Andrew Burd: Naughty editor, bad editor

Andrew BurdI have been the human guardian of both cats and dogs over the years. I cannot call myself either a cat person or a dog person. They have such different personalities. Cats are free spirits but are also wonderfully self-indulgent and will be happily stroked for hours. Dogs are more keen on activity and many an hour has been spent wrestling for ownership of old socks or slippers. But dogs are more responsive to human distress and have the ability to turn on the soulful look at times of tension; the return home to a shredded cushion that must have been part of a exciting afternoon but then to face the consequences. Bad dog! Naughty dog! But what more can you really say? You left them and you cannot expect them to act with the same sense of human responsibility as, well, a human.

Editors, of medical and indeed scientific journals are neither cats nor dogs. There are times when some might question their “humanity.” Some are extremely arrogant, full of self importance; some are so wise and considerate. But some are naughty; bad in fact and the question is, what to do about them?

Case in point. One journal I receive as part of a professional subscription appears at regular intervals and I give it the quick once over. Medical journal speed reading is an art form acquired over the years and as careers progress and special interests mature the spectrum of articles that attract attention decreases. But I came across one where the title was of relevance to my practice; the abstract looked promising and so I read the article. And then re-read it. And then once more. It was an awful paper. The content contained factual inaccuracies, large chunks of the paper were irrelevant to the title and it actually gave a very false and misleading message. Once the hyperventilation had calmed I picked up pen and paper and began the first draft of a very measured response. This was very nuanced, very balanced and not at all in the style of “Brigadier General Rtd of Tunbridge Wells,” although I did go to school there many years ago. The letter duly crafted with several drafts was submitted through the e-system and I sat back. Several weeks later I received a letter from the editor. It was a letter rejecting my letter. And the grounds of the rejection? Well the original paper had been reviewed by two very senior and respected reviewers and any criticism of the paper would be a criticism of them. The suggestion was that I write a review article on the same or similar topic which would then be subject to peer review and considered independently for publication. Bad editor. Naughty editor. You cannot allow poor papers in your journal to be left uncriticised because you do not want to upset your senior reviewers, who ever they might be.

But what can we, Joe Public, do about such malfeasance? Previously very little; the power was in the hands of the editors. But times have changed. Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. If bad rulers can be brought to their knees so can bad editors.

Going back to the dogs, man’s best friend; who are the better friends of editors? The readers or the writers of the papers they publish? I am not sure but for editors, in general, it is best to keep on good terms with both.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.

  • Thank goodness for “Retraction Watch” http://retractionwatch.wordpre…/

  • Andrew

    Felix, I need to find out more about this but what 'drives' the retractions? I know some of the more responsible medical journals do engage in internal vetting and housekeeping but many cling onto their flawed and failed papers with the utmost of tenacity – fearing perhaps a judgment for letting them through in the first place. But retraction watch is not going to censor the bad editor is it? Perhaps we should have another site called,”Watch for retraction watch.”!

  • Liz Wager

    COPE's Code of Conduct for Editors has always emphasized editors' responsibility to publish cogent criticism of things they have published in their journals. The latest version (to be launched in a couple of weeks time) states “Editors should encourage and be willing to consider cogent criticisms of work published in their journal. Authors of criticised material should be given the opportunity to respond.” If a COPE member doesn't follow this Code, you can bring a complaint against them to COPE … so there IS something you can do.

  • Thanks, Felix, for the shout-out for Retraction Watch!

    Anderw: We'd welcome “Watch for Retraction Watch,” or any other scrutiny of what we do. While we have no official standing to “censor the bad editor,” we certainly call into question a lot of retraction practices. Just one example: http://retractionwatch.wordpre…/

    Ivan Oransky
    Retraction Watch

  • Andrew

    Liz, many thanks…as always COPE has an answer. But in the very real case I was describing it is just a little difficult as this is a “family” journal and it is a question of what we can do and what we should do! The reality is that there are papers in the smaller journals that appear to be “gifted” the Editor is at a meeting, likes a presentation and asks the authors to submit to their journal because they are always short of copy.

    I am keeping quiet this time but am keeping a close eye on things!

    But as we have discussed before…what can COPE do? Name and shame but not sanction?

  • Andrew

    Ivan, yes I had seen your piece on Dr Edmund's before. I thought it was excellent though I had to cringe for him. Don't you have an American term for it..something like “owned”!

    Keep up the good work.

  • Liz Wager

    Precisely — COPE can only name and shame, and it can only consider complaints against its members. I realise this may sound somewhat toothless, but we have found that editors do take complaints seriously and have, in the past, been willing to rectify problems. To continue your canine analogy, our bark is worse than our bite, but we have found that growling at editors can be surprisingly effective!

  • Andrew

    Liz, to extend this further I think that editors, as a group, tend to be more feline in nature so a healthy growl most probably is quite effective! Apart from those who are deaf!

  • John Addison

    One other thing that we, or at least you, could do is to name the journal you're writing about.

  • Andrew

    John, that is the whole point. The thought crossed my mind but as it is a “family” journal I decided not to on this occasion but there is a very real, not a subtle, a real, shift in the balance of power between the individual and the establishment. In this case substitute the reader and the editor of a journal. The so called “Jasmine revolution” has wide reaching implications and the power of the 'blog' cannot be underestimated. When you look at the fate of Dr Edmund's as revealed in retraction watch (http://retractionwatch.wordpre…/) you almost feel sorry for the poor man. I think what this does mean is that people have got to be more polite with each other and that surely is not a bad thing; and more honest and more fair. All good points. Unfortunately it is possible to be pretty vicious in the blog world too and that is a reason to have some moderation in process, as in the BMJ blogs. I am wondering aloud but if I had put the name of the journal in my posting would it have been removed? We may find out if further transgression's occur! Anyway many thanks for your comment John.

  • Maybe the answer about who should censor the bad editor is for the journal to have an ombudsman – independent from the editor. FWIW, The New York Times has had an ombudsman for years with the position being occupied by different respected journalists. Now smaller journals may not be able to afford an ombudsman so perhaps we start a company and consult for various journals.

  • Andrew

    Felix, excellent idea…who shall we approach first?!

  • Liz Wager

    At the risk of sounding repetitive, that's also something that COPE recommends! But, as referral to the ombudsman is relatively rare, so the job is not onerous, I'd be surprised if any journals offer to pay for this service any more than they pay their peer reviewers.