By the time the chemist who noticed the suspicious data published in the Rodriguez–Marks paper had contacted ChemBark, the chemist had already anonymously notified the Journal of the American Chemical Society with the concerns. A member of the staff at the journal responded to this initial message with the following:
To Whom It May Concern:
Thank you for your message regarding J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131 (16), pp 5902–5919. Indeed JACS takes ethics quite seriously. We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.
The implication of the official response from the journal was troubling. It implied that for the investigation to proceed, the whistleblower would need to reveal his/her identity.
Surely a journal that grants anonymity to referees would appreciate why a reader who was calling attention to possible misconduct by a well-known, powerful chemist would want to remain anonymous. Furthermore, JACS is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and the source reports he reminded the journal that “COPE supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous”. Beyond COPE, Ivan Oransky (co-editor of the blog Retraction Watch) has also summarized why editors shouldn’t ignore anonymous tips.
To its credit, the journal responded favorably to the source’s gentle reminder about COPE’s policy, and the investigation was allowed to proceed.
After the paper in question was retracted, ChemBark asked JACS Editor-in-Chief Peter Stang by e-mail:
When the source initially contacted the journal in August with these concerns, the journal office responded to him/her “We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.”
As you know, the source refused to identify himself/herself and defended his/her right to anonymity in the process. While the journal eventually relented and proceeded with the review, the initial implication was that the source would need to identify himself/herself for an investigation to proceed. Was the request and wording of the initial response from the journal “standard procedure”? Is the journal worried that such a response could have a chilling effect on the identification of suspicious or irreproducible data? Why would the identity of the source matter if the concerns are reasonable?
Dr. Stang’s response included the paragraph:
I will say, however that the request for the individual to identify themselves was unnecessary. The identity of the “whistleblower” was immaterial to the issues raised and did not prevent JACS from considering the allegation and taking action. All ACS Journals take all cases of alleged research improprieties very seriously and have established procedures for reviewing and taking appropriate actions, where warranted, to preserve the integrity of the scientific record. Institutions and funding agencies also have established departments, policies and procedures for handling allegations of data fabrication by researchers. Upholding the scientific record requires the vigilance of all participants in the research community.
All credible reports of suspicious data should be thoughtfully considered by the corresponding journal, whether reported anonymously or not. Journals should be grateful to anyone who attempts to correct the scientific record and understanding of why a tipster might want to remain anonymous. While JACS‘s initial response was troubling and “unnecessary”, it would appear as though the editors have taken steps to correct how they handle anonymous tips.
That is an encouraging outcome.