Bad Memory? Repressed sexual abuse memory paper retracted for data inconsistencies
The journal Memory has retracted a paper on repressed sexual abuse after a protracted dispute between the authors and an institutional investigation in The Netherlands that led to no findings of misconduct against the first author, Elke Geraerts – a rising star in the field of
social psychology. (The title of hers TEDx talk, by the way, is “Resilience as a key to success.”)
The article, titled “Linking thought suppression and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse,” was published in 2008 and has been cited 10 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Here’s the retraction notice:
The following article has been retracted from in Memory by the first author. The co-authors have requested that their names be withdrawn from the paper.
We reached Harald Merckelbach, a Dutch researcher and a co-author of the article, who gave us a lengthy run-down of events:
The chronology of the case is as follows (brief version): way back, in 2009, long before the Stapel affair we – the co-authors – began to have concerns about an unpublished manuscript. We then decided to look into the data of a published paper (i.e., the Memory article) that immediately preceded this unpublished ms and addressed a similar research question. We found the same type of irregularities (see below). We then filed a complaint at the Maastricht University Integrity committee. After months of investigations, this committee concluded that yes, there were errors in the Memory paper, but no these errors had not been intentionally created.
So then we communicated to the first author that either way the errors and omissions had to be addressed in an official addendum or corrigendum to the Memory article. The first author refused. According to her, there were no errors or omissions in the Memory paper. We had – for over a year – intense e-mail exchanges in which we – the co-authors – insisted on an addendum/corrigendum and in which the first author denied that there were problems.
Then we – the co-authors – learned about the Klessig case, which illustrated that it is possible to withdraw unilaterally your co-authorship when you have concerns about the data analysis. So, we wrote letters to the Memory editors that we wanted to retract our co-authorships of the article. In the same period, journalists from the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad became interested in the case and published their article about it.
Rotterdam University authorities – where the first author is now employed – then decided to have their own investigative committee. This committee looked into the data analysis and concluded that there were errors and omissions in the paper. This report was released two weeks ago. The first author then decided – at last – to withdraw the Memory article.
The problem with the Memory paper is basically this: the dataset (N) consisted of two subsamples (n1 and n2). The co-authors believed that there had been no selection on n1 and n2, but they found out that there had been subjects tossed out and new subjects included. This whole selection process had not been mentioned in the Method paragraph (which is an ommission). and it had produced errors in a table displaying means and standard deviations (which should have been corrected).
The Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad has been covering the case extensively. In one article, from September 2012, the paper reported:
The co-authors tried to convince Geraerts to correct the errors in the Memory article. “We asked her on numerous occasions to show us all the raw data and the ‘cleaned’ tables. Then we could have prepared a correction or addendum together. However, she didn’t want to do so,” says Merckelbach, who never received the cleaned tables. Geraerts says that she believes that no correction is necessary. “Because the findings are correct with my adjusted dataset. The committee thought so too.”
Geraerts was consistently supported in this by the Executive Board [of Maastricht University, where Geraerts was working; she's now at Erasmus University in Rotterdam]. In the summer of 2010, [then] President Mols sent an email to the co-authors saying that the case should be considered closed, and insisted that any further communications with Rotterdam go through him. Otherwise Geraerts might complain about stalking. When asked about this, Mols now says that he did not notify the EUR about the case, “because there were no questions”.
And why did Maastricht University never insist on a correction? Mols explains, “The case was permanently closed when no appeal was filed. As such, the Executive Board saw no reason to take further measures.”
Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist who supervised Geraerts when she did a post-doc at Harvard in the mid-2000s, and whose name also appeared on the paper, said that although the retraction was long-awaited the issue is not fully resolved.
We never got our concerns [about the integrity of the data] addressed.
Geraerts has refused to share her data with the rest of the team, McNally said, citing principles of confidentiality that he found risible. And McNally told us that the institutional investigation didn’t examine the data either.
Update, 11/26/13, 2:30 p.m. Eastern: We have replaced the photo of Elka Geraerts, taken from her lab homepage, that originally ran with this post after a claim by Geraerts that it violated her copyright. We believe that our use fell within U.S. Fair Use provisions, given that Geraerts’ work was the subject of the post, but we have other priorities and a picture of the journal will do just fine.