When our words are used in the name of hate: a publisher’s role

Yesterday morning my colleagues and I became aware of a deeply troubling use of an article that was published in one of our journals last year. As was reported in several Australian media outlets, hateful and bigoted posters had been placed in public spaces across Melbourne by a self-professed “fascist community.” The context within which these posters were hung is an ongoing debate in Australia related to an upcoming postal plebiscite (essentially a non-binding public referendum) on marriage equality.

Needless to say, my colleagues and I were deeply disturbed by the hateful messages expressed in these posters, as well as its reference to an article that was published in one of our journals last year. Following a discussion among our team we decided to issue an Expression of Concern in relation to this article, which can be found here.

I would now like to provide a more detailed explanation of the process that led to the publication of this article, the actions we took last year when concerns about this article were first brought to our attention, our subsequent decision to issue an Expression of Concern at this point in time, and the steps we intend to take going forward.

The process leading to the publication of this article

The article that was published in Depression Research and Treatment went through the journal’s standard peer review process prior to publication. Before being assigned to an appropriately expert Editor, the manuscript underwent our routine internal checks, including checking that it was free from plagiarism, verifying the identity of the author, ensuring there were no conflicts of interest between the author and Editor, in addition to several other standard pre-review checks.

After clearing this initial screening process, the manuscript was assigned to an Academic Editor from the journal’s Editorial Board, after checking to ensure that there were no conflicts of interest between this Editor and the author of the manuscript. Over the following ten weeks the manuscript underwent two rounds of peer review involving two external peer reviewers, which resulted in a number of changes to the manuscript in response to reviewer feedback. At the conclusion of the review process, the Editor overseeing the review of this manuscript accepted it for publication.

When this article was first brought to our attention

Shortly after this article was first published, we became aware of several concerns regarding the study’s methodology and reporting, including those raised in this article by Dr Nathaniel Frank. Once we became aware of these concerns, we began an investigation into this article that involved two distinct lines of inquiry. First, our research integrity team carefully looked through the peer review reports, as well as the identities and profiles of the peer reviewers and Editor who oversaw the article’s review process, in order to determine whether there was any evidence of misconduct. The result of this investigation was that no misconduct  was identified in relation to the article’s peer review process.

In addition to this internal ethics investigation, we also communicated the concerns that had been raised about the methodology and reporting of this study to the Editor who had overseen the article’s peer review. After reviewing the concerns that had been raised, the Editor determined that they were not sufficient to warrant the retraction of the published article.

Nevertheless, we believed that there were legitimate concerns that had been raised with regard to the soundness of the research presented in this article, as well as with the way in which it was reported, including the study’s small sample size, the lack of discussion of other influences on the wellbeing of the children included in the study, the use of the phrase “Invisible Victims” in the title of the article, and the potential conflict of interest implied by the author’s position as a Catholic priest. In addition, given that the article describes an observational study, the results cannot be interpreted as being caused by same-sex versus opposite-sex parenting. So, we invited Dr Frank to publish a detailed critique of the article as a Letter to the Editor, which was reviewed by the editor of the original article. Subsequently to this we published a response to this critique from the author of the original article, Dr Donald Paul Sullins, which was also reviewed by the Editor prior to being published.

Our decision to publish an Expression of Concern

Yesterday morning when we first became aware of the posters that had been circulated with reference to this article, myself and a number of colleagues met in order to discuss what steps we should take in response. In spite of our unequivocal feelings towards these posters, we felt that it was important to ensure that our response was respectful of the processes and best practices that are in place when concerns have been raised in regard to peer-reviewed literature.

We explored a range of options that included retracting the article as well as publishing the review reports that had been submitted during the article’s peer review process. Following lengthy discussion we agreed that pursuing either of those options could set a concerning precedent by interfering with the editorial independence of our journals’ Editorial Boards or violating the confidentiality of the peer review process.

At the same time, we agreed that our previous steps to highlight the concerns that had been raised with this article were insufficient, since readers who were referred directly to the original study were likely to be unaware of the subsequent critique that was published in the journal. Therefore we felt that it was important for us to highlight the concerns that had been raised about this article in the form of an Expression of Concern, as this would be made clearly visible on both the HTML and PDF versions of the published article. This Expression of Concern is also being distributed to the abstracting and indexing databases and third-party hosting platforms that link to, or host copies of, this article.

Steps we will be taking going forward

The publication of this Expression of Concern was an important first step in order to make readers aware of the concerns that have been raised about this article. We felt that this was especially important given the ongoing public debate regarding marriage equality in Australia. However, by no means do we feel that this initial step is a sufficient response, and over the coming days/weeks/months we will be taking a number of other steps.

First, we have already begun to actively engage with journalists, individuals on social media, and members of the public who have contacted us in order to explain the concerns that have been raised about this article. My colleagues and I firmly believe that as a publisher of scholarly literature the content we publish matters, not only within the academic community, but also within the media, political policy debates, and wider public discourse. Therefore we feel a deep sense of responsibility to clearly express any concerns, nuances, and limitations related to the work that is published in our journals in order to prevent it from being misinterpreted or intentionally misused.

Second, over the coming weeks and months we will be meeting to discuss any changes we should make to our policies and procedures in light of what has happened. Key questions that we aim to explore include whether any additional policies need to be put in place in cases where articles are likely to have relevance to public policy debates; how we should treat cases where an author’s political or religious convictions, or those of their institution, create a potential conflict of interest; whether we should make critiques contained within a Letter to the Editor more visible on the articles they refer to; and whether there are any steps that we should take to provide greater transparency about the peer review process that has been conducted for the articles we publish. As these meetings progress, we will be publishing posts on this blog in order to explain any changes that we implement and to clearly explain the rationale for these changes, as well as discuss any changes that we consider but decide not to implement.

Finally, I would like to invite our authors, Editors, readers, other publishers, as well as members of the public to share their thoughts with us about how we can do a better job in communicating the results of scientific research. Peer review is by no means a perfect system, and I believe that it is important for us to think carefully about how we can evaluate and communicate scholarly research in the most responsible and effective manner. We must all think carefully about which elements of the traditional peer review process should be preserved as we look for opportunities where improvements can be made.

I would like to invite anyone that has comments, ideas, or concerns that they would like to share with us to email me directly at paul.peters@hindawi.com.

Paul Peters
Chief Executive Officer