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+.