The Nuzzo Letter
The Nuzzo Letter
Cowardice and anonymous editorials in biomedical research journals
0:00
-6:38

Cowardice and anonymous editorials in biomedical research journals

Academic publishing is currently experiencing a number of problems. Authorship inflation, long review times, and lack of payment for reviewers’ work in appraising manuscripts are just a couple of examples. Here, I highlight another issue in academic publishing – one that has received little attention, but that readers of scientific journals should be aware of.

Editorials in academic journals are brief pieces written by the journal’s editors about findings from new studies, about journal news, or about broader trends in research and medical practice. In 2019, I discovered an editorial published in Lancet Public Health [1] that stated some questionable things about obesity. For example, the editorial stated, “obesity can still too often be regarded by some as an individual responsibility resulting from poor choices and motivations.” The editorial continued, “stereotypical perceptions that people with overweight and obesity are somehow responsible for their weight remains pervasive.” In other words, the author was suggesting that an individual does not have the capacity to control their own body weight. I was interested to see who would say something so blatantly ignorant and false in a health journal. To my surprise, no author name was listed online or in-print with the editorial.

Fast forward to 2022. A controversial editorial titled, “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans,” was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior [2]. This editorial received significant media attention, because its critics quickly realized that underneath its supposedly compassionate title was a sort of totalitarian desire to limit academic discourse. In effect, the editorial was providing a cover for the journal to reject future “controversial” papers that show that different groups of people, such as men and women and individuals of different races, often have dissimilar behaviours, beliefs, interests, and life outcomes. I also wanted to know who was responsible for writing this editorial. Again, I could not find an author name listed online or in-print. Importantly, one cannot assume the author to be the chief editor of the journal, because journals often have multiple editors who write editorials.

After performing some preliminary searches on PubMed – a larger database of biomedical research articles – I realised that these two editorials were not the only ones published with editors’ names missing. I found hundreds of anonymous editorials indexed in PubMed.

Believing this to be a new, yet unacknowledged issue in academic publishing, I decided to quantify how many anonymous editorials were published in biomedical research journals between 2018 and 2022 [3]. Across this five-year period, I found that 2,745 editorials were published with anonymous or ambiguous authorship. Anonymous editorials accouned for 1-3% of all editorials published in a given year. This is not a large number in relative terms, but the existing number of anonymous editorials is problematic for a few reasons.

Problem 1 is that anonymous editorials do not allow readers to assess the editor’s potential conflicts of interest. In fact, I found that many of these anonymous editorials were published without conflict of interest statements, which makes sense, given that no one individual was listed on the author byline.

Problem 2 is that anonymous editorials do not give readers the opportunity to assess the author’s credentials, qualifications, and background as they pertain to the topic being discussed. For example, with the editorial on obesity mentioned earlier, the unknown editor probably had a background in a field such as public health or communications, and thus lacked an understanding of the interactive causes of biology, environment, and choice on body weight. When actual health professionals, such as physicians, dieticians, and exercise physiologists have been surveyed, they have been in agreement that individuals do have the capacity to control their own body weights [4].

Problem 3 is that anonymous editorials make connecting an idea to its author difficult or impossible to establish. Thus, if the author of an editorial puts forward a problematic idea, for example, that an individual cannot control their own body weight, then that author should be held accountable for their untenable and potentially dangerous ideas. They should experience the consequences of having such ideas associated with their name, including public ridicule.

My research also revealed that the Lancet and Nature journals are the most frequent abusers of anonymous editorials. This is an important finding to note because content published in these prominent journals has a big impact on public discourse. Over the past 10 years, medical and scientific journals have increased the amount of political content that fills their pages. Thus, one should be aware that journals might start using anonymous editorials as a way to push questionable political content on their readership.

The solution to anonymous editorials is not difficult. It involves editors, journals, and journal publishers firmly establishing that anonymous authorship is not an ethical publishing practice. It also involves individual authors not being cowards. It involves people putting their names on anything they say.

Share

If you enjoyed this information, please consider supporting The Nuzzo Letter with a one-time or recurring donation. Your support is greatly appreciated. It helps me to continue working on independent research projects and fighting for more evidence-based discourse.

References

1.  The Lancet Public Health. Addressing weight stigma. Lancet Public Health. 2019;4(4):e168.

2.  Anonymous editorial. Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans. Nature Human Behaviour. 2022;6(8):1029-31.

3.  Nuzzo JL. Anonymous editorials in biomedical research journals: few in number but potentially problematic. Learned Publishing. Online ahead of print.

4.  Bleich SN, Bandara S, Bennett WL, Cooper LA, Gudzune KA. U.S. health professionals’ views on obesity care, training, and self-efficacy. Am J Prev Med. 2015;48(4):411-8.

0 Comments