The WAME Ethics and Policy Committee considered the publication ethics in the case presented below.
A journal published an article that contained a comment (or comments) about a medical writer well known in the profession for his/her contributions to the development of professional practice guidelines. The medical writer was not identified by name but his/her small business was identified by name. The medical writer, believing the article contained misleading information about his/her professional ethics, wrote a brief letter to correct the error, which was published in the journal. The authors of the original article responded and their letter was also published in the same issue. The medical writer did not think the authors’ letter explicitly acknowledged that the information in the original article was misleading. The medical writer corresponded with the authors of the original article and all of them wrote a further brief (1 paragraph) correction which they all agreed should be published. The subsequent correction was submitted for publication to the journal by the authors of the original article, but was rejected by the editor.
The medical writer and the WAME member submitting the case have corresponded separately with the original editor and new editors, the chair of the editorial board, the owner of the journal and the journal publisher about this matter and believe it is not resolved. The WAME member submitting this case is not the medical writer. Instead, it is a colleague and WAME member who has brought this case forward (for the medical writer). The WAME member offers the follow comment:
“I reviewed these three publications, and agree with the medical writer that the original authors’ response [to his/her letter] failed to clarify for readers that the information was inaccurate. In a few places the language used in their letter implied that they remained skeptical of the medical writer’s explanations, and in a few places they appeared to raise further doubts regarding his/her professional practices.”
“As an expert in written communication, I feel the readers of the journal, most of whom are probably not familiar with efforts from within the medical writing profession to improve good professional practices, would conclude that the authors of the original article (and by association, the journal’s editors) continue to believe that the medical writer engages in unethical practices.
In a personal capacity I have contacted individuals at the publisher’s headquarters, the owner of the journal, and the past and current editors and current members of the editorial board of the journal involved, to urge the journal 1) to publish a complete correction to the misleading information about the medical writer, and 2) to clearly link correspondence and other publications arising from the original article so that readers will know about the error and the correction”.
The WAME member submitting this case believes the journal has failed to correct the published record and provides links to various guidelines (WAME, COPE and ICMJE) for our consideration. An additional issue raised by the submitter is that there are no links from the original article to the two subsequent letters. The publisher involved is a member of COPE, and according to the publisher’s website, the publisher has a mechanism in place to publish an “erratum” when necessary and link it to the relevant earlier article.
The WAME Ethics and Policy Committee is asked to comment on publication ethics.
WAME Ethics and Policy Committee Comments
One of the underlying issues in this case is a difference of opinion as to whether the correspondence already published adequately addresses the issue of “misleading” information in the original publication. This may be a subjective assessment, with the medical writer and the WAME member coming to the conclusion that it does not do so, whereas the journal editors, journal owner and publisher think it does. Committee members note that they do not have the details they would need to come to a conclusion about the adequacy of the published record and elaborate further that to engage in such an exercise would be outside the Committee’s mandate.
The Committee will address this case from the perspective of publishing principles. Editors are expected to take reasonable measures to correct errors in published articles, which include correcting author errors or editorial mishaps that could result in misinterpretations. In this case, the editor published a letter from the medical writer about the “misleading” information and a response letter from the original authors; both were published in the same journal issue. The Committee believes the editor has taken reasonable measures to address the “misleading” information. It is not reasonable to expect an editor to continue publishing letters or take other corrective actions until one or more parties are satisfied the matter has been resolved to their satisfaction. With respect to whether these two letters should be linked to the original paper, the Committee believes this linkage ought to be made if it is technically possible to do so (e.g., journal’s online system allow for this).