Columbia University misconduct retraction highlights what’s wrong with the retraction process
The Journal of Clinical Anesthesia has a retraction of a 2006 paper by a group from Columbia University that, to our minds, is the poster child for how not to handle such things.
The article, “Dexmedetomidine infusion is associated with enhanced renal function after thoracic surgery,” was written by Robert J. Frumento, Helene G. Logginidou, Staffan Wahlander, Gebhard Wagener, Hugh R. Playford and Robert N. Sladen, who now is chief of critical care at the institution. The paper has been cited 30 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
Why do we bother to name all the authors? Here’s why: According to the retraction notice, one of them — but don’t ask which — is guilty of research misconduct:
This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert R. Gaiser. The corresponding author, Dr. Robert N. Sladen, has requested the retraction at the direction of the Columbia University Standing Committee on the Conduct of Research, due to research misconduct by one of the coauthors.
Of course, we know that’s not every author is potentially guilty. Sladen, after all, is still employed at Columbia, and as vague as it is, the language of the statement suggests he’s not involved. But the mealy-mouthed wording does leave room for everyone else to be the culprit. What’s more, the notice is excruciatingly unhelpful about the nature of said misconduct. Was it plagiarism? Data fabrication? An author inflating his credentials?
And therein lies the real question: Who’s to blame for such a lousy retraction notice — a notice, we hasten to add, that conforms in no way to Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines for retraction statements. To wit:
Notices of retraction should mention the reasons and basis for the retraction.
If retraction is due to the actions of some, but not all, authors of a publication, the notice of retraction should mention this.
The answer for who’s to blame, it seems, is the journal and its publisher, Elsevier.
Neither Sladen nor Gaiser would respond to our queries about the notice. But we did get a reply from Michael Purdy, executive vice president for research at Columbia, who told us this:
We treat questions raised about the legitimacy of research findings with the utmost seriousness and we deeply regret that the conduct of one of our former employees in this instance caused the retraction of this paper.
We believe that the research community should be provided sufficient information to understand the impact of the misconduct on the science, if any, in a way that is fair to all authors. The appropriate avenue to communicate such information to the research community is the journal that published the paper, rather than through less formal channels. We are following up with the journal in this regard.
Then we heard from Doug Levy, a Columbia spokesperson, who added:
[N]either Columbia University nor Dr. Sladen drafted this retraction statement or saw it before it was published.
Raising yet another question: What legitimate interest does the JCA have in drafting a ridiculously ambiguous — and, we’ll say, potentially defamatory — retraction notice?
We put that question to Herb Niemirow, an Elsevier exec who oversees the JCA. His response to our questions suggested they hadn’t considered what we think are fairly obvious questions when writing the notice:
You have raised valid questions and we are looking into the matter. If we decide to amend the retraction we will let you know.
Perhaps coincidentally, we found a retraction of another paper on which Frumento — but none of the other JCA authors — was a co-author. It, too, was a 2006 article, titled “The association between duration of storage of transfused red blood cells and morbidity and mortality after reoperative cardiac surgery,” published in Anesthesia & Analgesia. According to the 2009 retraction notice:
Rothman et al.1 discovered an error in a table in our manuscript describing an association between duration of red blood cell storage and outcome.2 Unfortunately, we were never able to correct the apparent errors since we could not find the dataset upon which the manuscript’s results were based. We have since noted that there were 58 cases of acute renal dysfunction in both our 392-subject data base reported in an abstract3 and our 321-subject data base reported in the article,2 which suggests that the article’s analysis of data from patients with acute renal dysfunction is erroneous. Although our conclusions have been corroborated by Koch et al.4 because we cannot find our data, and have identified discrepant results between our published report and our previously published abstract, we believe it is most prudent that we retract the report (see Notice of Retraction on page 1953).