Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

They agreed to listen to a complaint about a paper. Then the harassment began.

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We receive our fair share of tips, and most are well-intentioned attempts to clean up the scientific literature. However, sometimes would-be critics can veer into personal attacks. As chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, Virginia Barbour has seen a lot. But nothing quite prepared her for being cyberbullied by someone the organisation had agreed to listen to when they raised a complaint about a published paper. In this guest post, Barbour tells the story of how COPE’s attempts to assist led to hundreds of harassing emails and unfounded accusations of a cover-up, which the complainant spread indiscriminately.

By its very nature, publication and research ethics often includes issues that are hard to resolve and it’s not uncommon for journals to receive  concerns from individuals about specific papers. COPE has guidance for its members on what to do when they are contacted by such individuals. We urge and support editors and publishers in taking issues raised seriously. Nonetheless, such individuals (whether anonymous or not) can experience difficulties in getting their cases heard and, in rare and unusual cases, face extreme measures to silence them.

At COPE, we therefore also have a mechanism whereby readers can raise concerns about an issue in a COPE member journal, if the journal and publisher have not been able to resolve the issue. We have devoted increasing resources to this mechanism, even though is not the primary reason for which COPE was set up. As a membership organisation, COPE does not have regulatory authority over journals or publishers, but we can review the process the journal or publisher followed to determine if best practice was followed.

Therefore, when we received an email in 2015 from a reader with a complaint about a published paper, we reviewed the initial correspondence and, as it appeared to be a legitimate issue, opened a file on the case and assigned council members to work on it in according to our procedures.

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Written by Alison McCook

March 23rd, 2017 at 2:00 pm

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Plant scientist logs 4 more notices over figure errors

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Researchers in China have retracted a paper and corrected three others in a plant journal, citing problems with multiple figures.

Lixin Zhang, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, is corresponding author on all four papers, published by Plant PhysiologyWe’ve reported on three retractions and two corrections from Lixin Zhang and some of the same co-authors, bringing Zhang’s total to five retractions and four corrections, by our count.

According to the retraction notice, the authors agreed to pull the article because of figure-related “irregularities and inappropriate data handling” — but despite these issues, they remain confident that their conclusions are still valid.

Here’s the latest retraction notice, issued this February, for “Cooperation of LPA3 and LPA2 Is Essential for Photosystem II Assembly in Arabidopsis:”  Read the rest of this entry »

Patient misdiagnosed with rare neurological side effect in retracted case study

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When two surgeons in Greece learned that a patient had developed a rare side effect following weight loss surgery, they were eager to publish the case.

After extensive testing, the patient was diagnosed with Wernicke’s encephalopathy—a neurological disorder caused by thiamine deficiency—following a sleeve gastrectomy procedure. As the authors note in the paper, they had seen only eight other cases following the procedure in the literature.

It turns out, theirs was not the ninth. After the patient unfortunately died, he was examined by a coroner, who ruled he did not, in fact, have Wernicke’s encephalopathy. So Dimitrios Manatakis and Nikolaos Georgopoulos, both based at Athens Naval and Veterans Hospital in Greece, have retracted their 2014 case study.

When the first learned of the patient, the authors wanted to alert the surgical community to the case, given the rarity of this side effect, Manatakis told us: Read the rest of this entry »

The latest sting: Will predatory journals hire “Dr. Fraud”?

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Katarzyna Pisanski

From time to time, academics will devise a “sting” operation, designed to expose journals’ weaknesses. We’ve seen scientists submit a duplicated paper, a deeply flawed weight loss paper designed to generate splashy headlines (it worked), and an entirely fake paper – where even the author calls it a “pile of dung.” So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Katarzyna Pisanski at the University of Sussex and her colleagues found that so-called “predatory” journals – which are allegedly willing to publish subpar papers as long as the authors pay fees – often accepted a fake editor to join their team. In a new Nature Comment, Pisanski and her team (Piotr Sorokowski, Emek Kulczycki and Agnieszka Sorokowska) describe creating a profile of a fake scientist named Anna O. Szust (Oszust means “a fraud” in Polish). Despite the fact that Szust never published a single scholarly article and had no experience as a reviewer or editor, approximately one-third of predatory journals accepted Szust’s application as an editor. We spoke with Pisanski about the project.

Retraction Watch: What made you conceive of this project, and what did you hope to accomplish?

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Written by Alison McCook

March 22nd, 2017 at 2:00 pm

President of Taiwan university to step down amidst investigation

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Pan-Chyr Yang

The president of a top university in Taiwan has announced he will resign from his post at the end of his first term in June.

President Pan-chyr Yang of National Taiwan University (NTU) has opted not to seek a second term as president given two recent investigations — one which concluded last month and one which is ongoing — into allegations of misconduct in papers he co-authored.

Despite being cleared of misconduct in the investigation conducted by his university, Yang felt that the scandal had left a stain on NTU’s reputation, which he hoped to restore by stepping down as president. Here’s more from Focus Taiwan: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Victoria Stern

March 22nd, 2017 at 11:30 am

Nightmare scenario: Text stolen from manuscript during review

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A food science journal has retracted a paper over “a breach of reviewer confidentiality,” after editors learned it contained text from an unpublished manuscript — which one of the authors appears to have reviewed for another journal.

The publisher and editors-in-chief of the Journal of Food Process Engineering became aware of the breach when the author of the unpublished manuscript lodged a complaint that his paper, under review at another journal, had been plagiarized by the now retracted paper.

We’re hazy on a few details in this case. Although the journal editor told us the “main author” of the retracted paper reviewed the original manuscript for another journal, the corresponding author of the retracted paper said he was not to blame. (More on that below.)

When looking into the matter, the publisher found that one of the co-authors of the published paper had acted as a reviewer of the unpublished manuscript. Alexandra Cury, an associate editor at Wiley, explained: Read the rest of this entry »

An editor in chief was caught manipulating citations. Now he’s been asked to resign.

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Artemi Cerdà

An earth science journal has asked an editor to resign after it was revealed he had been manipulating citations at multiple journals.

Artemi Cerdà had already agreed to step down temporarily from Land Degradation & Development after the publisher, Wiley, was alerted that Cerdà had resigned from other journals for citation manipulation. In a new statement, the journal announces that Cerdà’s resignation has become permanent.

Here’s the entire statement:

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Written by Alison McCook

March 21st, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Macchiarini blames Karolinska for losing data as he retracts 2014 paper

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Ask and ye shall receive: A journal has retracted a 2014 paper by Paolo Macchiarini, upon request from the Karolinska Institutet (KI).

The latest news is only one step in a long-running saga about former star surgeon Macchiarini, who was dismissed from KI last year. To read more, check out our timeline.

KI announced it was asking the journal to pull the paper late last year, after concluding that four authors — including Macchiarini — were guilty of scientific misconduct. The paper had already been flagged by the journal with an expression of concern, noting the data presented in the paper may not be “fully representative” of the experiments.

Today, the journal issued a retraction notice, saying the authors wanted to retract the paper. All of the authors who could be reached have agreed to the retraction, including Macchiarini.

Here’s more from the notice:

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Nature paper adds non-reproducibility to its list of woes

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Despite taking some serious hits, a 2006 letter in Nature isn’t going anywhere.

Years ago, a university committee determined that two figures in the letter had been falsified. The journal chose to correct the paper, rather than retract it — and then, the next year, published a correction of that correction due to “an error in the production process.” To round it out, in June of last year, Nature published a rebuttal from a separate research group, who had failed to replicate the letter’s results.

Still, the first author told us there are no plans to retract the paper, since the follow up experiments published in the corrections confirmed the paper’s conclusions.

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Written by Cat Ferguson

March 21st, 2017 at 9:30 am

What leads to bias in the scientific literature? New study tries to answer

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By now, most of our readers are aware that some fields of science have a reproducibility problem. Part of the problem, some argue, is the publishing community’s bias toward dramatic findings — namely, studies that show something has an effect on something else are more likely to be published than studies that don’t.

Many have argued that scientists publish such data because that’s what is rewarded — by journals and, indirectly, by funders and employers, who judge a scientist based on his or her publication record. But a new meta-analysis in PNAS is saying it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In a paper released today, researchers led by Daniele Fanelli and John Ioannidis — both at Stanford University — suggest that the so-called “pressure-to-publish” does not appear to bias studies toward larger so-called “effect sizes.” Instead, the researchers argue that other factors were a bigger source of bias than the pressure-to-publish, namely the use of small sample sizes (which could contain a skewed sample that shows stronger effects), and relegating studies with smaller effects to the “gray literature,” such as conference proceedings, PhD theses, and other less publicized formats.

However, Ferric Fang of the University of Washington — who did not participate in the study — approached the findings with some caution:

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Written by Alison McCook

March 20th, 2017 at 3:00 pm