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From health policies to clinical practice, research on mental and brain health influences many areas of public life

Professor Kamaldeep Bhui of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry, and former Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Psychiatry, explains the importance of editorial independence in promoting good science.

Given the contested nature of much mental health and brain research, it has never been more important for research in this area to be of the highest quality and observing the principles of research integrity and publication ethics. In so doing we ensure the production of knowledge does not bias the findings towards compounding health inequalities, with adverse policy or practice impacts.

As a psychiatrist and former editor of a scientific journal, I believe that editorial independence, through robust practice of publication ethics and research integrity, promotes good science and prevents bad science.

When editorial independence is challenged, we should all be concerned. This is why, together with senior members of the editorial team, I wrote an editorial for the British Journal of Psychiatry, the journal for which I used to be Editor-in-Chief.

Professor Kam Bhui

Editorial independence in journals can be defined as editors having the freedom to make decisions about the scientific publication record. To promote good science, editorial independence must be non-negotiable for all scientific journals seeking to prevent influence from their owners or from groups with vested interests.

However, editorial independence is a multidimensional, dynamic, and complex concept that is often constructed in our responses to new and emerging challenges.

In the editorial, I outlined that too much published research is unsound with up to 10% of large-scale randomised trials suffering from major flaws. Corrections and retractions are one solution and should not be stigmatised. Rather they should be an accepted part of the contract between authors and editors, and a wider group of stakeholders. All should work in trust to establish and correct the scientific record on which public policy and practice can improve.

Dealing with older papers is especially complex. Scientific knowledge is contextual. Dismissing ‘old’ research entirely based on modern standards may overlook their incremental contributions. However, older papers should be appraised and judged against best practice at the time of publication; if found to be flawed in some fundamental scientific way, removal from the scientific record is appropriate.

Poor studies remain in the scientific record. There are hardly any requests for correction or retraction of uninfluential or uncited papers. Therefore, there is often a pressure to not retract a paper which is contributing to controversy and debate, as it rather perversely raises the profile of a journal. Indeed, many retracted or unretracted discredited papers continue to be highly cited.

Some larger publishers take charge of complaints, potential retractions, and any legal threats rather than following the guidance on editorial independence. This risks vested non-scientific interests becoming the basis or appearing to be the basis for decisions about flawed science.

An alarming trend is the use of legal threat to strategically control the publication and dissemination of public scientific findings. Legal challenges to editorial independence are especially difficult as settlements can be costly. To avoid this risk, owners may choose to neglect editorial decisions and undermine editorial independence. Our wider duties must also consider standards in public life and our respective professional values and codes of conduct.

When there are complaints or allegations of error, it is critical that the editor and author discuss potential remedies, for example corrections, re-analysis, the reporting and interpretation of the findings. This step should precede any discussion of potential retraction. When retraction is necessary, this should be mutually agreed if possible. A mutually satisfactory decision to retract may not be possible if authors object, or worse, if they resort to legal threat, thereby blocking any meaningful dialogue about the validity of their research.

As a former Editor in Chief and researcher myself, I know that the most important quality-control mechanism for research integrity is editorial independence guided by publication ethics to ensure that there is an uncompromising insistence on meeting the highest standards of scientific research, reporting and publication. Only then can improvements in practice and policy be grounded in science rather than vested interests.

Compliance with best practice guidance varies. Therefore, in our editorial, we suggested how we could protect and strengthen editorial independence. For example, regulation could include a register of breaches and scrutiny to learn lessons, as well as provision for legal advice on issues of public interest. Compliance with guidance, and adequate insurance and transparency must accompany the reconciliation of ethical and legal dilemmas. Scientists might disagree, the public and organisations representing specific positions might disagree; but the whole health industry from researcher, policy maker, to journal owners and editors must ensure they are capable and competent to fulfil obligations to protect editorial independence. Mapping policy and practice impacts of breaches, transparent processes for noting legal threats, and ethical leadership must sit alongside robust governance to support publication ethics and the principles and guidance on editorial independence.