Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Privacy breach prompts retraction of three papers from the trauma literature

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ejpsychtraumA group of international psychology researchers is retracting three papers in the wake of revelations that they failed to adequately safeguard the identities of the patients who participated in the studies.

So far, only one article has been formally retracted. That article, “Combining biofeedback and Narrative Exposure Therapy for persistent pain and PTSD in refugees: a pilot study,” appeared last year in the European Journal of Psychotramatology. Its authors were Naser Morina, Thomas Maier, Richard Bryant, Christine Knaevelsrud, Lutz Wittmann, Michael Rufer, Ulrich Schnyder and Julia Müller.

According to the notice:

The following article has been retracted by the authors due to irregularities they had found regarding compliance with study procedures and data management. Data files comprising details of participants that were not de-identified were sent between study sites. At the Zurich study site, research sessions and interpreter costs were partly charged to the insurance companies and the hospital rather than to the appropriate research account. Data quality, data analyses, and clinical conclusions drawn from the results were not affected.

June 30, 2013
On behalf of the authors
Naser Morina

Schnyder, head of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University Hospital Zurich, where the work was conducted, told us that the other papers to be retracted are:

The now-retracted paper has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, while the 2009 paper has been cited four times, and the 2011 paper has been cited three times.

Schnyder said:

All three papers are dealing with the same study. To be more precise, in the first paper, data from the pilot study were published, while in the second and third paper, results from the main study were presented.

And Schnyder filled us in on the background of the case:

A former employee of our department who was with us during the time the study was conducted but had left us a couple of years ago approached the ethical committee of the canton of Zurich in December 2010, and raised concerns regarding how this study had been conducted. I asked the PI for clarification, and it turned out that the former employee was partly right in that in fact research sessions and interpreter costs had partly been charged to the insurance companies and the hospital rather than to the appropriate research account. We reimbursed the insurance companies (approximately CHF 20’000) [about $21,400] and the university hospital (CHF 5’000).

In March 2012, the same former employee approached the Board of the University Hospital, raising additional concerns. As a consequence, the President of the Hospital Board decided to mandate an external person to conduct a thorough quality audit of the study. This investigation revealed a number of additional, rather minor oversigh[t]s. However, more importantly, the auditors found out that data files contained names and dates of birth of all participants. Moreover, these data files had been sent between study sites, i.e., Zurich, Berlin, and Southampton. In Switzerland (and I assume in other countries as well), this clearly constitutes a breach of the data privacy act.

Based on the audit, in March 2013, the President of the Hospital Board requested that all study participants be informed, and that in the future, no data from this study should be published. I am currently personally conducting individual conversations with all study participants, informing them and apologizing for the breach of data privacy that had happened.

It is true that data quality and data analyses per se were not affected. Still, given the accumulation of systematic mistakes and oversights, and despite the fact that the Hospital Board had actually not requested to retract the papers that were already published, it seemed clear to me that we had no choice but to retract all three papers.

Schnyder said retraction notices for the other two papers are in the process of being written and submitted.

  • Dan Zabetakis July 31, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    I’m sorry. I may be a bit thick, but can someone explain why these papers are being retracted?

    I can see that the privacy breach described is significant, and may warrant punishment and/or payment of compensation. The billing irregularities are merely an administrative issue.

    But if I understand correctly, they did not violate either medical or scientific ethics in the conduct or analysis of the work. No flaws are reported and no privacy information was published.

    Unless there are other facts not reported, the study should not be retracted.

    • Jennifer R. Ewing July 31, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      I think retracting the study is an attempt to shut the barn door after the horse has already escaped. To wit, I get the feeling they’re hoping nobody read the first papers where the data breaches occurred, and if they can retract those papers and resubmit them with patients’ confidentiality properly safeguarded, they’d rather do that than leave the papers with the confidentiality breaches intact.

    • Phronesis August 1, 2013 at 1:27 am

      They clearly believe that they have violated the Ethical approval under which the research was conducted. This makes the results they have published illegitimate regardless of their actual merit.

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