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Publish or perish – a question of ethics

Posted Mar 15 2010 9:53am

I got a very strong sense of deja vu when leafing through PLoS Biol recently. I was sure I had seen something very similar to Jeffrey Shaman’s paper Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental United States before.

A quick check on PubMed proved me right. I found the following, published two months earlier, in PLoS Curr Influenz:

Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental US
Jeffrey Shaman,* Virginia Pitzer,† Cecile Viboud,‡ Marc Lipsitch,§ and Bryan Grenfell

PubMed ID 20066155

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20066155

Because this was PLoS, I was also able to print the full paper and compare. I couldn’t find any differences whatsoever between the two papers. In fact they were exactly the same except for a reshuffling of author order and an abbreviation in the title.

A quick check back on PLoS Biol and I notice that someone else has seen the discrepancy. A comment attached to the article begins with the following

Compare, published in PLoS Currents influenza (dec 18th)
Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental US
Jeffrey Shaman,* Virginia Pitzer,† Cecile Viboud,‡ Marc Lipsitch,§ and Bryan Grenfell

PubMed ID 20066155

with (and not cited, if I am not mistaken)

Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental United States (23 february 2010)

Jeffrey Shaman1*, Virginia E. Pitzer2,3,4, Cécile Viboud2, Bryan T. Grenfell2,4,5, Marc Lipsitch6,7,8

When this poster commented, only one of the articles was listed in PubMed. A search for “Absolute humidity” on PubMed today however yielded the following results [click it to get full size]

A PLoS spokesperson had answered the comment in less than 3 hours (perhaps they anticipated something being said). Their official line was as follows

PLoS Biology is fully aware of the authors’ submission to PLoS Currents referenced above. PLoS Currents is a website for immediate, open communication and discussion of new scientific data, analyses, and ideas in a critical research area. The work is screened by experts, but is not subject to in-depth peer review…

Our policy until now (February, 2010) has been to allow resubmission of PLoS Currents content to another PLoS journal. However, the decision to include Currents in PubMed (and PubMed Central) has caused us to reconsider the status of content communicated via Currents, relative to other journals.

I am certainly not convinced by this argument. Having personal experience of getting journals into PubMed, it is not something that happens immediately; the typical process is eight to twelve weeks and PLoS Curr Influenz was already accepted by PubMed in 2009. The accepted date on the re-submitted paper in PLoS Biol was January 20, 2010.

And even worse still, the received date of the paper by PLoS Biol was September 10, 2009. PLoS Curr Influenz did not even accept the duplicate paper until December 18, 2009.

The dates simply don’t add up, a journal doesn’t just email PubMed and expect to show content the next day, and feigning innocence just makes PLoS look at worst deceitful and at very best incompetent. If PLoS was aware that the paper had been submitted to both journals, and was aware that PLoS Curr Influenz would be listed on PubMed, they should have made a full disclosure on the paper subsequently published in PLoS Biol.

Now, I am very much in favour of rapid communication journals, I think they represent an excellent platform to publish cutting edge research, but a distinction between these and traditionally peer-reviewed journals must be drawn somewhere. Should a publication like this really be submitting content to PubMed when their editorial policy allows re-submission in other PLoS journals? PLoS have been having their cake and eating it for a long time now. In a world where publication stats are frequently used as a method of judging the worth of a researcher, are the authors here benefiting twice from the same paper? And PubMed has a very clear policy on duplicate articles, which PLoS should know about.

So why didn’t they do it? Why didn’t they tell PubMed that they would be knowingly supplying duplicate articles? Well I do have a theory [snip-snip - F1000 Lawyers]… But it would be much better to see what you think.


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