Publisher Concerns Over Priority Should Never Trump Learning More About Rape

Does posting on PubPeer count as prior publication? Journal says yes, rejects letter rebutting campus sexual assault data

Consider this a case study in when publishers’ prerogatives run roughshod over the needs of scientists–and society as a whole (boldface mine):

Journals typically shy away from publishing data and text readers have seen before —but amidst the newly established norms of open science and data sharing, what counts as a prior publication?

We’re asking ourselves that question after learning that JAMA has rejected a letter rebutting a recent study in the journal about sexual assault on college campuses after deciding that posting the letter on PubPeer is a prior publication.

The submitted letter (which you can read here) was co-authored by independent consultant, therapist and researcher Jim Hopper, who is also a Teaching Associate in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. It concerned a 2015 paper published in JAMA Pediatrics, which suggested that the long-held belief that most rapists on college campuses are repeat offenders may be false. The findings can have major implications for university efforts to stop assaults, as institutions weigh whether to divert resources towards punishment (if serial offenders are largely responsible) or prevention (if most men only commit assaults once).

Hopper has questioned the validity of the authors’ findings, arguing that a problematic methodology clouds the true picture; the authors told us they stand by the paper’s data and conclusions.

Frederick Rivara from the University of Washington in Seattle, editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, told us:

By disseminating his letter on PubPeer post, this qualified as publication and we don’t publish things already published

That logic didn’t ring true for Hopper, who told us he was annoyed that the journal asked him to squeeze his vast criticisms into a 400-word document, only to receive a rejection in the end.

Looking at both the original paper and Hopper’s critique, it looks like Hopper is correct–the paper drawing into question the multiple rape hypothesis is really flawed. But instead of publishing that, JAMA Pediatrics has essentially hidden this response from public view and its readers. Hopefully, Ivan Oransky’s post and his comment at PubMed Commons–which means anyone coming across the article via PubMed might see the response–will counteract the journal’s awful policy decision somewhat.

While one could–and should–argue publishers should not be refusing to publish responses to shoddy work, in the case of campus rape, this is particularly vile.

Awesome added value by publishers. Or something.

Anyway, you might want to read Hopper’s PubPeer comment.

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