An accusation of racism

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Case text (Anonymised)

An article on the community based diagnosis of a common disease was submitted. The journal had never received a paper from this particular country before. The diagnostic test used in the study is known to have a low sensitivity and is not the accepted gold standard. The editors felt that as the author was a senior academic, it was likely that his/her institution would be one of the few in the country to be able to afford the gold standard test. They asked an associate editor, an acknowledged authority in this area, to look at the paper and comment on its suitability for publication. S/he recommended outright rejection, a decision with which the editors agreed. Shortly afterwards the author wrote to refute the decision, claiming that the study was one of the few from that particular region and that all the participants were from the traditional ethnic community. “The outright rejection of the article only shows that though the [publishing group] claims to be international in its outlook, it is not interested in studies from diverse cultures and societies.” S/he claimed that their study would have been given a better chance if it had been about a white community. About 25% of the articles published in the journal are international. Additionally, the journal publishes lower priority “global” pieces online only. But the journal’s rejection rates for non-UK papers were higher. The author also said that the editors had caused further offence by sending the email to a home address. But the author’s work email address did not work, prompting emails from the journal’s editorial office to repeatedly bounce back. The editors responded immediately, saying that they found the inferred accusation of racism offensive. They promised to refer the manuscript to the Journal’s ombudsman and to COPE. They invited the author to clarify and expand on his/her statements. S/he did not respond to this offer. The ombudsman agreed that the test used was notoriously insensitive. He wrote in his assessment: “Now that we have far more sensitive assays for detection of this condition it has become clear that it under reports the prevalence of the condition by a large margin. This view can be confirmed from most reviews in the literature relating to detection of this condition. In my view as journal ombudsman I believe the reviewing process to have been fair and accurate.” These comments were forwarded to the lead author. How should the editors respond now? Should the publishing group respond to this inferred accusation of racism?


- It is difficult to refute an accusation of racism. - Some journals automatically send out for review any papers where a challenge had been made about a rejection. -- But this has to be balanced against using reviewers’ time if a paper is truly poor. - Work originating from developing countries can often be unoriginal and of the “me too” variety. - The editors’ actions had been sound and had complied with good practice. - Tell the author that the journal does have a policy of encouraging scientifically sound international papers, and that the paper received due process. - Tell the author that the paper had been rejected on scientific grounds only, and that the journal had adhered to its procedures and principles, which had been confirmed by an independent ombudsman. Copy in COPE on the letter sent to the author.