16 July 2020

An expression of concern about Expressions of Concern

In academic publishing, what is the purpose of a journal issuing an "Expression of Concern" (EoC)?

When I first came across the concept, I was told that an EoC was a sort of preliminary step on the way to retraction. The journal acknowledges that it has received information that suggests that an article may not be reliable. This information seems, on the face of it, to be quite convincing. The journal is still investigating exactly what happened, but in the meantime, here is an early warning that people who are thinking of citing this article might want to think twice. We could see it as the equivalent of locking up someone who is accused of a serious crime: They have not yet been found guilty, their detention is only preventive (and often under better conditions than those who have been convicted), but the prima facie case is such that on balance, we probably don't want to have that person walking around unchecked.

An example of this came in the Brian Wansink case. After retracting, republishing, and re-retracting one of Wansink's articles, JAMA placed EoCs on six other articles with Wansink as an author that had been published in its family of journals. A few months later, with no satisfactory response having being received to explain the problems in those articles, all six were retracted.

However, it appears that many journals or editors are using the term "Expression of Concern" to mean something else. This article has had an EoC on it for six years now. The editors of Psychology of Music just issued this EoC, but according to Samuel Mehr they have no plans to escalate to a retraction. The author of that last paper has also had five EoCs in place at another journal for over a year.

This type of EoC basically comes down to the following statement from the editors: "We have good reason to believe that this article is garbage, and you should not trust it. But we're not going to do anything about it that might hurt our impact factor, or embarrass us by getting us into Retraction Watch." It's like a restaurant menu with a small sticker saying "Pssst: The fish is terrible, please don't order it". (Plus, the sticker is permanent. It's inside the laminated cover of the menu.)

It has been suggestedmore than once (albeit with some pushback) that we need different words for different types of retraction (say, "obvious fraud" versus "honest error"). It seems that we also need two different words to describe these two different usages of "Expression of Concern". One journal editor posted what he called an "Editorial Note" on a Wansink article; while this was frustrating for those of us who wanted that article to be retracted, at least it was very clear from that "Editorial Note" that the editor was not remotely interested in doing anything else about the problem. Perhaps that's the way "forward", although it doesn't feel like progress. Correcting the scientific record continues to feel like pulling teeth.


  1. This blog post reminds me to the Expression of Concern https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09397140.2016.1208389 which is related to a fraudulent study on the breeding biology of the Basra Reed-Warbler in a Taylor & Francis journal. The Basra Reed-Warbler study is fraudulent because the raw research data do not exist.

    This EoC was published on 5 July 2016, four days after Taylor & Francis and Editor-in-Chief Max Kasparek received the report "Final investigation on serious allegations of fabricated and/or falsified data in Al-Sheikhly et al. (2013, 2015) - 1 July 2016". This report is available at https://osf.io/j69ue/

    It seems to me that the sentence "We have been informed of a question of the reliability and validity of the data reported in the above work" in this Expression of Concern refers to this report.

    See https://osf.io/ajsvw/ for another report which is since the end of 2016 in the possession of Publisher Taylor & Francis. This report is witten in Arab. It seems to me that it can be expected from a mainsteam publisher like Taylor & Francis that they are able to read reports which are witten in the Arab language.

    Another project at OSF https://osf.io/cvu5b/ documents unnoticed changes in the text of this Expression of Concern.

    Are there other examples where publishers / journals have made comparable unnoticed changes in the Version of Record of an Expression of Concern?

    Is there a solid proper source (an article in a peer-reviewed journal?) with a globally used definition of the 'Version of Record' for digital publications which belong to the body of scientific knowledge?

  2. 'Psychology of Music' ....that made me lose all concern I had about Expressions of Concern.

  3. It's been a year that this MA (https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/53/10/655) is with an EoC. Recently, the same group was exposed in Retraction Watch for a ton of other papers (7, to be more precise), here: https://retractionwatch.com/2020/07/21/calling-exercise-data-atypical-improbable-and-to-put-it-bluntly-pretty-weird-sleuths-call-for-seven-retractions/. The journal does not seem to be willing to take action IMO.