A meta-analysis was published in a journal ahead of print, and then subsequently in print. Several months later, the journal was contacted by a faculty member at a university not connected with the study. The reader outlined three general concerns with the meta-analysis. The concerns were discussed by the editorial team, including the statistical editor, and it was decided that the overall results of the meta-analysis were not affected. The complainant persisted in the critique, which was relayed to the authors of the original article. The first author provided a detailed response to the issues raised; the journal did not request an erratum at that time.
A discussion followed between the complainant and the editorial office about the extent to which the issues raised were errors or ‘a matter of opinion’. One error was clear and was corrected by an erratum. In the journal’s view, the other issues raised were open to interpretation. The complainant was invited to write a letter to the editor, but they declined and persisted that an erratum should be published or that the journal should consider retracting the article.
Because some of the points of critique were of general interest to the field, and also in an effort to resolve the issue of the continued critique by the complainant, the journal decided to publish an editorial comment authored by the editor in chief and the statistical editor. The editorial comment paraphrased the complainant’s concerns and added a few additional considerations relevant to the interpretation of the meta-analyses. The complainant was given the opportunity to review the editorial comment and the journal also asked his permission to be acknowledged for bringing the issue to the journal’s attention. The complainant gave his feedback, which was incorporated, and also his permission to be acknowledged. The journal also gave the authors of the original article the opportunity to respond to the editorial comment. The authors wrote a scholarly response and also provided re-analyses of the data when excluding the contested studies. The editorial comment was published, together with the acknowledgment, the author’s response and the erratum.
Before the publication of the editorial comment, the journal held a conference call with the complainant. The complainant had published a paper on a related issue in the preceding year, but the study published in the journal was different from the previous meta-analyses from the complainant’s own group. This had not been disclosed to the journal previously. It became also clear that the complainant had not contacted the authors of the article to share his concerns, and the journal encouraged him to do so.
Subsequently, the complainant raised new issues with the original meta-analyses, which they discussed with the authors. The complainant insisted that an additional erratum was needed; the authors of the meta-analysis are now preparing a second erratum. The complainant was again invited to write a letter to the editor, and again declined.
The journal is concerned that the second erratum will not satisfy the complainant and that this issue will not end unless the journal agrees to retract the original article. The assessment of the journal is that there are insufficient grounds to retract this article. One of the complainant’s recent emails to the authors says that they will contact the authors’ university and colleagues and the funding agencies that support the work of this research group about the purported errors made by this team. The complainant has also requested that the journal involves the publisher’s "ethical committee dealing with the publication process".
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- What is a journal’s responsibility to minimise potential damage that readers can do to the reputation of the author where the reader disagrees with the editorial team and the authors of the original article on whether an error has been made versus a difference in opinion?
- What are the options for a journal to respond to (unreasonable) requests from readers regarding the content published in the journal and/or request to retract a paper if the editorial team considers the concern not sufficiently problematic to result in retraction?
- What could the editorial team have done to better respond to the reader’s concerns?
The Forum noted that although it is honourable to want to protect the authors from this complainant, it is not the journal’s responsibility. The editor has a responsibility to protect the scholarly record, and to publish errata or retractions, based on the data and peer review process of the journal. In this case, it would seem that this is becoming more of a matter of a personal vendetta between the complainant and the authors. The Forum suggested that the editor could consider contacting the authors’ institutions and asking them to investigate.
The Forum mentioned that often journals encounter individuals who are persistent—they raise one issue, the journal addresses and potentially corrects the issue, but the complainant is not satisfied and refuses to accept that the issue has resolved. All journals can do is follow due process: the journal should have a process, have documentation of having followed that process, be transparent, and keep good records. Ultimately, editors have the right to decide what they publish, and the editor's and publisher’s decision is final. Has the journal communicated this clearly to the complainant? The complainant requested that the journal involve the publishers’ ethics committee, so the editor might consider this option, if an ethics committee exists at the publisher.
These situations can be very difficult for journals, especially with a persistent complainant. If the journal has completed its due process and determined that the article stands, with or without an erratum, then due process has been done. If the complainant comes back with new concerns or issues that were not considered or were not covered by the prior assessment, that might be a reason to look at the article again. But if they are simply reiterating the issues that were raised previously, it is reasonable for the editor to say they have already considered those issues and that the case is closed.
What is the journal's responsibility to minimise damage? The journal’s responsibility is to the content of the article. What the reader does external to the journal cannot be managed by the journal.
Case discussion: repeated complaints about meta-analysis a COPE Council member adds to the discussion of this case with further analysis and guidance.