Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
I have waited a long time to write this blog. Since early in 2010, to be precise. In January 2010, a paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal that made some outrageous, untrue, and defamatory remarks about Dianthus Medical.
I have not blogged about it before, because such things are better dealt with in private. This is particularly true if legal action is pending, although in the end, despite the fact that the journal refused to correct the untrue statements published about us, I decided that the cost of mounting a libel action against the journal would be prohibitive. As one great legal mind once put it, “Justice is open to everyone, in the same way as the Ritz Hotel is”.
Sadly, despite my best efforts, the astonishingly irresponsible and inaccurate journal article remains uncorrected, and it is now time to tell the story.
I have written about this little episode in some detail for The Write Stuff (journal of the European Medical Writers Association), and you can read the full article here. Briefly, the journal article in question accused us of writing ghostwritten articles in the medical literature. These articles, it was alleged, presented a distorted and biased view of clinical data to fit in with company marketing messages. No specific examples were given, which of course is inevitable, because there aren’t any. We take publication ethics very seriously, and we would never participate in the kind of behaviours described. To suggest that we do is totally false.
Most of us regard peer-reviewed scientific journals as a source of trustworthy information. We expect the information in them to be factually accurate, even if wise readers know that conclusions drawn from data may not always be reliable. We expect that if information is discovered to be incorrect, then a journal will issue a correction, or possibly a retraction.
But what happens if a journal editor just chooses to allow incorrect information to stand? It turns out that, at least for a small organisation that can’t afford the costs of libel lawyers (could this be why the authors of the article picked on us, and not on one of our better known and richer competitors?), there is little one can do about it.
I had hoped that the Committee on Publication Ethics would be able to rule on the matter. Sadly not. They did agree to look at the case, but gave an utterly bizarre response. They claim that they investigate breaches of their code of conduct, but they also told me that they will not comment on the facts of the case. And apparently, without considering the facts of the case, they determined that their code had not been breached. I cannot see how they could possibly know whether their code had been breached without looking at what actually happened. Presumably they just took the journal’s word for it.
In any case, as their process was conducted behind closed doors and no detailed reasons for their decision were given, how they arrived at their decision is destined to remain a mystery. For an organisation that claims to be concerned with publication ethics, of which transparency is such an important part, to have such an opaque decision making process is deeply worrying.
We rely on journal editors to maintain the accuracy of the scientific record. I find it worrying that if they deliberately shirk that responsibility, there is apparently no-one in a position to do anything about it.
Just as one final irony, the article that prompted all this was about the accuracy of the medical literature.
Update, 24 June:
It turns out that COPE's lack of transparency is worse than I thought. On their website, they state "All the cases COPE has discussed since its inception in 1997 have been entered into a searchable database" and make those cases available on their website. Except that they don't include complaints. Details of complaints are not made public at all.
I really cannot understand why an organisation that claims to be an authority on publication ethics feels the need to conduct their affairs with such secrecy. Doing things in secret is not good publication ethics.