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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Hmm: Authors retract paper rather than allow discussion of politics of organ donation in China

with 19 comments

transplantationOrgan donation in China, particularly the practice of using organs from executed prisoners, which the government pledged to stop by the middle of this year, has been a controversial subject. For a group of authors in that country and the U.S, a letter criticizing their work that introduced “the political situation of organ donation in China” was cause to retract their own paper.

Here’s the notice in question from Transplantation, for a study published three months ago:

The authors of the article “Factors Behind Negative Attitudes Toward Cadaveric Organ Donation: A Comparison Between Medical and Non-Medical Students in China,” which published ahead of print on May 15, 2014, have retracted the article because the Editors insist on publishing a Letter to the Editor that is critical of the article and that, in view of the authors of the article, is unjustified since it extends to criticism about the political situation of organ donation in China and the failure of the article to take this into account.

Here’s the abstract of the paper, whose corresponding author, Zhang Lei, is a lung transplant surgeon at the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute:

BACKGROUND:

The purposes of this study were to identify knowledge and attitudes held by Chinese university students regarding cadaveric organ donation and to understand the factors that drive negative attitudes.

METHODS:

Questionnaires were delivered to 200 medical and 200 non-medical students chosen by random assignment at Central South University in China.

RESULTS:

Of the 400 distributed questionnaires, 369 were completed and returned. Medical students were more likely than non-medical students to have knowledge of cadaveric organ donation, brain death, and its diagnostic criteria, as well as the appropriate time to conduct cadaveric organ donation. Furthermore, medical students were more likely than non-medical students to donate organs after death. For both medical students and non-medical students, family disapproval, public misconception, traditional culture, suspicion of premature withdrawal from life support, lack of knowledge about cadaveric organ donation, concern about inappropriate use of donated organs, and low education degree were associated with their unwillingness to donate cadaveric organs. Meanwhile, religious belief, insufficient laws and regulations, and lack of promotion were associated with medical students’ negative attitude; for non-medical students, negative attitudes were also associated with nontransparent process of donation, sex, only-child, and young age.

CONCLUSION:

Most Chinese student participants in this study held negative attitudes toward cadaveric organ donation. Furthermore, a considerable number of students remained indecisive, thus identifying a group of potential donors for interventionists to address when promoting cadaveric organ donation in the future.

The stated reasons for the retraction of the paper, which also includes authors from Indiana University and Harvard, is troubling. As Michael Woodhead, who posted about the retraction on Sunday, notes:

Retracting a study because of ‘political’ criticism is not in the spirit of science or academic discourse. Being willing and able to defend your work from critical review is one of the foundations of good science. What if Darwin had retracted Origin of the Species because he was unwilling to have John Murray publish a critique of it?

We had asked the authors for comment last week, and have yet to hear back. Also last week, the journal’s editorial office forwarded our questions to their European colleagues. We’ll update with anything we learn.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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19 Responses

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  1. Why would the journal even honor such a ridiculous retraction request? It’s not like that the authors of a published work have a right to have it pulled whenever they feel like it.

    Bernd

    August 20, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    • Perhaps because China is the new superpower, so as to not lose business from this massive clientelle and scientist base, it would be better to give in to the personal requests of a few than to have to displease the masses. In other words, the potential corruption of the publisher in favor of the numbers that China brings.

      JATdS

      August 20, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    • It’s not like that the authors of a published work have a right to have it pulled whenever they feel like it.

      The magic words here are “published ahead of print”: it hadn’t been paginated yet.

      Narad

      August 21, 2014 at 4:36 am

      • The paper is listed as “post author corrections”, meaning the authors already had their final say.

        Bernd

        August 21, 2014 at 2:02 pm

        • The question of correcting the proofs is orthogonal to the question. It’s impossible to pull an article once an issue has been paginated. It can be done at any time before that.

          Narad

          August 21, 2014 at 2:18 pm

          • ^ Make that “Having corrected the proofs….” Haven’t had any coffee yet.

            Narad

            August 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm

            • “It’s impossible to pull an article once an issue has been paginated.” If this is true, then this is a serious mental flaw by publishers. Any publisher that is willing to publish a paper, knowing that errors or flaws exist, simply because it is too much trouble to adjust the pagination, is on the wrong side of publishing ethics. Can you please provide proof that your claim in this statement is true for this publisher, or for any other publisher? In fact, I had a situation similar to the one I am criticizing with Springer in which I had detected an error in my name in the accepted version of the paper before pages were assigned. When I contacted Springer about this, they claimed that it was too much trouble to correct my name because several agencies, including DOI, ad already had the paper registered with my wrong name. How stupid is this logic? Consequently, the published aper with pages contained my wrong name while the correct name was published as a pathetic Erratum, as an online PDF file. Springer could have avoided this Erratum simply by getting off its high horse and amended the error in time, while there was still time, and before the pages were assigned.

              JATdS

              August 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm

              • Can you please provide proof that your claim in this statement is true for this publisher, or for any other publisher?

                Jaime, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. The topic to hand is Zhang et al. It may have been described as a retraction, but from what I can see (without heading over to campus), it looks more like a withdrawal.

                There’s nothing complicated in the observation that it’s impossible to pull an article from a consecutively paginated journal once the issue has been paginated, unless I need to explain journals production.

                Narad

                August 22, 2014 at 4:24 am

              • I had a situation similar to the one I am criticizing with Springer in which I had detected an error in my name in the accepted version of the paper before pages were assigned. When I contacted Springer about this, they claimed that it was too much trouble to correct my name because several agencies, including DOI, ad already had the paper registered with my wrong name. How stupid is this logic? …. Springer could have avoided this Erratum simply by getting off its high horse and amended the error in time, while there was still time, and before the pages were assigned.

                If CrossRef was a controlling factor in this, then, yes, the situation seems to have been astonishingly stupid. Normally, there comes a time when “Production” has to “release” an issue, meaning that it’s handed off to the “Printer” after pagination.

                Dorking around with things at this point is very expensive, but not impossible. I don’t understand whyf Springer (which one might assume to have monolithic control of the production stream) wasn’t willing to make a correction of this sort.

                Narad

                August 22, 2014 at 5:03 am

              • Last bit:

                Any publisher that is willing to publish a paper, knowing that errors or flaws exist, simply because it is too much trouble to adjust the pagination, is on the wrong side of publishing ethics.

                What you’re failing to consider here is that journals tell authors when they have page numbers as soon as possible. Amazingly, this is actually important to people who trouble themselves to keep their CVs current. There is precisely zero chance that anybody’s going to welcome an E-mail out of the blue telling them that the information has suddenly changed for some reason that nothing to do with their own paper.

                Narad

                August 22, 2014 at 5:17 am

                • Narad, thanks for the feedback. All points are well taken. I guess the point I was trying to argue was the importance of timing and of process, and how, in several cases, authors’ complaints are so easily set aside, without reflection by the publisher of the potential side-effects of possible personal or professional damage. I guess this leaves a gap in our understanding of the exact stage, following proof approval, that a manuscript is considered to be “in production”. Many would criticize me for being pesky or petty, but my argument is that when publishers are not fully transparent about the background of a process, whether it be the proof-related decision, or even earlier, the peer review process, or later, the retraction process, then authors will start to feel that they are just the pimps of the system (which, academically speaking, they actually are). So, for me, going back to Zhang et al., I simply cannot understand what policies are in place by this publisher that would allow an author to just pull their paper simply because of what appears to be a politically-sensitive issue. So, the publisher has failed to explain clearly what the boundaries are for allowing a paper to be retracted, or for allowing an author to determine that their work can be retracted unilaterally. I think this is a new side of retractions (or withdrawals) that we have not seen or heard much of. Personally, I would not call it a withdrawal. To me, any paper that has passed the acceptance stage and is “removed”, is retracted, while any paper that is still in the processing stage prior to acceptance (any stage) and is removed, is withdrawn. Maybe others can suggest the fine differences between withdrawal and retraction.

                  JATdS

                  August 22, 2014 at 9:26 am

                  • First off, my apologies for all the typos in the foregoing comments; there are probably more to come.

                    I guess this leaves a gap in our understanding of the exact stage, following proof approval, that a manuscript is considered to be “in production”.

                    I’m invoking abstractions based on my actual experience in the trade: A manuscript is “in production” when it has been accepted and transmitted from the Editorial Office to the people who turn it into the end result, the Production Office.

                    The Editorial Office always has the final say if something comes up in the Production Office. If something comes up that’s not in the PO bailiwick (such as, I dunno, I think you might need permissions to reuse that figure), it gets bumped back to the EO. If your PO is just a random service bureau, you’ve either assumed or abdicated responsibility for the final product.

                    So, for me, going back to Zhang et al., I simply cannot understand what policies are in place by this publisher that would allow an author to just pull their paper simply because of what appears to be a politically-sensitive issue.

                    My basic point was only about when it is possible to pull a paper.

                    So, the publisher has failed to explain clearly what the boundaries are for allowing a paper to be retracted, or for allowing an author to determine that their work can be retracted unilaterally.

                    This is not a question for the publisher, it is a question for the EO.

                    I think this is a new side of retractions (or withdrawals) that we have not seen or heard much of. Personally, I would not call it a withdrawal.

                    Nonetheless, the category exists (this search is noisy andonly proof of concept).

                    To me, any paper that has passed the acceptance stage and is “removed”, is retracted, while any paper that is still in the processing stage prior to acceptance (any stage) and is removed, is withdrawn. Maybe others can suggest the fine differences between withdrawal and retraction.

                    I think the basic issue here is that the “processing stage” necessarily comes after acceptance (which has no stages per se).

                    Narad

                    August 22, 2014 at 10:57 pm

                    • ^ And, yah, I predictably b0rk3d the blockquotes in that comment. The missing </blockquote> is right after ‘considered to be ‘in production,'” would be so kind.

                      Narad

                      August 22, 2014 at 11:02 pm

                    • Narad, thanks once again for very insightful feedback. Also, good to know that you have experience in the “trade”, which suggests that you have worked for one of the big 5: Elsevier, Springer S&BM, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis (+ Routledge group), or DeGruyter (please correct me if my assumption is wrong). And this is important because I assume that the EO and PO may be separate entities in these 5 companies, maybe even multiple EOs and POs in different countries, depending on the scale of the company. For example, and I stand corrected, the Nature Publishing Group had only 2 individuals working in its Tokyo office back in about 2012, indicating that even in the case of so-called (or perceived) “large” publishers, the staff size can be small (and by association, its operations). It also indicates that in several cases of the smaller “predatory” publishers listed on Beall’s site, there is most likely no EO and PO, only a one-person operation. That is why we need a public declaration, by the publisher, of the exact steps that take place in the background, i.e., increased transparency about the processing. For example, I have noticed in recent years that all editing and proof operations shifted from Ireland to India (Chennai) for Elsevier, and that the same was done by Springer S&BM, also to India. At the time of the transition, the proofs were full of errors (and still continue to with errors, albeit less of them), and I attributed this phenomenon, including the introduction of an increasing amount of “trivial” errors in the literature, precisely due to the economization of these companies to maximize profits by outsourcing to India. So, your explanation provides some insight to the average scientist about the background process, but it still does not give authors the power, or the right, to edit errors, even after a paper was accepted, and a proof was submitted. Just today, I was angered by a proof of mine that was published in a Versita journal which failed to incorporate the edits requested in the proof edits list. So it’s like a tyrannical system is in pace with few rights to even complain and see “academic” justice. In such cases, 10 years down the road, if someone points out that a paper has errors, will Versita take responsibility, or will a paper be retracted with all responsibility dropped on the shoulders of scientists? This indicates that despite all the advances made in technology, there is a certain aspect of the system that remains extremely rigid, and inflexible (which may also reflect a human inflexibility – because it implies economic additives, since more work hours and labor is required). I was curious because the way you describe the EO and PO as being independent structures from the publisher, particularly the comment that “This is not a question for the publisher, it is a question for the EO.” It’s almost as if you are talking about a head and a foot as being independent entities of the same body. At the end of the day, a scientist probably doesn’t care much for the internal divisions: they want to know who is responsible for the errors. In the past two years, for example, I have had ample problems, particularly with Elsevier and Springer S&BM, about these fine-scale details, because when a complaint is issued, this wash-my-hands-free-of-responsibility tends to crop up, and the errors remain, unresolved, uncorrected. The same applies to papers already published in the literature, filled with minor errors that will most likely never be corrected, which is why the scientists with a conscience have the responsibility of publishing lists of these errors.

                      JATdS

                      August 23, 2014 at 8:39 am

                    • Am I right in assuming that the authors had already transferred rights for the paper over to the publisher? If so, it wasn’t a case of withdrawal, because the paper was no longer theirs to withdraw… if they requested the publishers to unpublish it, and the publishers honoured that request out of courtesy, I’d call that “retraction”.

                      herr doktor bimler

                      August 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm

                    • Also, good to know that you have experience in the “trade”, which suggests that you have worked for one of the big 5… (please correct me if my assumption is wrong)

                      I intend to get back to the meat of your comment, but, yes, this part is wrong. Think nonprofit.

                      Narad

                      August 25, 2014 at 3:44 am

                    • HDB:

                      Am I right in assuming that the authors had already transferred rights for the paper over to the publisher?

                      Yah, they would have had to do the copyright transfer. The LWW FAQ is here (note that it’s nominally demanded at the time of submission).

                      Given the wording, “because the Editors insist on publishing a Letter to the Editor that is critical of the article and that, in view of the authors of the article, is unjustified,” I think one could legitimately argue that there may not have been a genuine meeting of the minds, thus invalidating the contract,* but that’s neither here nor there; I think my original point – that there is a fixed, nonarbitrary window during which it’s possible to pull an article – is OK if this is tossed overboard.

                      * Consider a hypothetical case in which some in-house drones manage to completely screw up your paper. “Reformatting” a table, for example. Also imagine that the EIC is kind of out to lunch and sides with the Chief Drone, who says that it’s “style.” Is the transfer still valid? Does it depend on whether the transfer explicitly states that you’re SOL? So now imagine that it turns out that you thought you were signing off on a regular paper, but it’s actually a “special issue.” Is there a valid contract? Etc.

                      Narad

                      August 25, 2014 at 4:22 am

          • I don’t care about the distinction between retraction and withdrawal. I’m only saying that the journal could (and should) have continued to publish the paper even without the authors’ consent. The proof stage is the last chance for the authors to change their minds about whether and how they want to publish their manuscript, and said paper was already past that stage.

            Bernd

            August 25, 2014 at 6:30 am

            • Bernd, you are right. The distinction between retraction and withdrawal is useless for this case, but it is an important issue for general cases in publishing. Maybe, quite simply, the Chinese Government requested the authors to retract the paper, independent of its validity. So, a David vs Goliath situation, except that David has no stones. I fully agree with Michael Woodhead that this is a dangerous precedent. If papers start to get pulled because they deal with issues that politically sensitive, then we are in serious trouble, because science is one of politics’ bully pulpits (e.g., nutrition, pharma, engineering, weapons, agriculture, etc.). Imagine if pharma companies start to ask scientists to pull papers because they might prove compound A or B to be counter to what they want it perceived to be? It’s the same line of thinking, and danger. However, the letter that drew the attention of the editors claimed that “the failure of the article to take this into account”, i.e., did not take into account the Government’s ban on organ donation from prisioners, which might actually be a fair criticism. Tough to judge without having access to the full text. For exmaple, were some of the students’ ideas also published (considering that this was a questionnaire)? Were some of their opinions too radical and not scientifically based? I guess there are still alot of questions and I hope that the authors, the editors and maybe even a Chinese Government official could come forward and explain their independent positions. That would be the perfect case of accountability and transparency. But I doubt that will happen.

              JATdS

              August 25, 2014 at 8:54 am


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