In the controversy surrounding the two papers published by Gopal Kundu's group in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), the ethics of the journal's actions have come under some critical scrutiny. The questions revolve around the journal's unilateral withdrawal of the second of the two papers, overruling the objections from Kundu and his coworkers. [JBC is an open access journal, so you can see the original paper (May 2005) and the withdrawal notice (February 2007)].
The first question is straight-forward: the withdrawal notice states, simply, "This manuscript has been withdrawn." That's it! It does not elaborate on the reasons for the withdrawal. For example, it does not say that the journal was yanking Kundu's paper in spite of his objection (and probably, his protest). I believe a journal owes it to its readers a transparent account of the circumstances under which a published paper is withdrawn.
Let's turn to the second and more important (and also problematic) question now. In his Current Science editorial (in the 10 June 2007 issue which also carried several letters by key players in this saga), P. Balaram compares the fate of Kundu's 2005 paper with that of a University of Wisconsin researcher:
[...] A sad and disturbing case at the University of Wisconsin, which hinges curiously enough on manipulated Western blots, ended last year with the resignation of a professor, leaving questions about the veracity of data in three published papers in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Developmental Biology and Molecular Cell (Couzin, J., Science, 2006, 313, 1222). Over nine months after this report, none of these papers has been withdrawn, with one journal reportedly waiting for the results of an ORI investigation. The reluctance of journals to publicly state a position on these papers is in sharp contrast to the treatment of the NCCS paper by the Journal of Biological Chemistry. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion of bias; [...] [Bold emphasis added]
[For a background on the "disturbing case at Wisconsin," let me direct you to Janet Stemwedel's two posts on Elizabeth Goodwin of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; the focus of these posts, however, was on the rather sorry plight of her graduate students who did the right thing by blowing the whistle on her fraud.]
Let's recap: In the Goodwin case, "a UW investigation reported data falsification in Goodwin's past grant applications and raised questions about some of her papers." Yet, as Balaram points out, none of her papers have been withdrawn (at least as of June 2007). In the Kundu case, on the other hand, despite a clean chit from an 'official' committee and despite JBC's knowledge of this fact, the journal went ahead and yanked Kundu's 2005 paper. The difference between the two cases cannot be more stark. Is this fair?
Let's leave aside the question of whether all journals (should) follow the same procedure. If we focus instead on what we know about how JBC handled the Kundu case, it would appear to have followed a fair procedure. For example, the JBC committee probing the allegations against Kundu's papers gave him a chance to respond to them. From the fact that Balaram has not mentioned any specific shortcoming in the JBC process, I gather that his complaint is probably about (a) whether a journal has a right to order its own investigation, and/or (b) whether it can unilaterally yank an article even though an institutional inquiry found no wrongdoing.
I spoke to an editor at a top materials journal about this issue, and his answer was blunt and categorical: a journal has the responsibility to protect itself from getting sullied and therefore it should always have the right to conduct its own independent inquiry into any allegations of misconduct. And of course it has to follow a procedure that's fair to the accused authors, who must be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. When probed further about situations (such as Kundu's) where the journal's conclusions go against those of the official committee, he insisted that the journal should go by its own committee's decisions. He further asked, semi-rhetorically, "what would Current Science do?"
For the moment, I think I am with the editor I spoke to. Which makes me wonder why the journals that published Goodwin's papers have not yanked them; Balaram, on the other hand, is using the other journals' reluctance to withdraw her papers to imply that JBC was too harsh on Kundu. Since I know virtually nothing about what the other journals did or did not do, I would like to leave this angle for now.
So, as I said, I'm with the editor's view that journals should retain the right to pursue their own investigations into misconduct. But I am keen to see the arguments for the other side. What would they be?