Just A Coincidence: My Paper Rejected Across 65 BMC-series Journals for Bogus Reasons on the Day the Guardian Slates Eysenck

On a rainy, stormy Saturday evening, with nothing much on the telly, this is an update of an update in a series of posts concerning the late Professor Hans J Eysenck, one of the most prolific psychologists of all time. Eysenck worked at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London.

The context is the publication by the psychiatrist Anthony Pelosi of a penetrating critique of the research publications by Professor H J Eysenck and an editorial and Open Letter to KCL in the same issue of the Journal of Health Psychology published in February 2019.

This post begins with an article in the Guardian in which the author of the Eysenck critique, Tony Pelosi, gave a first person account of his role in the affair.

The Guardian Article

On Friday 11 October, 2019, at 11.05 BST Sarah Boseley’s Guardian article is published. The article begins:

“The work of one of the most famous and influential British psychologists of all time, Hans Eysenck, is under a cloud following an investigation by King’s College London, which has found 26 of his published papers “unsafe”.

King’s says the results and conclusions of the papers “were not considered scientifically rigorous” by its committee of inquiry. Prof Sir Robert Lechler, the provost at King’s, has contacted the editors of the 11 journals where the papers appeared, recommending they should be retracted.”

The first of the 11 journals

is the Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, a quarterly journal published by the Council for Social and Economic Studies. According to the description in Wikipedia, this journal has been “identified as one of two international journals which regularly publishes articles pertaining to race and intelligence with the goal of supporting the idea that white people are inherently superior…”

Nice one, Hans!

The nine other journals include two founded by Hans Eysenck

These two journals contain 8 ‘unsafe’ articles: Behaviour Research and Therapy, and Personality and Individual Differences are both published by Elsevier. A third Elsevier journal is the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 

The Journal of Behavior Therapy and Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science are both published by Springer. However, not all 61 of the suspect publications were included in the KCL review. The KCL Enquiry failed to include 35 of the 61 suspect publications Several publications on the list of 61 suspect publications are published by Springer, including the three editions of a book in which personality is argued by Eysenck to be a greater risk factor for cancer and coronary heart disease than smoking:

  • Eysenck, H.J. (1991). Smoking, personality and stress: psychosocial factors in the prevention of cancer and coronary heart disease. Springer-Verlag Berlin.
  • Eysenck, H.J. (2011). Smoking, personality and stress: psychosocial factors in the prevention of cancer and coronary heart disease. Soft cover edition. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

The e-book is currently available on the Springer website for €74.96. The book’s author is incorrectly stated to be “Eysenck, Michael” something I feel sure Michael Eysenck would want to have corrected asap.Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 10.38.33.png

The blurb about the book states:

“It is often suggested that the incidence of cancer and coronary heart disease could be much reduced or even eliminated if only people would stop smoking cigarettes and eat fewer high-cholesterol foods. The evidence, however, shows that such views are simplistic and unrealistic and that, instead, cancer and CHD are the product of many risk factors acting synergistically. Psychosocial factors (stress, personality) are six times as predictive as smoking, cholesterol level or blood pressure and much more responsive to prophylactic treatment. This book admits that, while smoking is a risk factor for cancer and CHD, its effects have been exaggerated. A more realistic appraisal of a very complex chain of events incorporating many diverse factors is given, and appropriate action to prevent cancer and coronary heart disease is discussed.”

This Springer Verlag – Book published by “The #1 Science Publisher‎” must be withdrawn.

As stated in my February 22, 2019, JHP editorial, “To his eternal shame, the attempts by Hans Eysenck to discredit the well-established causal links between tobacco smoking and cancer while in receipt of large sums from the tobacco industry is one of the most shameful deceits committed by any scientist in the Twentieth Century.”

26th ‘Unsafe’ Paper

On Friday 11 October, 2019 at 17.41 BST, I received notification from the Institute of Psychiatry that the 26th ‘unsafe’ paper, which had been omitted from the KCL Internal Review Report due to administrative error, was:

Grossarth-Maticek, R., H. J. Eysenck and H. Vetter (1988). “Antismoking attitudes and general prejudice: an empirical study.” Percept Mot Skills 66(3): 927-931.

Bogus Rejection by BMC Psychology

The BMC series of journals, which includes BMC Psychology, is a part of Springer Nature, one of the Springer group of companies that also published Hans Eysenck’s book on smoking, personality and stress.

On Friday 11 October, 2019, 18.17 BST, I received a rejection notice from BMC Psychology for a paper I had submitted two months previously. My paper is an integrative review of dissociative responses following child abuse and their role in subjective paranormal experience.

The rejection notice states:

“I have assessed your manuscript and regret to inform you that it cannot be considered for peer-review. Please find my comments at the end of this email.”

The reason for the rejection is that:

“Unfortunately your manuscript is out of scope for this journal.”

This reason is patently untrue. The contents of BMC Psychology includes 58 articles related to child abuse, 13 on dissociation, and 4 on depersonalisation. One article published on 10 July 2019 in BMC Psychology is specifically concerned with the taxonomy of clinical psychological problems including paranormal experiences:

Bakker, G. M. (2019). A new conception and subsequent taxonomy of clinical psychological problems. BMC Psychology7(1), 46.

The reason given for rejection by BMC, therefore, is bogus.

My Legitimate Scientific Research Rejected Across 65 BMC-series Journals

As if receiving a bogus rejection is not bad enough, the letter also stated:

Please note that this decision applies across the BMC-series journals.” 

Thus my research work is prohibited from any further consideration by any of the 65 BMC-series journals across 16 different fields of science and medicine.

This seems an excessively draconian measure that goes beyond any principle of fairness.

Bearing in mind that I have published five times in Nature, Springer Nature’s  flagship journal, maybe there is more here than meets the eye. It seems unlikely that an editor of one BMC journal is authorized to speak on behalf of all other BMC editors. Unless, of course, there has been an instruction or a policy from higher up. This issue needed to be resolved.

Trying to resolve the issue is proving difficult. The links on the BMC website to the Managing Editors of the BMC Series are dead. I informed one of the section editors to see if he can cast any light on this matter. I thought the best thing to do would be to go directly to the editor. The Editor of BMC Psychology is a Dr Darren Byrne. At this point, the story goes full circle.

Dr Byrne completed his postgraduate training one year ago at the  Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, Eysenck’s alma mater.

Obviously, a complete coincidence.

A Complete Coincidence

As I had thought, the rejection of my manuscript a few hours after the Eysenck matter appeared in the Guardian must have been pure coincidence. Colleagues knowledgeable about journals and peer review told me this must be the case and I wanted to believe them.  OK, so the editor had waited for 60+ days to reach his decision to reject, but his desk rejection has a perfectly simple explanation.

Dr. Tim Shipley, the Managing Editor for the BMC-Series journals, explained that my manuscript was not suitable for consideration at BMC Psychology because it is “a narrative review of the literature” and journals in the BMC series do not generally consider narrative review articles (unless invited).

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So there we have it. Since my article had not been invited, the decision to reject my paper was consistent with the policy that applies across the entire series of 65 journals. This hard and fast rule meant that  Dr. Shipley – and all 65 editors of the BMC journals – are “unable to consider my appeal any further and would not be able to reopen my manuscript”.

End of.

But wait a minute…

What about the multiple narrative review articles that have already been published in BMC-Series journals? A search on the BMC-series website indicates no less than 1350 narrative reviews in BMC journals.

Were these articles all especially commissioned, as Dr Shipley asserts?

BMC journals even seem to have a specialized interest in discussing narrative reviews. One article discusses the importance of having a high quality peer review of narrative reviews and another is a methodological paper about how to improve the assessment of such articles.

Hmmm, why this curious interest inside BMC journals if narrative reviews ‘are not normally considered (unless invited)’?  Before looking into these aspects, it is necessary to clarify one other point.

Is Theoretical Integration Not Part of (BMC) Science?

My submitted article is an integrative theoretical review, not merely a narrative review, as Dr. Shipley claims.

Seeing that the required structure for BMC-Series articles is suited only to empirical articles (the article template has 4 sections: Background, Method, Results and Discussion) I checked with the Editorial team before submission to determine whether theoretical articles are acceptable. I was informed that they are.  What a waste of time that advice proved to be.

If anybody at BMC actually took the trouble to read my paper, they would see that 12 of 13 theoretical hypotheses are supported by the empirical evidence. The desire to classify my paper as a ‘narrative review’ seems as bogus as the original decision.

In a total of around 350,000 BMC-series articles, only 166 specifically claim to be “theoretical reviews”. That’s only 0.0052%, i.e. less than 1 in every 2000 papers.

Meanwhile, there are 14,424 articles “filling the gap” in the literature, i.e around 4%.  BMC is showing a strong bias towards what I call “Polyfilla Science”.

It appears anti-scientific for BMC-Series journals not to consider unsolicited theoretical articles as worthy of consideration.

To avoid future problems of this sort, it would be more transparent and helpful to authors if every BMC-Series journal had a notice on its website that states:

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Dr Shipley’s explanation  – how can I put this politely? – stretches credulity. According to its website, the BMC Series:

  • Offers an efficient and fair peer review service (2 months for a desk rejection?)
  • Provides a home for all publishable research within the series (narrative reviews excluded?)
  • Innovates in approaches to peer review and publication (old fashioned biases evident?)
  • Promotes transparency and open research (bogus reasons given for rejection?)
  • Partners with our authors, editors and reviewers to make scientific knowledge widely available (appeal case closed unilaterally)

Narrative/Theoretical Reviews Regularly Appear in BMC-Series Journals

Taking a cursory peak into one of the BMC Series flagship journals, BMC Evolutionary Biology, one quickly discovers a host of integrative theoretical and narrative reviews, e.g.

Quasispecies theory in the context of population genetics

Theory of genomic imprinting conflict in social insects

Life cycle evolution: was the eumetazoan ancestor a holopelagic, planktotrophic gastraea?

Phylogenetic review of tonal sound production in whales in relation to sociality

Perhaps BMC Evolutionary Biology is a special case. I wondered whether narrative reviews appear in any other BMC journals? A search reveals no less that 7576 results for ‘Narrative Review’ on the BMC-Series website. A short list of examples:

Challenges and opportunities in alcohol screening and brief interventions in new settings: A Narrative Review of Implementation Initiatives

Correction to: Vitamin D deficiency and risk of cardiovascular diseases: a narrative review

Possible role of ABO system in age-related diseases and longevity: a narrative review

Cocaine and thrombosis: a narrative systematic review of clinical and in-vivo studies

As noted, there is even an article specifically about improving the peer review of narrative reviews:

Improving the peer review of narrative literature reviews

and another about improving the quality assessment of narrative review articles

SANRA—a scale for the quality assessment of narrative review articles

Now that really would be progress. But please don’t tell Dr Shipley. 

Conclusion

This story began with the discovery of a series of unsafe’ papers by H J Eysenck. 88 of Eysenck’s publications require retraction or correction. When it comes to accepting or rejecting submitted articles, I can see both sides of the coin. These decisions are certainly not always easy. A helpful heuristic device for an editor is to invent arbitrary rules such as “no narrative reviews”, “no theoretical reviews”, or “empirical papers only.”  Such rules of thumb remove the need actually to think from decision making.

The accepting of bogus articles (‘false positives’) is as bad for science as the bogus rejection of genuine contributions (‘misses’).  Journal editors need to do everything in their power to reduce both kinds of error. It seems ironic, if not plain tragic, that fake science like Eysenck’s can pollute the well of science for 30-50 years while new theoretical contributions can be arbitrarily waved aside. Call me biased, but that is what I believe has happened in this case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 comment

  1. I propose you use your right to file a formal appeal against this decision of BMC Psychology, see the COPE guidelines for backgrounds about your right to file such an appeal.

    I propose you focus your appeal on:
    (1) the unsubstantiated motive for the desk rejection. So ask the EiC to substantiate that this manuscript is ‘out of scope’;
    (2) your wish to receive written, minuted and separate statements from all Editors-in-Chief of all 65 BMC-series journals (apparently also https://researchintegrityjournal.biomedcentral.com/ ) in which all these 65 Editors-in-Chief individually have declared, and with solid motives, why this manuscript is ‘out of scope’ for their journal (and thus does not fall within the aims and scope of their journal), and that they are therefore unwilling to consider (a revised edition of) this manuscript for publication in their journal.

    Alternatively, you, or other readers of this blogpost, might contact individual Editors-in-Chief of any of these 65 BMC-series journals, for example to sort out what’s going on, and/or if they are aware of this issue.

    See https://www.jospi.org/about for a possible alternative (in case the appeal is rejected).

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