine):

Corrigendum refers to changes the author wants to introduce post-acceptance, at any time thereafter, during the publication processes or post-publication.”

After the accepted manuscript has been published in an online issue: Any requests to add, delete or rearrange author names in an article published in an online issue will follow the same policies as noted above and may result in a corrigendum.”

“May”, mark that word.  Appending new names to an author’s list is definitely not common, but not unaware of either. If there seem to be no legitimate reason for it, or if the reason sounds dodgy, I could understand the editor in chief to deny this request. But here there is apparently a legitimate reason and all authors agreed. Nevertheless, the editor just declined to do it. With no further reason, even when pressed to provide one.

So much about serving the research community. Here is the final email my colleague send to the journal manager and the editor in chief, FYI.

Dear XX,

I do appreciate you taking the time to reply. However, I must say that you did not supply an acceptable explanation.

The point you make is quite clearly that you claim to have the right to decide whether or not you will publish the corrigendum. Which, for the moment, let’s say you actually do. The point I will try to make is that you have no discernible reason to support your decision.

A mistake was made, the people who made it assumed it and took the necessary measures to make it right. You, however, chose to ignore them and reiterate the error. In doing so, you are actively denying me of what is my right as an legitimate author to be recognized as such. For what reason? Is it honestly just because you may? And even if you think you do, do you not recognize the difference in having the right to do something, and being right in doing so?

I thought your organization was founded on an relationship of mutual trust and respect between the authors and the publisher. I think you are not respecting this agreement. In fact, by denying the express wishes and unanimous accord of the authors that trusted you with their work for publication, you are very much doing the exact opposite: You are taking it upon yourself to decide who is recognized in the works that you publish. Does this seem reasonable to you? Which brings me to your interpretation of the journal’s Ethics.

“After the accepted manuscript has been published in an online issue: Any requests to add, delete or rearrange author names in an article published in an online issue will follow the same policies as noted above and may result in a corrigendum.”

You claim this grants you the right to decide who gets authorial recognition for the work this journal publishes, even if your opinion is contrary to those who in deed executed the work. I assume you take the word may to mean something like possibly. I refer you to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary definition of the word may: “shall, must —used in law where the sense, purpose, or policy requires this interpretation”. I will let you verify for yourself that the alternative definitions will not contradict the one here cited.

In conclusion, I take your actions to be frankly unacceptable. I lack the capacity to understand what you claim to be an explanation. I could have never imagined that one day I would have the Journal Manager of a scientific publication deciding who are the legitimately recognized authors of the work they publish. And I cannot get myself to understand: why on earth would you refuse the corrigendum? What have you to lose? Are the consequences you are trying to avoid really worse than correcting an error that nobody would never even claim you responsible for? It baffles me.

In the future, I will make sure to voice my extreme disappointment with the handling of this regretful situation. And I will share this story as yet another explanation for the scientific community’s growing distrust of Elsevier’s sense of publication ethics. Somehow, I am pretty sure I won’t be the only one.

Sincerely,

As of today, no answer. I love you, Elsevier. Not. What you find when you start scrapping the varnish is definitely interesting. Anyone with a similar story ?

6 thoughts on “Digging into the hole

  1. Let’s try a simple two-step argument. COPE says: “If your name is omitted by accident, and the other authors agree, then the journal may publish a correction.” (http://publicationethics.org/files/u2/2003pdf12.pdf). Elsevier says “In January 2008 all Elsevier-published journals became members of COPE” (http://www.elsevier.com/editors/perk/about-cope).

    And yes, it’s “may”, not “should”… but the case is pretty clear. This is, to me, a very weird decision by the editor-in-chief.

  2. There is a total lack of accountability in academic publishing. This kind of terrible experience should be shared with the community at large, so well done for getting this out on the net! At Bangor University we’ve produced an Open Access platform for you to share experiences like this in one place so that people can read about this before they choose to submit their manuscripts to this journal. Visit http://www.journalysis.org for more info.

  3. Pingback: Weekend reads: How much can one scientist publish? And more stem cell misconduct | Retraction Watch

  4. A story with several points in common:

    It was reported the duplication of data among two journals from ELSEVIER:
    – Experimental and Molecular Pathology (EXPM)
    – Pathology – Research and Practice

    Two figures are exactly the same: Figure 2 of both papers and Figure 4 of both papers. Figures can be found in the following links:

    After some weeks, the editor of EXPM e-mailed me to ask for my address, credentials and personal data. He said that this info was necessary to proceed with the case. I told him that it was better for me to not provide too much information (just in case). Some weeks later, a corrigendum appeared for the EXPM paper:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014480014000070

    “Correction
    The authors express regret for their oversight in failing to cite one of their earlier papers that presented a preliminary result of data submitted in the Experimental and Molecular Pathology manuscript. The previously published results in Pathology — Research and Practice are related data that are necessary for an understanding of the original results included in the Experimental and Molecular Pathology manuscript. The authors maintain that the preliminary data were included to facilitate comprehension of the primary results of the Experimental and Molecular Pathology paper. Although both papers were in press simultaneously, in two separate journals, the authors failed to cite the Pathology — Research and Practice paper as they did not have complete citation
    information at the time the first paper was published. The authors sincerely regret their failure to recognize that some type of notation, such as Rocha, et al. in press PRP, 2011, or a d.o.i. reference from PubMed to the earlier paper should have been made. The missing reference, “Neto JC, Carvalho K, Olivieri E, et al., 2011. Evaluation of O6-methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase by immunohistochemistry: Best clinical and research practices. Pathology Research and Practice 207, 492–497”, should be included in the Results section, at the end of the 3rd and 4th paragraphs. Furthermore, the authors also want to correct the legends of Figures 2 and 3. In Figure 2, instead of “MGMT expression by RT-PCT in 59 tumor samples compared with normal breast”, the text should read “MGMT expression by RT-PCT in 59 tumor samples compared with normal breast, which is normalized at value 1”. In Figure 3, instead of “PTEN expression by RT-PCT in 59 tumor samples compared with normal breast”, the text should read “PTEN expression by RT-PCT in 59 tumor samples compared with normal breast, which is normalized at value 1”.
    The authors would like to apologize for any inconvenience caused.”

    Two parts are rather interesting:
    1) “Although BOTH PAPERS WERE IN PRESS SIMULTANEOUSLY, in two separate journals, the authors failed to cite the Pathology — Research and Practice paper as they did not have complete citation information at the time the first paper was published.”
    My comment: The authors probably signed the declaration that the same results are not being sent for consideration by another journal, however, in the corrigendum they stated that the declaration was actually ignored. Why did the editors allow that? Conflict of interest?

    2) “The authors express regret for their oversight in failing to cite one of their earlier papers that presented a PRELIMINARY result of data submitted in

    the Experimental and Molecular Pathology manuscript. The
    previously published results in Pathology — Research and Practice are related data that are necessary for an understanding of the original results included in the Experimental and Molecular Pathology manuscript.”
    “The authors maintain that the PRELIMINARY DATA WERE INCLUDED to facilitate comprehension of the primary results of the Experimental and Molecular Pathology paper.”
    My comment: the authors are declaring that they published PRELIMINARY RESULTS/DATA. It seems that it is ok for the editors of EXPM and PRP (and thus for
    Elsevier?).

    In this case, the editors of an ELSEVIER’s journal published the corrigendum to help the authors explain their mistakes…

    I would like to know your opinion about this. Am I wrong? Sometimes, journals make me think that there is a good explanation that I’m not seeing for cases of bad published science like this.

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