Scientist Sues Journal to Block Expression of Concern

Researcher Soudamani Singh has filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia seeking an injunction against the journal PLOS One to bar them from publishing an expression of concern regarding a research article she previously published.

The case deals with an article entitled Cyclooxygenase pathway mediates the inhibition of Na-glutamine co-transporter B0AT1 in rabbit villus cells during chronic intestinal inflammation which was published in PLOS One in September 2018 and which Singh is the middle author.

According to the lawsuit, the dispute began “in or around June 2022” when Singh and Uma Sundaram, the article’s corresponding author, noticed a duplicate image from a similar article that was used inappropriately. They claim that they immediately reached out to the journal to request a correction, saying that it was a mistake.

This came to light due to a comment posted on the site Retraction Watch, which Sundaram attempted to have removed. According to Sundaram, they had recognized the error before the comment was made and had already requested the correction.

Around that time, the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research Oversights received an anonymous allegation of misconduct but opted not to pursue a full inquiry, noting that the authors had already taken appropriate steps to rectify the error. 

However, PLOS One did not simply publish a notice of correction. According to the lawsuit, the publication’s editors made inquiries that “were duplicative of the vetting process the Plaintiff had already reviewed with” at the time of publication.

Nine months later, PLOS One notified the authors that it opted not to publish a notice of correction, but rather an expression of concern. According to the lawsuit, such a notice “has quite the negative connotation and implies a certain level of intentional misconduct.”

As such, Singh has filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary and then a permanent injunction barring PLOS One from publishing the notice of concern. The case also seeks “compensation for damages incurred” as a result of the defendant’s activities.

But this raises a question: How likely is this case to succeed? Also, if it does, what ramifications could it have for scholarly publishing? 

To understand the answers, we need to look at some past cases. 

A Long Shot

In her coverage of the story, Ellie Kincaid at Medscape reported on a previous case where a researcher similarly attempted to sue to block publication of an expression of concern.

That 2015 case, which was originally reported by Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch, saw research Mario Saad attempt to block the publication of an expression of concern for an article he previously had published in the American Diabetes Association (ADA) flagship journal Diabetes.

The court sided with the ADA, saying that, regardless of Saad’s interest in preserving his reputation, the case did not meet the high burden needed for a court to halt speech before it happens.

The ADA published the notice in its March 2015 edition, as it had previously planned.

That, in turn, is likely the outcome here and for the same reason. Any attempt at preventing speech carries a significant burden, and, though nothing is impossible, it seems a long shot that the court will find Singh has reached that burden. 

Another potential issue is PLOS’ own guidelines. Though Singh is correct that expressions of concern are typically associated with issues of integrity, PLOS’ guidelines don’t actually say that. Instead, PLOS One says that such notices are, “are notices published at editors’ discretion to alert readers of serious concerns about published work or an article’s compliance with PLOS policies.”

The guidelines then call out data availability as an example, highlighting a policy violation that generally would not be seen as a violation of research integrity. 

However, even if Singh can overcome those challenges, she is also up against another issue: Courts are generally reluctant to challenge decisions made by academic authorities. Whether it’s a case of academic or research integrity, the courts typically defer to the instructors, editors and other experts charged with overseeing the process.

While litigation is always inherently unpredictable, it’s clear that Singh has several significant obstacles in her path. 

The Difficult Question

To be clear, I’m not making any judgment on the correctness of PLOS One’s actions. Simply put, I’m not an expert in that field and, more importantly, I don’t have access to the information PLOS One has gleaned from their investigation.

However, there is one question that lingers: Why did the initial peer review process not catch this error? If the issue is serious enough to warrant an expression of concern, even after the issue was self-reported, why was it not caught earlier?

Right now, we only have one side of this story, as PLOS One has not yet responded to the case. But if we accept Singh’s words as fact, it raises concern that the initial review process as not as thorough as it needed to be.

Unless the investigation uncovered information that is counter to Singh’s claims, this seems like something PLOS One may want to examine. Though peer review misses issues all the time, it’s one of the reasons retractions and expressions of concern are necessary, every case like this is an opportunity to learn and hone processes.

Bottom Line

As I said above, I’m not voicing an opinion on whether or not PLOS One’s decision is the correct one. Too many details are unknown, 

That said, it is unusual for a journal to opt for an expression of concern in response to a self-reported correction. But unusual does not mean unheard of and doesn’t mean inappropriate. It all comes down to the specific findings of the PLOS One investigation.

Thanks to this legal case, there’s a good chance we will learn the details about how and why they reached the decision they made. Though such public examinations aren’t uncommon thanks to the work of the Committee on Publication Ethics, it is rare to get this much detail and information.

As such, even if this case is a long shot for Singh, it will be one to watch as we look at how both sides respond to the information that comes out of it.  

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