A Funny Business - Why tight-lipped journal editors are bad for science

What’s behind paper retractions? (16)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 03/2013

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

When U.S. presidents get slammed for invoking executive privilege, they can at least make the plausible – if often debatable – claim that clamming up is in the interest of national security.

But what excuses do journal editors have for withholding information from their readers? Less good ones, it turns out.

As we have discovered, many retraction notices have about as much to say as a mime at a wallflower convention. Anyone hoping to find out the reason for the retraction – was it misconduct, for example, or just honest error? – will be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Although most journals with whom we have dealt through our blog, Retraction Watch, have been helpful and open, occasionally we run into an editor who is hostile to our desire to report more. The first time we came across knee-jerking obstructionism was in 2011, when we tried to dig up more details on a retraction in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. “None of your damn business,” he told us.

Knee-jerking obstructionism

That was followed by an editor who told us last year that “the purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail”.

Our most recent encounter involved the editor of the journal, Early Education and Development. The journal had retracted a paper titled “Physical Discipline Use and Child Behavior Problems in Low-Income, High-Risk African American Families”, for “problems with data reporting and participant sample description”.

Since this was not exactly a complete description, we sought more information from the journal’s editor, Susanne Denham. Denham responded to our queries by saying, “I do not think this is the business of anyone but our journal, please.”

As we wrote in our post, that’s not quite right. Here is a list of some people whose business this retraction is:

  • The journal’s readers, especially those who can now pay $37 for the privilege of reading a PDF of the original study that is completely obfuscated by “RETRACTION”, repeated hundreds of times.
  • The “60 low-income African American mothers and their children enrolled in an urban [Early Head Start] program” who volunteered for this study
  • U.S. taxpayers, given that lead author T’Pring Westbrook works at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.

What people like Edmunds and Denham fail to grasp is that their journals are not private entities with no communal obligations. Indeed, as we – and our readers – see it, journals and editors serve a broad constituency that includes not only their regular readers but all scientists interested in a particular field, funding bodies both public and private, participants in clinical research (when appropriate) and the public at large.

To be sure, journals may have adequate reasons for limiting the information in an occasional retraction notice. But those cases should be rare exceptions, not rules.

Are they telling the whole story?

If journals want us to trust what’s in their pages, they need to be willing to say exactly what’s wrong. Otherwise, we can’t know if they’re telling the whole story. Of course, if they want us to keep finding out the details they’d rather hide – and don’t worry, our tipsters are almost always good enough at this point to send us in the right direction – we’ll stay plenty busy.

As Columbia University’s Stuart Firestein – who was just awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship – wrote in Wired last year, “Science often traffics in doubt and readily welcomes revision. And these are precisely the attributes that make it deserving of our confidence. This may seem contradictory, but give it a second thought. It is just those systems of thought that would have us believe that they know the answers with certainty because they have been received from an unerring supreme being and interpreted by a chosen priesthood, that should give us pause.”

In other words: Show your work.

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com)

Last Changed: 09.05.2013