When to conclude correspondence from reader about errors in a published article
Case text (Anonymised)
A reader, Dr A, wrote to the editors explaining a number of concerns she had with some of the figures in a paper published in the journal. The editors sought the advice of an associate editor with more expertise in the subspecialty of the paper. The associate editor concurred with Dr A’s opinion of the paper and the authors were invited to respond. After some back and forth correspondence, the authors agreed with the editors that an erratum should be published containing the revised figures.
Out of courtesy, the erratum was sent to Dr A, who replied stating that she did not feel the erratum to be adequate and voicing more concerns about the modified figures. After further lengthy back and forth discussion with the authors and Dr A, the editors decided that the erratum should first be published and that Dr A should write a formal letter for publication in the journal expressing her concerns about the paper, with the authors then being given the right of reply to this letter.
Dr A duly wrote a letter but the nature of the concerns she raised has led the editors to conclude that this approach might never resolve the matter, and that the issue should best be handled by correspondence directly between Dr A and authors. The editors have therefore decided that the matter should be formally closed in public by publishing the erratum, and that any subsequent discussion should be handled privately between Dr A and the authors. The erratum has not yet been published.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Have the editors handled the situation reasonably?
• Could the editors have handled it differently?
• How might the journal prepare for dealing with similar situations in the future?
The Forum questioned the decision by the journal to invite Dr A to write a formal letter to the editor. It may have been more useful for the editor to make it clear to Dr A that any letter to the editor would go through the normal peer review process.
If concerns are raised by a reader, the usual approach would be to contact the authors regarding these concerns and to determine whether there are errors, and hence an erratum is needed, or if there is just a difference of opinion. If the latter is the case, the editor could suggest that Dr A submit a comment on the paper, which would go through the normal peer review process, with the authors given the chance to submit a reply. The comment and reply can then be published in the journal. In this way, the full discussion on the article is in the journal, giving clarity to the reader and enabling them to draw their own conclusions.
Some journals have a stated policy that allows no more than one letter to the editor from one specific reader on any one particular article, to avoid ongoing dialogue.
The journal took the following actions:
1. They proceeded with the course of action previously described, writing to Dr A and the authors to let them know that the journal would first publish the erratum and then one exchange of correspondence between Dr A and the authors. The editor made it clear that this concluded the matter as far as the journal was concerned and that any subsequent exchange of correspondence should take place privately between Dr A and the authors.
2. The journal added the following statement to their editorial policy on items of correspondence: “Only one letter may be submitted by any single author or group of authors on any one published paper”.