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Case discussion: repeated complaints about meta-analysis

Case: how to respond to a reader's repeated concerns

Summary

In this case, a reader contacted a journal, making several criticisms about a recently published meta-analysis. However, the editorial team and statistical editor concluded that the overall meta-analysis results were unaffected. Of the criticisms made, one pointed to an error in the article, but the others seemed more subjective. When invited to write a Letter to the Editor, the reader declined and recommended a correction or retraction. In response, the journal prepared an Editorial Comment that included issues raised by the reader, who offered feedback and agreed to be acknowledged. After being shown the comment, the authors of the meta-analysis submitted a formal response and a re-analysis as the basis for a correction.

As advised by the journal, the reader also directly contacted the authors, but then raised new issues and demanded a second correction. The reader subsequently asked the journal to involve its publisher’s ethics committee and told the authors that their university, colleagues, and funder would be informed of the purported errors. The editor was concerned that the reader would continue complaining until the journal agreed to a retraction.

Question(s) for the COPE Forum

  • What is a journal’s responsibility to minimise potential reputational damage to authors, when a reader disagrees on whether an error has been made versus a difference in opinion?
  • How can a journal respond to (unreasonable) requests from readers for a retraction if the editorial team considers retraction to be unwarranted?

Forum advice

The Forum advised that it is not the journal’s responsibility to protect authors per se, but to protect the integrity of the scholarly record. This case seemed to become a personal vendetta against the authors, and the editor could ask their institution to investigate.

If a complainant refuses to accept the journal’s response and keeps repeating a complaint, the journal should follow due process, be transparent, keep records, and state that the editor’s decision is final and the case is closed. The publisher’s ethics committee could be called on for advice. If the complainant raises new issues, those can be followed up. However, the journal cannot manage what the complainant does beyond the journal office.                                             

Case discussion

This archived COPE Forum case is categorised under three COPE Core Practices:

  • Complaints and Appeals: “Journals should have a clearly described process for handling complaints against the journal, its staff, editorial board or publisher.”
  • Journal Management: “A well-described and implemented infrastructure is essential, including the business model, policies, processes and software for efficient running of an editorially independent journal, as well as the efficient management and training of editorial boards and editorial and publishing staff.”
  • Post-publication Discussions and Corrections: “Journals must allow debate post publication either on their site, through letters to the editor, or on an external moderated site, such as PubPeer. They must have mechanisms for correcting, revising or retracting articles after publication.”

The three core practices are related in this case, because the journal owner should ensure there are clear policies, procedures, guidelines, and internal processes/training on how to efficiently and fairly manage complaints and post-publication correspondence. Journals also need to appropriately handle and distinguish between informal messages (emails, online posts) and formal correspondence (submitted letters, commentaries), and between differences of opinion and when to conduct post-publication investigations. Guidelines should remind readers that all correspondence must remain civil, legal, and ethical, and that the editor’s decision is final.

As noted by the Forum, the journal’s duty is to maintain the quality of its published content and the journal should follow due process and keep appropriate records. At the outset, there should be a contact person and triage system in place to identify and follow up valid concerns about content quality raised in both formal and informal correspondence received. Relevant COPE guidance documents for handling criticisms of published articles when raised by informal correspondence are “How to respond to whistleblowers when concerns are raised directly” and “How to respond to whistleblowers when concerns are raised via social media”.

Ideally, the journal would have a standard operating procedure to handle different types of concern and determine if the points raised are, for example, differences in interpretation or opinion, possible errors needing correction/clarification, allegations of misconduct, or a complaint about journal procedure. If needed, a post-publication round of peer review could be initiated. If an allegation of misconduct has been made, journal staff can follow relevant COPE flowcharts.

However, there is also a need early on to filter out frivolous, baseless, incomprehensible, or overly vague claims and old/resolved issues, as well as potential or likely cases of libel, trolling, cyberbullying, and personal attacks. Repeated and frequent correspondence from a person who disagrees with an editorial decision could become harassment and be a drain on resources. COPE has published relevant advice in “Addressing ethics complaints from complainants who submit multiple issues: COPE Discussion Document”. If necessary, the editor may need to seek advice from ethics, legal, and institutional representatives, especially if the reader persistently includes libellous, offensive, hostile, or illegal content in their correspondence.  

In this case, the journal invited the reader to submit a formal Letter to the Editor about points that journal staff including the statistical editor viewed to be expressions of opinion. The article authors would then have been given an opportunity to publish a response. Some journals consider various factors for formal reader correspondence, such as recency, originality, length, number of illustrations and references, the need for evidence to support points, whether new data are allowed, research ethics and conflicts of interest, if peer review will be used, and a limit on the number of rounds of responses. Some journals explicitly say they do not allow the formal correspondence section to be used to report possible errors. Reader correspondence relating to post-publication corrections should be investigated separately rather than published. If appropriate and with consent, the reader may be acknowledged in the correction.

The journal should address all valid concerns from a reader, although it would be more convenient to deal with all concerns and subsequent corrections at once. The journal and authors would also need to discuss if so-called errors really are errors. Distinctions should be made between fixable mistakes in a paper; alternative viewpoints; and ongoing scholarly progress and debate where previous findings are reinterpreted or overturned by new research thanks to technological or methodological advancements. Furthermore, data or findings from new research should not normally be added post-publication as a correction to update a paper; a new research paper should be prepared. Nevertheless, some journals do allow authors to publish meta-analysis update articles and online continually updated (“living”) systematic reviews.

Meta-analyses are notoriously challenging, involving complex methods and adjustments to minimise or correct for biases. What might be perceived as an error may be the omission of an optional methodological adjustment or sub-analysis that may not affect the overall conclusion. An addendum may then be appropriate. Different sets of authors with good reason may even publish alternative meta-analyses of the same source data, as long as the differing methods are clear and justified and the previous article is cited properly. To increase robustness, transparency, and reproducibility, some journals recommend meta-analysis protocols to be standardised (eg, using PRISMA-Protocol guidelines), registered publicly in advance (eg, on PROSPERO), or submitted to a peer-reviewed journal as a protocol paper or registered report before the actual research starts.

The reader in this case declined invitations to submit a Letter to the Editor and recommended a retraction, which the editorial team deemed baseless. As mentioned, for full transparency journals should clearly display their codes of practice, editorial and review policies, and complaints/appeals procedures. Such information can be based on COPE’s Core Practices and website resources, as well as other industry/society guidelines, publisher guidelines, and local regulations. Retraction is warranted only for certain reasons listed in the COPE Retraction Guidelines, such as if the conclusion is unreliable and/or there is an ethical problem with the data, research, reporting, or peer review. As part of an investigation, the editor might consider asking for the advice of the original peer reviewers of the paper, to inform the editor’s decision. The reader should be explicitly told the journal’s policies and that the editor’s decision is final. If the reader appeals and the journal is a COPE member, COPE’s Facilitation and Integrity Subcommittee could be asked for advice on whether due process had been followed.

Eventually, the journal suggested that the reader directly engage with the authors. A possible positive outcome could be a future collaboration between the parties to improve and build on the research. Unfortunately, if the parties are academic rivals, there is a risk that the reader’s direct correspondence could become unreasonable, personal, or vexatious. Indeed, the reader intended to escalate their action by complaining about the authors to their institution, colleagues, and funder. The Forum conceded that the situation would then be beyond the journal’s remit.

Still, the editor could advise that the authors seek assistance from their institution, which could contact the reader’s institution if needed. The editor could also be prepared to explain the interactions and actions taken so far, if the institution later contacted the journal about the reader. If the reader’s correspondence with the institution were professional and raised a valid concern that the institution in turn referred to the journal, the editor could follow relevant COPE guidance contained in “Cooperation between research institutions and journals on research integrity cases: guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)”. At the time of writing, this case is still ongoing.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee

Related resouce

How to respond to a reader's repeated concerns COPE member case with advice from the Forum