Most academics are used to the rough and tumble of the reviewing of their papers and grant applications, and recognise that it is not without a stochastic element (or worse). Consequently, we occasionally feel – and probably are – hard done by. We are certainly used to being rejected by some of the ‘generalist’ journals on the grounds that our papers are not deemed of ‘sufficient general interest’, and so on, and distinguished scientists have been known to declare or arrange academic boycotts of particular publishers or of particular journals. This post is in a similar vein. It is not even about my own work, but is about a set of circumstances to which I am privy that I consider quite unacceptable and that I am hereby publicising and encouraging others to do the same. No doubt similar things happen elsewhere, but this one concerns the journal Blood, that styles itself as Journal of the American Society of Hematology. Needless to say, I am being entirely careful to stick blandly to the facts.
My scientific collaborator Prof Etheresia Pretorius published two papers in a section of Blood known as Blood Work, showing images of blood cells (along the same kind of lines as those that she has published online in Cell). These were submitted through the normal procedures of the journal and accepted by its then-Editor. Some time later she was astonished, not to say very upset, to be contacted by the journal to the effect that, entirely unilaterally, and as stated on their pages here and here (and I quote) “The Editors retract [sic] the above-mentioned Blood Work illustration. The format of the publication did not match the Blood Work submission criteria…. In this case, the conclusions of the described case could have misled the readers of Blood. No misconduct on the part of any of the authors was involved.” Now ‘retract’ is a very strong word indeed, and frankly any reader feckless enough to mistake a single image for a statistical analysis of an explicitly powered clinical study is presumably one who might be misled by any publication.
I pointed out to the Editor-in-Chief of Blood that what is normal if any individual objects to the scientific content of a paper is that they write a letter to the relevant journal and that this and the authors’ replies are published together so that readers can make up their own minds. This happens regularly in the pages all kinds of grown-up journals. One might even add a note to a paper – and indeed in the future (but not retrospectively) to the relevant instructions to authors – that image-based publications will be marked in such a way that readers might not be misled by their contents. But one does not RETRACT a paper unilaterally on such spurious and flimsy grounds. (And I did write formally to Blood about this; they declined to publish my letter.)
These concerns were also expressed to the President of the American Society of Hematology, whose reply included the following (again I quote): “I am writing to explain that the ASH leadership and the Blood journal editorial team have distinct and separate roles and responsibilities. The Society selects the Editor-in-Chief of Blood through a careful process and then entrusts him/her with all the editorial decisions. Since the concerns outlined in your messages all stem from your submissions of BloodWork to Blood, they should be directed to the Blood journal editorial team. All editorial decisions related to Blood are under the sole purview of the Blood Editor-in-Chief.” In other words, it would seem that the American Society of Hematology disavows all responsibility for what is published in its journal, and that it provides no ‘court of appeal’.
Academics can choose where to submit their more exciting results and most ‘impactful’ papers, and these are straightforwardly reflected in the number of citations per paper that different journals receive.
Consequently, I shall not be sending any of my rather well cited papers to Blood, nor to any other journals whose Editors are allowed to ‘retract’ published papers unilaterally on non-scientific grounds and without any kind of external appeal system (lest the same happens to me), nor shall I be offering to referee articles for them. I suggest to all like-minded scientists that they do the same, and publicise the fact that they are doing so.
Bester J, Buys AV, Lipinski B, Kell DB, Pretorius E: High ferritin levels have major effects on the morphology of erythrocytes in Alzheimer’s disease. Front Aging Neurosci 2013; 5:00088. Full free text.
Kell DB, Pretorius E: Serum ferritin is an important disease marker, and is mainly a leakage product from damaged cells. Metallomics 2014:in the press. DOI: 10.1039/C3MT00347G. Full, free text.
Pretorius E, Bester J, Vermeulen N, Lipinski B, Gericke GS, Kell DB: Profound morphological changes in the erythrocytes and fibrin networks of patients with hemochromatosis or with hyperferritinemia, and their normalization by iron chelators and other agents. PLoS One 2014; 9:e85271. Full, free text.
Pretorius E, Vermeulen N, Bester J, Lipinski B, Kell DB: A novel method for assessing the role of iron and its functional chelation in fibrin fibril formation: the use of scanning electron microscopy. Toxicol Mech Methods 2013; 23:352-359.
Pretorius E, Lipinski B: Iron alters red blood cell morphology. Blood 2013; 121:9.
Swanepoel AC, Pretorius E: Red blood cell and platelet interactions in healthy females during early and late pregnancy, as well as postpartum. Blood 2013; 121:3788. Free image.