Editorial Misbehaviour in Autism Journals?

By Neuroskeptic | February 16, 2015 6:11 pm

A remarkable scandal has erupted concerning the editorial standards of two scientific journals.

The journals are called Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD) and Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD). Both publications are owned by Elsevier, and they have the same Editor-in-Chief, Johnny L. Matson. Or at least they did until recently. Matson may have been removed – although it’s not clear if there is a replacement for him.

johnny_matson

The scandal emerged some weeks ago after Oxford University researcher Dorothy Bishop emailed RASD to say that she had concerns about the journal. Bishop asked to be taken off their editorial board. Instead of just Bishop’s name being removed, however, all information about the editors disappeared from the websites of both RASD and RIDD. Overnight they became, as Bishop put it, Journals Without Editors.

After Bishop blogged about this, things got even stranger. We learned, for instance, that Matson was in the habit of accepting papers without sending them off for peer review, acting as sole handling editor. He also published a large amount of his own work in the journals he edited. (Matson’s pattern of behavior is eerily reminiscent of the case of Head and Neck Oncology and its editor Waseem Jerjes that Neuroskeptic readers may remember.)

Anyway, Bishop’s post raises questions over Matson’s record as an editor of RASD and RIDD. But I’ve done some digging and I have other concerns about his work; namely, I’m concerned about apparent undeclared conflicts of interest.

Matson is an autism researcher and much of his work concerns the diagnosis and evaluation of this disorder. Over the years Matson has developed over a dozen questionnaires and other rating scales, ranging from the Baby and Infant Screen for Children with aUtIsm Traits (BISCUIT) to the Profile of Toileting Issues (POTI).

All of these instruments are sold via a company called Disability Consultants, LLC, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The listed contact email address is for one Dean Matson, who’s also the Director. The only products listed on their website are Matson assessment tools. They cost up to $325.00 per kit (each kit includes 50 score sheets.)

So Johnny Matson and/or his family seem to have a direct financial interest in the promotion of Matson’s various assessment kits. Such conflicts of interests are not unethical in themselves, but they ought to be declared whenever a researcher publishes a paper on a topic relevant to his or her interests.

However, as far as I can see, Matson does not declare any conflict of interest (CoI) in his academic papers, even when the topic of the paper is his own instruments. For example, Matson’s most recent paper concerns the PIMRA-II, which he developed. There is no CoI declaration. Nor was there a CoI section on this review article which discusses a number of Matson’s tools. Both of these papers appeared in RIDD. Some of Matson’s recent publications in other journals do include CoI sections but in these cases, Matson regularly declares that he has no competing interests, as in here (2013) and here (2014).

This situation strikes me as problematic.

Update 17.02.2015: Do Matson’s claims that he has no personal conflict of interest reflect standards in the field? For comparison, I looked at Catherine Lord, another autism research whose assessment tools, the ADOS and ADI, are widely used. Although not all of Lord’s papers carry CoI statements, many (my impression is most) of them do. When they are present, Lord typically states that she receives royalties for the sale of the ADI and ADOS. As far as I am aware, Matson has never made a similar declaration.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: autism, papers, PIE, science, select, Top Posts
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  • Enzo Tagliazucchi

    in my humble opinion the acronym “POTI” is enough to raise serious concerns.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Maybe you should rate yourself using my questionnaire, the Annoyed by Silly acronyms Scale (ASS). Cost $325.

  • Dorothy Bishop

    My impression is that COI statements are a *relatively* new phenomenon, and that many authors might not feel they are needed if they are just using their own test instrument in the course of a study. If, on the other hand, a paper’s primary focus is the test instrument, then I’d regard it as more usual to have a COI statement – but that would not, I think, have been the case 10 years or so ago.
    A major change is that now, with web-based submission forms, there is often an explicit question about COI, with a clear definition of what is covered, which authors have to complete at the point of submission. I have noticed this being made explicit for many journals in the past year or two. I haven’t submitted to RIDD or RASD and so am not sure if they have such a question.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      True. We should distinguish between a) publishing a paper with no CoI statement and b) publishing a paper stating “I have no conflict of interest”.

      a) is common and, as you say, it used to be the norm. As far as I can tell, most papers in RASD and RIDD include no CoI section. But some of them do (roughly 10-20%).

      But b) is another matter. Matson has repeatedly stated that he has no conflict of interest, even in papers that are about evaluating the performance of his own tools, such as this paper about the BISCUIT. I find this odd.

    • Bill C

      At this point it should be common to Elsevier?

  • Autism Resources

    It makes me wonder what other papers were passed up or published without proper review.

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  • Everett H. Scott

    Watch the anti-vaxxers jump on this. They will say this proves that all the ‘science’ on autism is a bunch of BS so their BS is just as valid as anybody else’s.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Well, if they do say that, they would be hijacking the issue. I don’t think vaccines cause autism, and I don’t think that this affair is relevant to vaccines in the slightest, and I’m sure Dorothy Bishop doesn’t either.

  • Dale

    There are a few complicated wrinkles. First, there is nothing automatically nefarious or improper in an editorial decision to publish a paper without sending it out for peer review. Peer review is a system for giving advice to editors about the decisions before them; lots of trouble is caused by pretending that it is something more, and thus neglecting to do the due diligence of which it is incapable. If an editor has the expertise to make the decision without outside advice, that’s OK. It becomes an issue when the editor accepts (or rejects, for that matter) a submission for which s/he lacks the expertise, and it becomes an issue when the editor abuses the power and (for example) gives preferential treatment to friends’ papers or papers with which s/he happens to agree. It also becomes an issue when a high proportion of papers are approved without peer review, so the value of peer review as a QA/QC step is degraded.
    Second, the absence of a COI disclaimer has to be evaluated in the context of the individual journal’s SOPs and policies. I was a medical journal editor for fifteen years; during the first ten of those years, we asked for assurances w/r/t ethical review and COI, but we didn’t incorporate them into the published papers unless there were an important issue to disclose or discuss. We changed because the industry’s practice was changing, and we had a sentinel event: a serious ethics complaint involving a several-year-old paper for which the correspondence had already gone to the recycling bin (putting it in the published MS makes a permanently-accessible record of the assurance given).
    Publishing your own work in your own journal is problematic; small observations may incidentally find their way into editorial comments or things like historical notes or cover essays. But a real primary research report should probably never be in your own publication. The COI potential is huge, and the credibility of the report will be suspect.
    Despite those caveats, this is concerning. If you are doing a study evaluating a test or a product in which you have a commercial interest, you have a COI and you ought to disclose it. The time to deal with such a COI is in planning the study — loooong before submitting the manuscript (it often means having a different PI or truly independent audits). Claude Bernard warned us in 1865 (NB: This is NOT new) that nothing poisons science like having a strongly preferred outcome; doing a study to prove something is just not the same as doing a study to test something.
    So as I read this piece from a presumption of innocence, I run into trouble, and think (a) his editorial practices deserve an audit, and (b) it’s hard to believe that his interest in the tests he devised is so small that a COI disclosure was unnecessary or that a no-COI disclaimer was in fact honest.

    • reasonsformoving

      “there is nothing automatically nefarious or improper in an editorial
      decision to publish a paper without sending it out for peer review”

      These are science journals, not law reviews.

      • Dale

        I’m not sure
        that I understand your point, here. The journal I edited was also a science journal,
        and law reviews also often use outside peer review. In my own published review
        OF peer review (not published in my own journal), I likened it to Emmenthaler –
        a bit nutty, and full of holes. It’s a very coarse tool, but useful enough that
        it’s appropriate to use it for most MSS that are serious candidates for acceptance.
        It’s a problem when you start pretending that it’s capable of things it cannot
        do – like detecting well-crafted fraud. It’s a problem when you start using it
        as a substitute for – rather than an adjunct to – editorial review of a
        submission. Abuse of editorial discretion is a problem; its careful exercise is
        not. The story under discussion is one that makes one concerned about abuse of
        editorial discretion; that’s why I suggested an audit.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          That’s true; editors “farming out” decision making to the peer reviewers (and refusing to take decisions themselves) is certainly a big problem.

          But editors accepting papers with no peer review at all is also a problem, at the other extreme.

          Imagine a journal where the Editor simply accepted whatever he liked, with no input from anyone else.

          That wouldn’t be a peer reviewed journal – it would be a personal scrapbook.

          • Dale

            And I made that point in my initial posting — there’s editorial discretion, and there’s abuse of editorial discretion. The latter is a problem.

            Interestingly, there have been serious suggestions that the peer review process be done away with because of its inconsistency and unreliability and susceptibility to bias and inability to detect whole classes of deficiencies. I don’t happen to subscribe to that view, but think it’s important to remember what it can and cannot do (and to remember that Moses did not bring it down from Sinai on stone tablets).

        • reasonsformoving

          “law reviews also often use outside peer review.”

          I don’t mean to be uncivil, but you obviously don’t know how law reviews operate. There is NO peer review.

          • Dale

            Well, that makes it odd that MSS I have sent to law reviews have been sent for peer review, and that MSS have been sent to me by law reviews for review. Perhaps I have thought this practice to be more widespread than it is.

          • Neurolaw Research

            The law review I submitted to had peer review too.

  • Don Rojas

    There is another Springer journal with Dr. Matson as Editor-in-Chief: Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
    http://www.springer.com/psychology/child+%26+school+psychology/journal/40489

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      True. Matson appears to still be Editor-in-Chief of that one. It’s also notable that Matson has only authored one paper (and also a ‘welcome to the journal’ editorial) in RJADD.

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  • MoreDisclosure

    I see there is some debate about the necessity of peer reviewers in journals. But I also question the quality of peer review in journals, particularly ones where the editors of the given journal tend to publish frequently in that journal to push an agenda.

    For example, Simon Baron-Cohen who is one of two editors of the journal Molecular Autism, frequently publishes in that journal. It has been one of his vehicles to productivity that has led to his publishing 10% of the papers on sex differences in autism: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/07/11/the-sexual-politics-of-autism/).

    I am not sure what policies journals like that put in place to make it so that an editor does not choose their most favorable reviewers, and does not subsequently reward those reviewers with easier peer review in their future submissions. Based on my involvement in the peer review process, I feel like this happens rather frequently at some journals.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Hmm.

      Baron-Cohen is an author on 30 papers in Molecular Autism. Of these, four are editorials, but that leaves 26 research papers that he’s published in that journal. That’s about 18% of the total of 165 papers that have appeared in the journal since early 2010.

      Having said that, Baron-Cohen is an author on a lot of papers in other journals. So to judge fairly whether he is publishing disproportionately in Molecular Autism we’d need to work out what % of papers he authors in other comparable journals.

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  • stevenk1

    I am a little surprised this unfolding series of controversies surrounding Matson has not made it to his Wikipedia entry yet. I am curious when someone will make the edits.

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  • lifebiomedguru

    About to publish a book on “Cures vs. Profits” and this fits the bill…. Thanks for the summary.

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