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Elsevier > Association for Psychological Science

Everyone dunks on Elsevier. But here’s a case where they behaved well. Jordan Anaya points us to this article from Retraction Watch:

In May, [psychology professor Barbara] Fredrickson was last author of a paper in Psychoneuroendocrinology claiming to show that loving-kindness meditation slowed biological aging, specifically that it kept telomeres — which protect chromosomes — from shortening. The paper caught the attention of Harris Friedman, a retired researcher from University of Florida who had scrutinized some of Fredrickson’s past work, for what Friedman, in an interview with Retraction Watch, called an “extraordinary claim.”

Friedman, along with three colleagues, looked deeper. When they did, they found a few issues. One was that the control group in the study seemed to show a remarkably large decrease in telomere length, which made the apparent differences between the groups seem larger. The quartet — Friedman, Nicholas Brown, Douglas MacDonald and James Coyne — also found a coding error.

Friedman and his colleagues wanted to write a piece for the journal that would address all of these issues, but they were told they could submit a letter of only 500 words. They did, and it was published in August. The journal also published a corrigendum about the coding error last month — but only after having changed the article without notice first.

Friedman had hoped that the journal would credit him and his colleagues in the corrigendum, which it did not. But it was a letter that the journal published on August 24 that really caught his eye (as well as the eye of a PubPeer commenter, whose comment was flagged for us.) It read, in its entirety:

As Corresponding Author of “Loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices: Evidence from a 12-week randomized controlled trial,” I decline to respond to the Letter authored by Friedman, MacDonald, Brown and Coyne. I stand by the peer review process that the primary publication underwent to appear in this scholarly journal. Readers should be made aware that the current criticisms continue a long line of misleading commentaries and reanalyses by this set of authors that (a) repeatedly targets me and my collaborators, (b) dates back to 2013, and (c) spans multiple topic areas. I take this history to undermine the professional credibility of these authors’ opinions and approaches.

When Friedman saw the letter, he went straight to the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, and said it was defamatory, and had no business appearing in a peer-reviewed journal.

The journal has now removed the letter, and issued a notice of temporary removal. Fredrickson hasn’t responded to our requests for comment.

As Friedman noted, however, the letter’s language, which is undeniably sharp, is “coming from the loving-kindness researcher.”

Jordan writes:

I didn’t realize Friedman asked the journal to take down the response. To me I would have been happy the response was posted since it made Fredrickson look really bad—if her critics’ points are truly wrong and have been wrong over the course of multiple years then it should be easy for her to dunk on her critics with a scientific response.

I disagree. Mud can stick. Better to have the false statement removed, or at least flagged with a big RETRACTED watermark, rather than having it out there to confuse various outsiders.

Anyway, say what you want about Elsevier. At least they’re willing to retract false and defamatory claims that they publish. The Association for Psychological Science won’t do that. When I pointed out that they’d made false and defamatory statements about me and another researcher, they just refused to do anything.

It’s sad that a purportedly serious professional organization is worse on ethics than a notorious publisher.

But maybe we should look on the bright side. It’s good news that a notorious publisher is better on ethics than a serious professional organization.

At this point I think it would be pretty cool if the Association for Psychological Science would outsource its ethics decisions to Elsevier or some other outside party.

In the meantime, I suggest that Fredrickson send that letter to Perspectives on Psychological Science. They’d probably have no problem with it!

P.S. Fredrickson’s webpage says, “She has authored 100+ peer-reviewed articles and book chapters . . .” I guess they’ll have to change that to 99+.

10 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    Based on the title, I thought that this post was about the APA suing authors for posting articles on their websites.

    P.S. Your P.S. makes no sense. If she went from e.g. 137 to 136, it’s still 100

  2. Jeff says:

    Is this evidence of differences in ethics, or just of different risk calculations? Defamation is a legal term, after all.

    Anyway, as I was reading Fredrickson’s response, I also thought this was going in a different direction. It’s worth noting that she didn’t say she stood by the research or its findings.

    (Also the phrase “scholarly journal” evokes the extra P you were prepending to PNAS for a while. I guess this story checks a lot of boxes.)

  3. Adede says:

    How is the statement defamatory? Hostile, sure, but calling for its deletion is just orwellian.

    • Andrew says:

      Adede:

      “Orwellian” seems a bit strong! But I agree that flagging the Fredrickson comment with a big RETRACTED watermark would be much preferable to removing it entirely.

    • Ben Prytherch says:

      Yeah, I’m not seeing what’s defamatory in Fredrickson’s letter. It’s probably below the standards of a scientific journal, and it makes her look very bad. Seems appropriate to remove it. But defamatory? Not by legal standards.

      • David J. Littleboy says:

        “Readers should be made aware that the current criticisms continue a long line of misleading commentaries and reanalyses by this set of authors that (a) repeatedly targets me and my collaborators, “

        Hmm. That sure sounds defamatory to me. It’s accusing the authors of lying (misleading) and targeting people.

  4. Dale Lehman says:

    I guess the bar is now so low, that this appears to be good behavior. I read this story as horrible in many ways. The fact that Elsevier eventually took down the letter stands against the work limit on the critique, the failure to credit the corrigendum, the prior altering of the article, and the fact that they published the offending letter from the authors at first (before subsequently taking it down). Andrew must really be getting weary to see this as a good news story. As he often says, we all make mistakes, and there is no shame in admitting to errors – in fact, we should respect and appreciate when that is done. The fact that the journal removed the letter – and only after the above not so respectable actions – is hardly the open recognition of error that I would hope for.

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