Going all out for the right to reply

From Nature News, 17 March 2009 (doi 10.1038/458264b):

The Max Planck Society (MPS) in Germany has begun legal proceedings against publishers Wiley International in a dispute over an editorial in the February issue of Human Brain Mapping. The society alleges that the editorial grievously misrepresents it and harms the reputation of one of its scientists. It wants the journal to publish a letter from the society addressing these concerns without delay. Peter Fox, an editor-in-chief at Human Brain Mapping, says that the MPS letter went through normal refereeing processes “in a timely manner”, but says he does not know when it will be published. MPS vice-president Herbert Jäckle, deputized to act for the society in this matter, claims that the journal has unfairly delayed the society’s right to reply. Fox, a neurologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, accepted the MPS letter on 11 March, two days after the deadline the society set before taking legal action, says he will publish the letter together with a reply that “rebuts Dr Jäckle’s various accusations”.

The row originally centred on a dispute over who owned data gathered in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen. Last spring, Amir Shmuel and David Leopold used the data in a paper for a special issue of Human Brain Mapping on spontaneous brain activity — but Logothetis maintains that the data were used inappropriately because they had been gathered for a different purpose, and wrote to the journal asking for the paper not to be published. It was, however, published in May 2008. Logothetis published a scientific rebuttal in another journal, NeuroImage, in January 2009.

Fox and his fellow editors published an extended editorial analysing the dispute in the framework of ethics in the February 2009 issue of Human Brain Mapping. The MPS says that there are numerous factual errors in the editorial’s account of events. Jäckle is also incensed by the article’s claims that he had given permission to publish the disputed paper. “I was only a mediator in a dispute, not an adjudicator as the editorial claims,” he says. “It is not up to the Max Planck Society to permit publication of anything — that responsibility lies solely with the editors.”

The MPS has posted a response to the February editorial on the website of Logothetis’s laboratory. “The goal of our editorial was to use this conflict to discuss the ethical principles that govern responsible conduct of research and peer review,” says Fox, “and thereby to develop guidelines that would prevent future occurrences of this nature.”


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