Science has “not asked for a correction or retraction” of arsenic life paper, and why situation is unlike XMRV-CFS
The science world has been abuzz with news that a 2010 Science paper on an arsenic-based strain of bacteria had been refuted by two new studies published Sunday night. Yesterday on Retraction Watch, David Sanders argued the paper should still be retracted. So we were curious whether the editors of the journal had ever asked Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues to retract the paper. Science tells Retraction Watch:
Except in rare cases, corrections, clarifications, or retractions should ideally be initiated by the original research authors. In the current situation involving GFAJ-1 research, Science has just published the first papers indicating that the bacterium did need low levels of phosphorus to live. As you know, the journal previously had published eight Technical Comments. Editors last week provided the two new studies to Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon to evaluate and consider. We have not asked for a correction or retraction. GFAJ-1 remains a fascinating microbe, and the data provide insights beyond whether or not an organism can replace phosphorus with arsenic and still sustain life. The scientific process is a self-correcting one as scientists seek to replicate or refute findings put forth in the scholarly literature.
Given that, as Science notes, editors should only retract papers themselves in rare situations, we were also interested in the differences between this case and the retraction last year of the paper by Judy Mikovits and colleagues claiming a link between chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and the virus XMRV. There were similarities: That paper, too, was published in Science, as were rebuttals. And Mikovits claimed contamination was responsible for the findings that refuted her work, just as Wolfe-Simon and John Tainer suggested in this case. But Science asked the authors to retract the CFS-XMRV paper, and went ahead and did it themselves when the authors didn’t agree. Science tells us:
The situation with the XMRV papers was unique. The retraction of that paper was the last step in a series of events related to testing the association of XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome. At least ten papers were published reporting that the results of Lombardi, et al. could not be replicated. Science had published two papers demonstrating that the results probably reflected contamination of the laboratories and research reagents with the virus. Then two of the authors indicated that they found contamination in their samples and the results they contributed to the paper were retracted. This was followed by a larger study in which the Science authors contributed results and were unable to consistently detect the presence or absence of the virus in blood samples from CFS patients. The final incident related to the revelation that some of the figures in the original paper were not properly labeled. It was this body of evidence that led to the retraction. This paper directly affected a patient population, and it was important that they were not misled about the association.
A naïve reader who lands on the Science page hosting Wolfe-Simon et al’s paper may not know or bother to scroll past the 11 “suggested reading” links that sit between the original paper and the newly published findings that contradict it.