Science asks authors to retract XMRV-chronic fatigue syndrome paper; when they refuse, issue Expression of Concern
It’s Expression of Concern Day here at Retraction Watch. Earlier, we reported on two such notices regarding the complicated case of Milena Penkowa. And now we learn that a 2009 Science paper linking XMRV, or xenotropic murine leukemia-related virus, to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) that has been dogged by questions from the start, is the subject of another Expression of Concern. Such expressions, as we’ve noted, often, but do not always, precede retractions.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts and executive editor Monica Bradford asked the authors of the paper to retract it last week, after two studies scheduled to published in this week’s Science threw even more doubt onto the findings. But “study co-author Judy A. Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease said “it is premature to retract our paper,” leading Alberts to issue the Expression of Concern, which begins:
In the issue of 23 October 2009, Science published the Report “Detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cell of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome,” a study by Lombardi et al. purporting to show that a retrovirus called XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus) was present in the blood of 67% of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) compared with 3.7% of healthy controls (1). Since then, at least 10 studies conducted by other investigators and published elsewhere have reported a failure to detect XMRV in independent populations of CFS patients.
In this week’s edition of Science Express, we are publishing two Reports that strongly support the growing view that the association between XMRV and CFS described by Lombardi et al. likely reflects contamination of laboratories and research reagents with the virus.
Any study suggesting a cause for CFS — especially a potentially treatable one — is likely to generate a tremendous amount of buzz, and this study was no exception, Alberts notes. The 2009 paper has been cited 137 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, although of course many of those citations cast the findings in a negative light.
The Expression of Concern was initially scheduled to be published in the June 2 issue of Science, but editors there released it early, according to a note from the journal’s press office:
Information pertaining to these articles has entered the public domain due to circumstances beyond our control, and the articles are being made available now, for immediate release, to avoid confusion or speculation about the research.
We’ve asked for specifics on those circumstances, and will update with anything we hear back.
Update, 10:55 a.m. Eastern, 5/31/11: Science tells us it was the WSJ story that made them release the material early.
Once that news story was published we felt it would be most useful to journalists, scientists and the public, including doctors and patients whose lives have been affected by chronic fatigue syndrome, to make the information being published in the journal available right away.
So was this an embargo break, and would the WSJ face sanctions?
No, we had not yet even routed the Science Press Package notice on this story, and further we have no evidence that the Wall Street Journal reporter obtained any information from us whatsoever. They seem to have acted upon an independent tip.
Update, 6:10 p.m Eastern, 6/7/11: Added “syndrome” to headline to use the proper name of the condition, and “to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)” to third sentence, as it had been mistakenly omitted.