Satire in scholarly publishing
Case text (Anonymised)
An intentional satire of a randomised controlled trial was published in a journal. In addition to multiple overt clues that the article was fake in the text, the article ended with a clear and direct statement in the acknowledgments that it was satire.
Investigators conducting a systematic review on the topic inadvertently included the satire article in their review as a legitimate manuscript, including generating a table based on some of the ‘data’ from the satirical article. This systematic review was eventually published in another journal. The authors of the satirical article saw the published systematic review and immediately contacted the editor of the journal in which it appeared to explain the situation. The editor of the other journal blamed the authors of the satirical article for the situation and demanded that they apologise to the authors of the systematic review and retract the original satirical article. The editor’s argument was that there is no room for ‘nonsense’ in scholarly publishing, and that such articles take publication space away from real scientific articles that could be published in their place.
The authors of the satirical article responded that there has always been a place for humour in scholarly publishing, and several established medical journals regularly publish satire. They commented that the authors of the systematic review failed to thoroughly read the satirical article and did not fulfil their scholarly responsibility in performing the review.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Does the publication of satire in a scholarly journal usurp space that should be reserved for legitimate investigations?
• Is the journal that published the satirical article at fault when authors performing a systematic review do not thoroughly read and vet the articles they cite?
• Is it reasonable for the other journal editor to request the retraction of the satirical article?
The Forum noted that it is up to individual editors or publishers to decide what they publish, and if publishing these types of articles is a valuable use of their page budget. Editors should not be told by other editors or journals what they can and cannot include in their journal. Hence it is not reasonable for the other journal editor to request retraction of the satirical article. There are no grounds for retraction.
The Forum agreed that there should not be editorial censorship but journals and publishers have an obligation to tag satirical articles clearly. They need to be appropriately and responsibly flagged up as such. A view expressed was that in this era of “fake news”, editors have an increased responsibility to ensure that the scientific record is not corrupted and co-opted, and that satire does not end up having unintended consequences on public discourse, including development of public policy. It was suggested that the metadata should also be tagged so that a machine can quickly understand that this is satire. This is especially relevant in terms of text mining ecosystems so that anyone designing a study would have a very easy means of filtering out articles that have been tagged as satire.
From a legal standpoint, journals need to meet a reasonable standard of not being misleading. If the article is clearly marked, with clear headings, and no suggestion this is proper research, then the reader has a responsibility to read things carefully.
The authors of the systematic review are at fault for not carrying out their methodology correctly and should have read the paper properly. The journal that published the systematic review needs to take steps to correct the systematic review.
The journal did not retract the article and agreed with the Forum that the onus was on the researchers to read the paper, which clearly indicated that it was satire.
The journal will take the Forum’s other recommendations into consideration on future articles of this type (eg, ensuring metadata indicate that it is satire in addition to noting in the article type and within the article itself).
The editor considers the case closed.