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Academic Freedom: Keep Lawyers Out Of Scientific Publishing

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jun 4, 2016 6:19 PMNov 19, 2019 9:19 PM


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Over at Retraction Watch

, we learn about the strange case of the author who is preparing to sue a journal for retracting his paper. In 2014, Jonathan Bishop published an article called Transforming the UK Home Office into a Department for Homeland Security in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (JHSEM), a journal operated by De Gruyter publishers. In April this year, JHSEM retracted Bishop's piece, saying in explanation that "The journal re-reviewed the above-listed article and concluded that the article does not fit with the journal." Bishop has argued that this retraction means that De Gruyter are in breach of their contract, the agreement to publish the article. He told Retraction Watchthat

We have told them that if they do not remove the retraction and restore the original paper that we will sue them for breach of contract for ceasing publication of the original paper and passing off and trademark infringement for publishing the “retraction” article in my name without my consent.

What are we to make of all this?

I don't think that JHSEM should have retracted this paper. While, quite possibly, they never should have published it in the first place, the fact is that they did publish it, and the paper is no worse now than it was when they accepted it. JHSEM ought to stand by their own decision. Bishop has every right to be aggreived at the journal's change of heart, which can only be described as capricious. I'm reminded of the case of Recursive Fury, another paper that was retracted after a journal seemingly changed their minds. I criticized the decision to retract in that case and I'm doing the same now. However, by bringing the legal system into this dispute, Bishop has done something far worse than JHSEM did. In my view, the decision as to whether to publish and whether to retract a paper should be up to the journal alone. Editors should be free to make editorial decisions (even bad decisions, such as in this case) without having to worry about getting sued. It's a fundamental question of academic freedom: if academics are not allowed to publish freely - which includes freely publishing retraction notices - then it's not clear why we have academics at all. I'm not a lawyer so I don't know how strong Bishop's case is in legal terms. But in my view, as an academic, Bishop should not be resorting to legal means to resolve this academic dispute even if he has the power to do so. Scientific publishing is a mess as it is, we don't need legal threats adding to the mix as well. Edit: It's also important to note that although a retraction notice has been published, Bishop's article is still available from the JHSEM website (here). It is still a paper published by De Gruyter, in other words. This is in accordance with best practice in scholarly publishing, in which retracted articles are not actually deleted.

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