One Journal’s Struggle with Transparency - The Journal of Neuroscience really can’t get it right

What’s behind paper retractions? (27)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 02/2015

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

We first wrote about the Society for Neuroscience’s flagship journal in 2012 (LT 3-12, p. 37), when we noted that the influential publication was fond of information-free retraction notices that often seemed to have been written by authors as a way to say “keep moving, nothing to see here!”

One of those notices did not give a reason for the retraction, to which it referred and failed to alert readers that one of the authors of the paper was under investigation for misconduct. Did that matter? We think so: the suspect researcher, Naoki Harada, eventually lost his job and had 19 papers retracted.

When we asked the editor of the journal why he allowed such obfuscation, he told us that opaque notices written by authors could be considered a good thing because notices that say too much might discourage retractions. Which is true, in the way that leaving the doors open on a convertible is a good idea if you think a thief will tear your top to steal your radio. It makes sense – but it doesn’t deter bad behaviour.

Banned for no reason

Then, in 2013, we reported – as later detailed in a Lab Times story (LT online, February 4th, 2013) – on the case of Ana M. Sebastião of the University of Lisbon. The university had “found substantial data misrepresentation” in two articles and the Journal of Neuroscience retracted them. The journal also banned most of the studies’ authors from publishing in its pages for two years – despite the fact that the university committee concluded that “these faults cannot be attributed to intentional fabrication or falsification” and then-editor John Maunsell said in an email that the journal agreed with the university. (The journal relented on the bans for all of the authors except Sebastião).

Now, the journal, where Maunsell is no longer editor, has done it again, this time to a group of Alzheimer’s researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. In March, John Trojanowski and Virginia Lee – a prominent husband-and-wife team – had a paper retracted from the journal, with a notice that said a university investigation had found evidence of “data misrepresentation” and explained that the journal was retracting “[b]ecause the results cannot be considered reliable”.

No explanation

In an echo of what happened to Sebastião, the move surprised Trojanowski and Lee, who had requested a correction rather than a retraction. They cited the University of Pennsylvania’s conclusions that although there were errors, there was “no evidence of research misconduct”. What made the journal’s decision even more puzzling was that it banned the researchers from publishing there for two years.

As we’ve stated before, we’re always fans of editors and publishers who make difficult decisions that make them the possible targets of lawyers. But supporting that kind of tough stance requires understanding how people came to it. When we asked Dora Angelaki, the new editor, and the Society for Neuroscience for an explanation, they refused, claiming confidentiality. That makes us wonder whose confidentiality, of course, since Trojanowski and Lee were happy to talk to us and the Philadelphia Inquirer about the case. They even shared emails from the journal that suggest the editors didn’t find any evidence of misconduct, either, leaving us scratching our heads about the reasons for a ban.

Mistrust grows

More importantly, however, it makes us wonder why the Journal of Neuroscience thinks it’s a good idea to be so opaque. The “trust us” approach to transparency in decision-making we see at the Journal of Neuroscience, the Journal of Biological Chemistry and other publications almost always leads to the opposite, mistrust. Why is that such a difficult thing for journals to learn?

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 25.03.2015