A letter to the editor was submitted to a journal with a comment referring to a study published a year previously. The reader raised concerns about the study and interpretation of the results. The editors of the journal examined the peer review comments of the manuscript and found that the aspects in question were missed out. The journal sought expert advice from an independent reviewer who commented that the article's results and conclusion conveyed the wrong message with respect to the study design and interpretation of the results.
The editor wrote to the corresponding author of the article asking for clarifications on the concerns raised by the reader and the comments provided by the expert reviewer. The corresponding author replied promptly but provided no explanation. Rather, they referred to the instructions to authors on the journal website which states that comments on published articles must be submitted within three months and will be published alongside a reply from the original author. The journal policy section has a similar statement but without a time period. The corresponding author replied that no concerns or objections should be considered by the journal as the time period for submission of comments had passed.
A second letter was sent to the corresponding author, drawing their attention to the fact that it was not just a matter of a concern raised by a reader, but a serious issue with the interpretation of the results which could mislead other researchers. The editor feels the article needs to be corrected, and action must be taken, which may be a correction notice, an erratum, or retraction of the article, depending on the nature and intensity of the error.
Questions to the Forum
- Is there a time limit for considering critiques/comments by a journal on published research?
- Is there a time interval after publication for retracting an article or issuing a notice of concern?
The Forum noted that it may be appropriate to set a time limit for submission and publication of comments or rejoinder pieces to published articles, but concerns about the integrity and research presented in articles can arise any time, and it is always ethical for journals to investigate them. For example, eventual retraction of the flawed MMR paper by The Lancet took more than 10 years after the original publication. Another journal had a paper retracted 25 years after publication when it became apparent that full informed patient consent was not obtained by the author.
This case does not appear to be about comments submitted that will be published alongside a reply from the authors, as indicated in the journal policy, but rather a publication ethics case where there might be reasons to retract the paper.
The editor needs to decide if the paper needs to be retracted. Are the concerns raised sufficiently serious to warrant retraction? If the editor thinks the paper should be retracted, they should follow the due process for retracting a paper and begin an investigation. While going through this process, the editor might want to hold off on publishing any letters or commentary on the article. If retracting the article, the journal might wish to refer to the COPE Retraction Guidelines. If an author is obstructive or unresponsive, the journal can still take the appropriate action.
The Forum advised that the editor should treat the letter or commentary separate from what they do about the article itself. These are separate processes, although they could be aligned. The commentary could be published before or after the retraction, for example. The COPE Retraction Guidelines state that “If a letter or commentary that has been submitted for publication raises serious concerns about an article, an editor should not wait for a decision on publication of the letter or commentary to consider whether the article may also need to be retracted (or whether an expression of concern is needed).” The Forum suggested contacting the institution and asking them to intervene and investigate the issue. If the article is retracted, the retraction notice should be clear that it is the journal that is retracting the article, and that the authors have been unresponsive. The retraction notice should also summarise any actions taken by the institution if they have responded.
The author may argue why the issue was not picked up during the peer review process, but this is irrelevant. The editor can express regret about the failure of the peer review system, but say that action is necessary. Once concerns are raised about a published paper, editors are ethically bound to act on them.
The case was discussed again by the editorial board following the suggestions and advice given by the COPE Forum. A final decision was taken to post a note of concern on the article on the journal website and on the abstract published on Pubmed.