FORUM DISCUSSION TOPIC: comments please

EXPRESSIONS OF CONCERN

Expressions of concern are “used to raise awareness to a possible problem in an article” (Council of Science Editors, 2012). They are a relatively new, rare, and non-standardized type of editorial notice compared to corrections or retractions and “considerable differences in policy and practice remain between journals” (Vaught et al., 2017).

The COPE Retraction Guidelines describe when journals could use expressions of concern. For example, editors should consider an expression of concern if:
•  they receive inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors
•  there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case
•  they believe that an investigation into alleged misconduct related to the publication either has not been, or would not be, fair and impartial or conclusive
•  an investigation is underway but a judgement will not be available for a considerable time

COPE advises that expressions of concern should be linked to the article and state the reasons for the concern. If more evidence becomes available the expression of concern could be replaced by a retraction notice or an exonerating statement, depending on the outcome.

However, journals are grappling with when expressions of concern are appropriate and what happens if the concerns are later found not to be valid. Publishing an expression of concern prematurely when evidence is inconclusive might not be fair to the authors and some investigations are confidential. In addition, while expressions of concerns are usually about errors or potential misconduct, some notices are about the reception or interpretation of an article (for example, the note on Porter and Jick, 1980) or authorship disputes when the accuracy of the accounts of the different parties cannot be resolved.

COPE invites discussion on this topic, including the following questions:

1. What are the barriers to using them?
2. Are the situations described in the Retraction Guidelines the only ones in which an expression of concern can be used? In particular, may the reception of the article or disagreement about authorship justify an expression of concern?
3. If an expression of concern is removed because the concerns were not valid, should the original text remain available and how should the removal be indicated? Using the term “retraction” might cause confusion.
4. If the article is later retracted, should the expression of concern remain or be removed?
5. What affects the decision to publish an expression of concern when there is inconclusive evidence?
6. Should interim expressions of concern be distinguished from those intended to be final?
7. Should journals wait for an institutional investigation to become delayed or inconclusive, or could expressions of concern be published earlier?
8. When might a journal retract the article instead of publishing an expression of concern if there is evidence that findings are unreliable but no investigation will be conducted?
9. What is the best name for this type of notice? Publisher’s note and editorial note are among the alternatives.

References

Correcting the Literature, CSE’s White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications, 2012 Update https://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policies/white-paper-on-publication-ethics/3-5-correcting-the-literature/#351

Vaught M, Jordan DC, Bastian H. (2017). Concern noted: a descriptive study of editorial expressions of concern in PubMed and PubMed Central. Research Integrity and Peer Review 2:10 DOI:10.1186/s41073-017-0030-2

Porter J, Jick H. (1980). Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics. New England Journal of Medicine 302 (2): 123–123 DOI:10.1056/NEJM198001103020221

This will be discussed at the start of the next COPE Forum on Monday 26 February. Please do leave any comments below, whether or not you are planning on joining the meeting
 

Comments are reviewed and, on approval, added below.

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Comments

  • Posted by Charon Pierson, 22/2/2018 7.14pm

I believe the term expression of concern is a poor choice for conveying what this type of notice could or should cover. Concern implies something is wrong, yet often the problem is merely a question that has yet to be resolved. I think editors wait a long time to use this mechanism because they are not certain of the concern, but rather they are awaiting further information. So rather than post an EoC, they will wait for the outcome of any investigations, further data analysis, or resolution of authorship or reviewer disputes. If we could post an editor's note, we could alert readers to the issue early and resolve the note as quickly with another editor's note stating the outcome. The fact that the EoC information currently resides within the retraction guidelines is another deterrent. It is perceived as a "mini-retraction."

  • Posted by Nancy Chescheir, 23/2/2018 3.53pm

1. What are the barriers to using them?
I agree with Charon's notes above regarding barriers--may seem premature; can be construed as a sledge hammer approach to small problem given potential for stigma; lack of clarity around lifting the EoC.

2. Are the situations described in the Retraction Guidelines the only ones in which an expression of concern can be used? In particular, may the reception of the article or disagreement about authorship justify an expression of concern?

I think authorship issues would be a good use for these, particularly when someone requests a change in authorship after publication. There are red flags with that which may not justify anything more than clarification.
3. If an expression of concern is removed because the concerns were not valid, should the original text remain available and how should the removal be indicated? Using the term “retraction” might cause confusion.

I would recommend that instead of retraction that "lifting" may be a better choice. The original text should be removed if the concerns are invalid.

4. If the article is later retracted, should the expression of concern remain or be removed?
I think it should be removed and let the higher level statement remain. No reason to have 2 statements.

5. What affects the decision to publish an expression of concern when there is inconclusive evidence?
The severity of the concern would be one thing. If its a major issue, I would want to flag it. In addition, as noted above, if the institutional response seems like its going to take a very long tim.

6. Should interim expressions of concern be distinguished from those intended to be final?
Not sure I have an opinion. I think this question raises a point of confusion for me--In my mind, the EoC mechanism is primarily interim. I would thinjk the issue would either be resolved (and the EoC removed) or affirmed and then a stronger statement replaces it.

7. Should journals wait for an institutional investigation to become delayed or inconclusive, or could expressions of concern be published earlier?
See above.

8. When might a journal retract the article instead of publishing an expression of concern if there is evidence that findings are unreliable but no investigation will be conducted?
If not investigation to be conducted over a problem, then I would retract it. The author should advocate for clearance of her or his article by what ever institution would do that.
9. What is the best name for this type of notice? Publisher’s note and editorial note are among the alternatives.
A publishers note and editorial note seem to me would be two different thing given they would come from 2 different bodies. I think using the word "alert" may be better than Expression of Concern. Maybe something like "editorial (or publisher) alert". That doesn't imply concern, which as Charon notes, which implies that something is wrong.

I will try to be on the webinar; have registered but I am seeing patients during the session.

  • Posted by Vivienne Bachelet, 26/2/2018 4.48pm

Up to now we have been talking about going back to the "institution", being this a university. What if the author/s of an article with an expression of concern belong to other types of organizations? Like hospitals, or private consultant firms, etc.