Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Charge of “scientific yellow journalism” has supervisor seeing red, leads to retraction

with 21 comments

small gtpasesLast October, Anica Klockars, a neuroscience researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, and a colleague published a controversial comment in the journal Small GTPases, a Landes Bioscience title.

The title of the letter was meant to provoke: “Scientific yellow journalism.”

As the authors wrote:

Today, more than ever before, the importance of conducting responsible research is vital. New mass media technologies, allowing for the rapid distribution of news, enable researchers across the world to publicize their latest discoveries to a vast audience. The problem arises when inconclusive research is disseminated, with results that are exaggerated, misinterpreted or even fabricated. We, as scientists, have a responsibility to be brutally critical toward our own research, as well as that of our colleagues. Unfortunately, due to the system of publishing fast, often and in high-impact factor journals, scientists are under greater pressure to produce quantity, at the expense of research quality.

This problem of exaggerating results is especially evident in the field of environmental toxicology, where reports about chemicals, often incorporated in plastics used for food packaging, beauty products, children’s toys and baby products are broadcast on a daily basis to an audience that is unfamiliar with the actual studies behind these reports and the “traditions in toxicological research” of overdosing animals to extreme levels in order to obtain an effect. We certainly cannot claim that chemicals are not dangerous—many of them are—but scaring the public with continuous press releases based on dubious results is not only irresponsible but, similar to the boy who cried wolf, it can only serve to obstruct the entire field when the public grows weary of the never ending alarms, later rescinded because more responsible research is finally performed.

Therefore, it is critical that responsible research is performed, studies are thoroughly executed using various model systems—with a critical approach and doses that are more representative of environmental exposures—and we are sure of our results before going public.

We, and, we’re guessing, most of our readers would agree with this assessment — especially the sentence: “Unfortunately, due to the system of publishing fast, often and in high-impact factor journals, scientists are under greater pressure to produce quantity, at the expense of research quality.”

But, as Klockars found out, introspection was not all that she stimulated. A supervisor (whom she asked us not to identify) objected to the tone of the piece, and insisted that Klockars retract the comment.

To wit:

The following article from Small GTPases, “Scientific Yellow Journalism” by Anica Klockars and Michael J. Williams, published online on 20 September 2012  (doi: 10.4161/sgtp.22289; by Landes Bioscience and subsequently published in print in Small GTPases 2012 3(4):201 has been retracted by agreement between the authors and the journal’s Editor in Chief …

We felt that was fairly ironic, as irony goes. And Klockars agreed:

I think science definitely suffers a lot from the way it is funded. If you can only get grants by publishing as fast as possible, you will most likely not stop and think about what would be great studies – you will just publish something and probably even “adjust” your data in order to publish fast. This is the whole reason why I wrote the comment. I read too many really bad papers, with results that really don’t say anything, and worst of all: newspaper articles are often based on these inconclusive papers, exaggerating the findings in ridiculous ways and spreading alarming news that hasn’t even really been proven scientifically. So I got the opportunity to raise my concern in an editor’s corner.
Now, what makes this episode even more dismaying is that we might have assumed Klockars’ co-author on the letter would have had a bit of juice with the journal. After all, Michael Williams is the editor in chief.
Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Written by amarcus41

March 20th, 2013 at 12:30 pm

  • Larry Husten March 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    I’m speechless. Wow.

  • chirality March 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    “A supervisor (whom she asked us not to identify) objected to the tone of the piece, and insisted that Klockars retract the comment” – this is a joke, right? Can the supervisor walk on water? Or maybe he thinks he can? This would explain a lot.

  • Sylvain Bernès March 20, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    The most ridiculous retraction I’ve ever seen. What is the next step?

  • Victor Venema March 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    She could hardly have formulated the situation more diplomatically. It is a sign of the high work ethics in science that irrespective of the pressures by the project science system most scientist produce good work.

  • arthurdentition March 21, 2013 at 2:54 am

    The supervisor should be outed. There is nothing in this piece that warrants a retraction. The supervisor must have bullied and threatened Anica for her to agree to retraction that has no basis or foundation in facts. It is despicable.

  • arthurdentition March 21, 2013 at 2:58 am

    So Anica is a PhD student, this is the sort of attitude we should be encouraging in PhD students, not quashing.

  • fernando pessoa March 21, 2013 at 6:11 am

    In reply to arthurdentition March 21, 2013 at 2:58 am

    This is the real world. I think that what has happened is wrong. I do not condone what has happened by saying that this is the real world. Change may be possible.

  • Allison L. Stelling March 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Ah. Hmmm, yes. OK, I’ll have to actually sit down and read this one, this is what I did for my PhD work (well, I did more photophysics than drug binding studies- but either way a heck of a lot of difference IR).

    Part of what I am trying to do by commenting on public forums like this one is show some people in my, ah, “science club” that it’s OK to bring peer review into the open- and that post-publication review is more important than pre-publication (right now it’s almost being a barrier to communication rather than a simple quality control check before you tell the news to your esteemed audience). I’ve been talking with some physicists about this- us younger folk are starting to think it’s a good idea to publish most of the stuff since we don’t really need to worry about page limits anymore. Then, have the more established/experienced Editors sort through it, pick out what they like, and put it into monthly surveys of the sub-field. Works better for physics of course since they are pretty narrow sub-fields, there’s less to read and if someone gets the math wrong someone else publishes a scathing editorial. I’d still want an Editor to give my work a good read-through before presentation of my papers to the relevant audience– I make a lot of typos since I tend to type too fast, and my spelling in not the best in the world.

    The ACS has defiantly gotten a bit on the crowed side these days. BTW, the professor who helped me … think about the language I should use for my PLoS and a grant I put together based on it was Prof. Spiro at UW Chemistry in Seattle- he’s in the Acknowledgments, I had him and a few other USA professors read it to make sure I wasn’t over-selling anything. (I needed an established USA mentor/consultant in my field- protein spectroscopy- vouch for me a little with USA/UK run journals.)

    • chris March 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      Allison, I’m not really convinced about the value of “post-publication peer review” of the sort that one sees on blogs and journal messageboards. Much of it seems like grandstanding and opinionating to me. Of course traditional “post publication peer review” that assesses the value of a paper by the impact it has on further research is straightforward and pretty much one of the mainstays of the progression of science.

      In my opinion by far the most important element of peer review is pre-submission “self-peer-review” that involves hard thinking about one’s research and its interpretations, discussions with colleagues, presentation of work at group and departmental seminars and conferences and so on. The negative aspects of “just publish everything and let post-publication peer review sort it out” is that it seems to let the researcher off the difficult task of working hard to produce something truly worthwhile with a series of experiments addressing a meaningful problem set within a proper context. The vast number of low quality journals (and even PLoS One, though some good papers are published there), allows the possibility for researchers to spend entire careers churing out “stuff” that doesn’t really add up to very much.

      Incidentally, I don’t think it’s the job of an editor to sort out one’s typos/spelling mistakes. That’s part of pre-submission peer review surely!

      • Allison L. Stelling March 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm

        @ Chris

        Just got …. busy. (Stanford may be-might be- may be- interested in me.)

        Completely agree with “self review”. This is how I was taught at SBU- double check with yourself 1st and then a few colleagues- aka my Thesis Committee- 2 or 3 independent profs. (My Chair was Prof. London, who is an Editor at the ACS publication Biochemistry. Whoo boy could he ask some persnickety questions.) PS my mom just found a few typos in my PLoS, sigh. This is why we NEED Editors/office folk to double check us!

        Will be back with this blog shortly; must discuss a few things with a few folks. Will try to keep reading however.

        In the words of Calvin and Hobbes, “Further updates as events warrant.”

  • Allison L. Stelling March 21, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    @fernando pessoa One of my college buddies once said about this particular prof that he’s the “master of the back-handed compliment”.

    When I was leaving out of the Oral Exam for his metabolic biochemistry course, he complimented me on “not crying”. All the examinees prior to me were also female.

    And I thought he was “being funny”, with some of the, ah, more abrasive comments during the exam, heh! But, I have an overly robust sense of self worth and do need to be taken down a peg on occasion. This is what Editors are *for*!

  • Noah March 22, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Anyone else wondering why a commentary attacking environmental toxicology was published in a journal called “Small GTPases”?? I wonder if the reviewers of this journal are the appropriate ones to assess statements that seem to condemn an entire field of science.

    I’m no proponent of the high-dose testing extrapolated to guess-timate the effects of low dose human exposures. However, I think at least the paragraphs cited above use a broad brushstroke to characterize an entire field of study in an inappropriate way. Further, I wonder what expertise either of the co-authors holds in environmental toxicology. It’s easy to dismiss an entire scientific field from the outside (For example, “wow, neuroscientists have totally over-estimated the value of the brain!”) but in my experience, doing this just makes you look silly.

  • Jopal March 27, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Adam Marcus wrote:

    ‘We, and, we’re guessing, most of our readers would agree with this assessment — especially the sentence: “Unfortunately, due to the system of publishing fast, often and in high-impact factor journals, scientists are under greater pressure to produce quantity, at the expense of research quality.”’

    Actually I do not agree, at least not completely. I am in constantly called upon to assess the work of my colleagues. I review NIH grants 3 times a year as a standing member of a CSR study section and also review grants annually for three different foundations. I also review the CVs of faculty applicants to several different departments at my institution, and am called upon regularly to write assessments of colleagues for their promotions. In this capacity I assess each individuals published work, and with grants the preliminary data, in order to make an informed recommendation. I am not oblivious to the total number of papers published, but I pay close attention to the quality of the work, whether it has a meaningful impact on the field, and whether it has been corroborated, and (particularly with respect to promotions) whether the work stands the test of time. I hardly think I am alone in this approach.

    Most of us (I assume) can discern quality work that leads to meaningful advances in our own fields. Thus while the concern Adam raises is valid, it is also well known. I am not trying to minimize the problem of crappy science, but it should be kept in perspective. To a significant extent, crap science is background noise we learn to filter out.

  • littlegreyrabbit March 21, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Yes, well, whatever the motivation of the Chief Editor, Last Author and Supervisor may have had, the end result is that a rather short, trivial letter has got far more publicity than it otherwise would have achieved.

  • Allison L. Stelling March 21, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Any press is good press, eh?

    It’s saddening, but you’re likely correct.

    I keep trying to say that science is not a popularity contest, and one does not get to vote on the laws of the natural universe. Try telling that to some of the bigwig Boomer scientists, though. Esp. the medical and biology professors.

    As my analytical chemistry professor once said, “When you become wedded to your hypothesis rather than to your data, that’s a little bit scary.”

    This supervisor and the editors of the journal seem rather wedded to their hypothesis that their student has an incorrect “tone”. (As though that were a quantitative value, ha!) Sticks and stones, folks.

    The entire publishing and peer review system for science- biomedical science in particular- requires an inversion. I mean, even getting my new paper out ( was a bit …. dicey as I was going against the “party line” of the entire field in my spectral analysis. Fortunately, I had a wonderful Editor. Not many of my generation are so lucky, however.

  • Marco March 21, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Allison, what if your “wonderful Editor” is actually also part of one of the current problems of the publishing and peer review system?

    In danger of getting censored here, I have prima facie evidence that he publishes flawed papers. Compare for example equation 6 in this paper (there are many more examples from the same person)
    with the criticism of Grossweiner in 2000

    I also know for a fact that he has been made aware of the problems with that equation, but continues to publish and submit papers with the same equation and with the same mistakes related to that equation.

    In all fairness I must say there are 100s of papers that improperly use this double log equation, ignoring Grossweiner’s paper and several others published later pointing out several problems with the equation (and the general methodology).

  • fernando pessoa March 21, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    “When you become wedded to your hypothesis rather than to your data, that’s a little bit scary.”

    What wise words from your professor. Breath of fresh air.

  • Allison L. Stelling March 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Will take a look at the PLoS ONE you point out, but cannot access the other one!

    Might be they ignore this paper for that reason…’s in an Elsevier journal so no one pays attention/has a subscription.

    Also, at the rate at which publications are pumped out, few of us have time to read everything- sometimes I feel like I am drowning in the literature. I’m pretty good at reading very quickly, but I am only one person and can only read so many per day!

    Suspect the system might be inverting a bit soon; it already has for physics and math. Also check out for “post-publication” comments. You have to have a published email address to register an account, but it did allow me to, ah, explain one of my recent articles in ABC (a Springer title),

  • chris March 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Looks to me like a Hill plot. I expect it gives a ballpark binding constant ‘though that’s the least of the problems with this paper. Personally I think it’s an example of one of the problems with PLoS One (any old stuff can be published); Allison’s paper perhaps illustrates one of the more positive aspects of PLoS One (potentially controversial ideas/analyses can be published).

    Here’s a little of what I dislike about the paper you link to:

    1. It states in the introduction that the authors are presenting data on drug binding to BSA/HSA “in aqueous solution at physiological conditions”. Can’t imagine how they got that past the reviewers/editor. Buying albumins from Sigma and measuring drug binding in Tris buffer at 25 oC ain’t “physiological conditions”! It might be very interesting to understand how doxorubicin binds to HSA under physiological conditions, but this would best be done by incubating the drug with serum or whole blood at 37 oC and maybe using equilibrium dialysis with hplc or MS detection or using radiolabelled drug. Very difficult most likely. But it would mean something.

    2. The authors conclude on the basis of CD and FTIR spectral deconvolution that doxorubicin induces “a partial protein destabilization”. That’s very likely nonsense. Ligand binding to proteins generally stabilizes proteins even if they might induce conformational changes. The very weak (Kd ~ 10^(-4) M) binding of one or two molecules of doxorubicin to the rather large BSA isn’t going to destabilise it. Most likely the apparent change in conformation is a consequence of some small conformational change on binding and an artefact in the spectral deconvolution.

  • Marco March 21, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Ironically, your wonderful editor had a paper published in the same journal as the Grossweiner paper with the same mistakes. Worse is that I had previously reviewed that paper for another journal and told him of all the issues; none was corrected in the published paper…

    Oh, I would also be interested in your views on the FTIR analysis in the paper.

  • Marco March 22, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Don’t know what’s happening with the commenting system, so let’s see where this comment shows up…

    Anyway, Chris nailed most of it on the head: Hill equation (linearized), nonsense comments about structural destabilization, and some questionable spectral deconvolution (or rather, curve fitting – peak widths are all over the place).

    Sadly, there are hundreds such papers, and PLoS one is far from the worst publishing outlet for those papers. The same group has had several papers in Biomacromolecules, for example, with the same problems.

    What I perhaps should have asked also is whether it could be considered scientific misconduct if you just ignore a reviewer telling you of all the mistakes you made, and just publish the paper elsewhere without making any correction.

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