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Did the editor retreat?

By David Warsh, 05/12/96

In a column last week about the power of money and legal
action to inhibit the ordinary processes of science, I related
how in the summer of 1994 Columbia University professor
Graciela Chichilnisky took advantage of her position as an
advisory editor of Economics Letters to substitute at its
production office an unrefereed paper for one that had
already been accepted by the editor of the journal.

The substituted paper would have greatly buttressed
Chichilnisky's claim to have been first to develop certain
ideas. Shortly after making the switch, she filed a lawsuit
against University of Alabama finance professor Frank Page
and University of Toronto economist Myrna Wooders,
charging them with having stolen her ideas.

I described how, when he learned of the substitution, the
editor of the journal - Harvard University professor Eric
Maskin - ordered that the paper be removed from the
printing process, and how, when he learned (from Canadian
economist Wooders), that it mysteriously had been printed
anyway, insisted that the issue of the journal be reprinted
without the article.

Libraries were asked to discard their copies of the iteration
that contained the unrefereed submission. The Dutch
publishers of the journal - Elsevier Science - removed
Chichilnisky from the board of advisory editors in 1995. I
wrote, "Facing a battery of Chichilnisky's lawyers, isolated
by the legally enforced silence surrounding the matter,
editor Maskin and publisher Elsevier have steadily retreated
from their earlier decisions until they appear to be on the
verge of caving in to Chichilnisky's demands. Chichilnisky's
friends say she is about to be reinstated to the advisory
board." That's what I wrote. The two sentences compact
too much, obscuring a larger truth. The cardinal fact of the
matter, I believe, is that Maskin insisted from the beginning
on the immediate reprinting of the journal without the
offending article - a strong remedy, and an expensive one.

He told Chichilnisky that he might publish the substitute
paper in the future, if it were properly submitted and
successfully refereed. But he insisted that the unrefereed
version be expunged.

The tradition of anonymous refereeing is among the most
important customs in science. The practice is meant to
insure that papers meet the criticisms of friends and foes
alike before they become part of the literature. Journals
succeed and fail on the basis of the reputations for fairness
and perpendicularity - as well as hipness and intellectual
depth - that their editors and referees are able to achieve. (A
violation of the tradition of anonymity by another journal,
Economic Theory, may have been crucial in the matter, but
that is another story.)

As Maskin notes, there has been no retreat from the
position that the paper be "unpublished." He rejected many
weaker remedies suggested both by publisher Elsevier and
by Chichilnisky. Indeed, he threatened to resign if the
publisher didn't agree to the reprint; other senior figures in
the field supported him. Only then did Elsevier agree to
"retract" the article by reprinting the journal and expunging
the "unpublished" version from all future indices of the
journal. The publisher then removed Chichilnisky's name
from the list of advisory editors.

Since then, there have been many internal discussions of the
strategic merits of having removed Chichilnisky from the
advisory board. There have been threats of suit by
Chichilnisky's lawyers and unruly demands. There has been
an onslaught of advocacy on Chichilnisky's behalf by her
seconds, chief among them Theodore Groves, an economist
at the University of California at San Diego.

As a result, Elsevier has offered to reinstate Chichilnisky - in
exchange for her promise not to sue. (The actual
reinstatement has not yet taken place.) Economics Letters is
preparing to publish a greatly trimmed version of her
"switched" and retracted paper, formally submitted in April
1995 - though another paper on a related topic by Page and
Wooders submitted to the journal in October 1994 (in
ignorance of Chichilnisky's substitution) has not yet
appeared.

So did Economics Letters and Elsevier retreat? The answer
is yes and no: no with respect to the expunging of the
unrefereed submission, and apparently yes with respect to
the advisory board. On the question of the editor's
responsibility for the timely publication of papers submitted
by the rivals, the jury is out.

Chichilnisky has denied that she did anything more than
make corrections and additions to the manuscript that were
within range of commonly accepted practice. In a letter to
the Globe last week, she wrote, "By republishing my paper
and reinstating me to the board, Economics Letters is
attempting to correct the actions which Ms. Wooders
wrongly instigated."

At the time of the substitution, the journal's production
editor recorded that Chichilnisky said she planned to pay for
her changes with her National Science Foundation grant. In
fact, NSF grant numbers appear on all papers in question.

This story ran on page 73 of the Boston Globe on 05/12/96.