Rights of Human Subjects in Scientific Papers

The retracted Recursive Fury paper has created quite a blogger and twitter storm. A sensational storm indeed, with hints to conspiracy theories, claims of legal threats and perceived contradictions. It has been fury – one of the strongest human emotions – that has (perhaps understandably at first sight) guided the discussion around this retraction. Not surprisingly though, the truth is not as sensational and much simpler. The studied subjects were explicitly identified in the paper without their consent. It is well acknowledged and accepted that in order to protect a subject’s rights and avoid a potentially defamatory outcome, one must obtain the subject’s consent if they can be identified in a scientific paper. The mistake was detected after publication, and the authors and Frontiers worked hard together for several months to try to find a solution. In the end, those efforts were not successful. The identity of the subjects could not be protected and the paper had to be retracted. Frontiers then worked closely with the authors on a mutually agreed and measured retraction statement to avoid the retraction itself being misused. From the storm this has created, it would seem we did not succeed.

For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.

It is most unfortunate that this particular incident was around climate change, because climate change is a very serious threat for human civilization. But the importance of the subject matter does not justify abandoning our principles.

Frontiers’ core mission is to improve peer review. One principle that we follow is that scientific publishing should sit in the hands of scientists. Frontiers implements this principle by supporting scientists to operate the peer-review process from the beginning to the end. Frontiers remains faithful to this mission, despite the risks that comes with it. We will stay the course because we fundamentally believe that authors should bear the full responsibility of submitting papers with the highest standards and that scientists should bear the full responsibility of deciding what science is published. After publication, the community is engaged and a post-publication review naturally follows. Post-publication review is facilitated by the Frontiers’ commenting and social networking platforms. This process may reveal fundamental errors or issues that go against principles of scholarly publishing. Like all other journals, Frontiers seriously investigates any well-founded complaints or allegations, and retraction only happens in cases of absolute necessity and only after extensive analysis. For the paper in question, the issue was clear, the analysis was exhaustive, all efforts were made to work with the authors to find a solution and we even worked on the retraction statement with the authors. But there was no moral dilemma from the start – we do not support scientific publications where human subjects can be identified without their consent.
Henry Markram
Editor-in-Chief, Frontiers

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