January 4, 2021

Registering complaints or concerns about published papers

The American Naturalist would like to clarify its procedures for handling comments on previously published work, and offer new protections for researchers who have valid reasons for maintaining their anonymity while commenting on previously published work.

For decades, scientific journals such as The American Naturalist have had an established protocol for handling criticisms of already-published papers. Readers are able to submit Comments that clearly document and justify their concerns about a published paper. These may identify factual errors (including mistakes in analyses, code, etc), flaws in experimental designs, or disagreements about interpretation of results or context. Such Comments are reviewed, and the authors of the original paper are given a chance to review the Comment. If the complaint is found to have merit (even if the original authors disagree), then the complaint is accepted for publication. The authors have an option to publish a rebuttal if they disagree with the points raised in the Comment.  If the authors acknowledge the merits of the critique, then they may leave the Comment unanswered, or they may submit a Correction that updates the paper with more correct information such as new statistical results or mathematical analyses (which also gets reviewed).  In extreme cases, if the Comment identifies demonstrable errors that significantly undermine the conclusions of the original paper, the original authors and/or Editorial Board may opt for a retraction instead. 

Note that papers can receive Comments for a whole range of reasons, from minor errors that don't change the main message, to fundamental mistakes of factual presentation (e.g., incorrect statistical results), suspect patterns in data, or critiques of interpretation or context. There's a gradation from papers having minor flaws, to major ones, and flaws ranging from demonstrable evidence to matters of interpretation. Not all warrant Comments, and certainly not all need Correction or Retraction even when the critiques are true, depending on the magnitude of the problems and how compelling the evidence is for the problem. 

We should emphasize that a reader's first action, on finding something that is unclear or appears wrong, should ideally be to contact the author for clarification. This might ultimately resolve the problem without involving the journal. Or, it may induce the authors to publish a Correction (or, in principle, even a retraction). Writing a Comment to the journal should be a plan-B option when direct communication with the authors has failed to resolve the issue, or if the critics have a valid reason to avoid direct contact (e.g., fear of retaliation). I am aware of at least one case where not only did an author (Bob Holt) agree with a Comment's critique, he joined in the effort and ultimately became a co-author on the Comment moving the field forward in the process. I know of cases where authors self-retracted after critics contacted them before the journal. Indeed, we recently published a Correction to a paper from the 1980's that the original authors submitted after a colleague found an error.

In recent years, the Editors of this journal have been receiving criticisms of papers through unofficial channels. These include direct emails to the Editors, tweets, or PubPeer posts. Until now, our policy has been to take these complaints seriously and conduct a full evaluation to identify whether the concerns have merit. This has resulted in multiple committees being formed, and has been a significant drain on the energies of the Editorial Board as a whole, but has indeed identified both some genuine problems, and some cases where there is a simple difference of opinion. 

The problem with this approach, of responding fully to informal critiques, is growing clearer to us on the Editorial Board. First and most troubling, it becomes plain that an individual with a personal vendetta against an author could use such informal critiques to recruit the journal as an unwitting tool for bullying the author, whether or not the critiques hold water or are severe enough to ultimately require action. Second, it simply is not possible for the Editorial Board, with their other responsibilities to the journal, to fully monitor all possible social media venues where people post criticisms of papers (PubPeer, Twitter, etc). Rather than assuming that the journal has seen a criticism posted elsewhere, we prefer that critics submit Comments to the journal where the criticism can be fully vetted through a standard review process.  This takes time, but is the traditionally accepted means of evaluating scientific arguments. Third, tweets and PubPeer posts are also often used for the milder goal of carrying on an honest and open scientific debate on a topic of honest disagreement, or about minor errors that may not warrant the effort of Correction. If we initiated a multi-person investigatory committee for every such disagreement, the journal would collapse under the weight of re-evaluating past work and become a partisan in adjudicating honest debates. Let's face it: when was the last time you were in a journal club reading a new paper and nobody had a question that couldn't be clearly resolved, nobody had a quibble with interpretation, nobody had a suggestion for a better experimental design. Therefore, we need a mechanism for distinguishing between which debates are best left alone, versus those that require investigation and possible corrective action.  That mechanism is the same as it has long been: when we receive a submission of a Comment manuscript.  Fourth, submitting informal critiques to the journal (e.g., by alerting us to a PubPeer post, or emailing an informally written diatribe) shunts the work of checking the paper off onto the journal's editorial board, when the critic is often better placed (by virtue of their expertise) to write a careful and complete criticism. It is akin to telling someone else to write a comment. As a case in point, some recent committee reports have turned out to be many times longer than the original email or PubPeer complaints, and that is work that has fallen on already-overburdened volunteer Associate Editors, which is not a sustainable approach. We rely in part on our community of readers to identify problems that were missed in review (and let's face it, peer review isn't perfect), and the mechanism for doing this is through Comments.

Therefore, it is the policy of the Editors of The American Naturalist, that henceforth we will expect that criticisms of published papers be written as Comments and submitted to us through Editorial Manager, to be subject to review through our editorial software that appropriately archives all steps in the process. These Comments need not be long, but they must effectively document errors in the published paper's data, analysis, or interpretation. I will emphasize that the Comments' author(s) will be known to the Editor-In-Chief handling the complaint, but that the review process can henceforth be double-blind to ensure the critics' anonymity. In extreme cases where a Comment author is afraid to have their name listed on the final publication, the Editorial Board will consider requests for anonymity on the publication itself, on a case by case basis. It is not our desire to make all Comments anonymous by default (we encourage openness once things are published), but neither will we refuse a request for anonymity when accompanied by a clear justification to the Editor-In-Chief. It is possible there are situations that arise where a Comment is not the best course of action, and readers may of course contact the Editor to inquire.

The primary exception is that readers may notify the Editor-In-Chief (Daniel Bolnick) by email (daniel.bolnick@uconn.edu) if they find that an article published since 2010 does not provide complete and publicly available data (e.g., a Dryad repository) sufficient to recreate the analyses. Compliance with data sharing has been imperfect (based on a survey of data archives posted for AmNat papers in 2020, many of which are incomplete or have unclear metadata). Readers are encouraged to directly contact authors first to request correction of flawed data archives.  But when authors are unresponsive, the journal may help step in to encourage correction.  When we become aware of missing or incomplete data archives (or, unusably unclear metadata), we will contact the author to request its completion on Dryad (or other repository). If the authors have not fixed the data archive in a reasonable window of time, or if they are unable to do so having lost the original data files, then the journal would as a rule publish an Editorial Expression of Concern noting that the data for a paper are missing. This applies only to papers published after data archiving became a condition for publication (e.g., 2010 and after). Authors who are habitual offenders may see their current submissions delayed while we check their data archives more thoroughly. And, as noted in a previous Editors blog post on data archiving, we encourage authors to create data archives prior to submission, for the journal to evaluate during the review process. On Dryad, where the pre-review archiving process is free and you can generate a private key to provide to the journal.

To close this blog post, I wish to briefly consider some of the motives for why people have been using informal venues for registering criticisms, at least as far as I can discern. 

First, many posts on PubPeer, twitter, and other venues, are not meant for journals. Rather they are aimed at establishing a constructive but critical conversation between authors and readers. This is a healthy and valuable element of scientific dialogue, though when done in a less constructive tone it becomes stressful for authors and can devolve into a one-sided process. Such posts are not meant for our consideration. Comments, Corrections (or Retractions) are not meant for carrying on simple conversations, but for identifying and resolving errors of fact. This, again is one reason why journals should not be expected to react to all PubPeer posts.

Second, the next best rationale I have come across is that the critic of a paper is afraid of professional or personal retribution, and so wishes to remain anonymous. Our process of anonymous review of Comments, and openness (in principle) to well-justified requests for anonymity upon publication, should serve to alleviate this concern and thus encourage people to use the established route of Comments.

Third, in at least one case, the critic openly acknowledged that they simply did not wish to take the time to write a formal Comment to be reviewed and published. As noted above, this simply offloads the work onto others (our busy Associate Editors) who may not be as expert in the details of the subject. This is unfair to our editorial board, as it amounts to saying that the problem isn't important enough for the critic's time, but is important enough to consume the editorial board's time. It is true that the editorial board (especially the editors) have a greater obligation to ensure the quality of the work published in their journal, but ultimately we rely on the community to help with this (as we do with submissions, and reviews).

Fourth, some critics seek rapid dissemination of their criticisms, and prefer not to wait for a lengthy review process. This rapid science view point has merit, but risks damaging authors' reputation and imposing severe stresses before the validity of the criticisms has been considered. By placing attacks in public before the attacks are verified, this approach is indeed fast but can do great damage when the attacks ultimately prove to be misplaced. I have seen specific cases where statistical criticisms posted on PubPeer are later found to be incorrect, and a review process helps protect authors' reputation from flawed criticism.

Finally, there are cases where critics mistrust the institutional process. I have heard directly of cases where critics contacted journals and were rebuffed or ignored.Readers sometimes believe (rightly or wrongly) that journals are more interested in protecting their own reputation and their authors', and so have motives to sweep criticisms under the carpet.  I am shocked by many of these stories. It saddens me to think that we Editors are mistrusted, when we go through such efforts to ensure quality of our published work. I will admit that Editors may hesitate to pursue aggressive steps towards retraction out of fear for legal attack by affected authors. But more often, in my experience, a critic feels ignored when they submit a complaint but the journal finds the complaint to be insufficiently severe for corrective action (either misplaced, or insufficiently documented, or just not substantive enough a change to the paper's core message). But having been involved in both retractions and corrections and decisions to not do either, I can say that my view from behind the curtain has taught me that journals' decisions (at least AmNat's, and a few others I've watched from the sidelines) are done carefully and thoughtfully, with great effort and with good intentions, even when the critics (or I) don't fully agree with the outcome.

I will also acknowledge that evaluating criticisms is a large drain on our already-stretched time running regular journal functions. Personally, in 2020 I have spent far more time writing R code to analyze other people's potentially flawed datasets, than in analyzing data of my own. I have written more words regarding investigations into past publications this year, than I have written words on my own papers or grants. But, it is an Editor's job to ensure the quality of published work in their journal. The journal's reputation is bolstered not by sweeping problems out of sight, but by being proactive about correcting known problems. But, we Editors need the community's participation in this process, by following procedures set down by the journal for evaluating problems. Ultimately, it is a journal that publishes a paper, and so it is a journal that has leverage to pursue Corrections or Retractions or Expressions of Concern. This means that if critics really want their concerns to lead to corrective actions they ultimately do need to work through journals, which means using journals' established means of handling complaints.

All of this is not meant to deter Comments or criticism of published work. Science advances by self-criticism and self-correction. We should never shy away from fixing what is wrong (when it is clearly wrong, and important enough for the effort - nobody would publish a Correction for a grammatical mistake for instance). But, procedures for doing so exist, and I'd like to see those procedures used more, favored over backchannel approaches.

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