Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Frontiers lets HIV denial article stand, reclassifies it as “opinion”

with 16 comments

frontiers phFollowing an investigation sparked by criticism for its decision to publish a paper questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, a Frontiers journal has decided to not retract the article but rebrand it as an “opinion.”

In September, 2014, Patricia Goodson, a professor of health education at Texas A&M University, published an article called “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent.”

The paper was quickly called into question, and the journal, Frontiers in Public Health, issued a statement of concern and promised to look into the problem. Now, they’ve announced their solution: call the paper an “opinion” and publish an argument against it.

Here is an excerpt of the publisher’s statement:

Frontiers has received several complaints from public health professionals related to the article “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent,” which questions the link between HIV and AIDS. Acknowledging the gravity of these concerns, and the implications that the weakening of the HIV-AIDS link has on public health in general, an internal investigation was conducted.

During the course of the investigation, Frontiers has sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology. Based on the conclusion of the investigation the article type of “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent” has been changed to an Opinion article, which represents the viewpoint of an individual. In addition, a commentary on the article has been published “Commentary on ‘Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent’,” which discusses the concerns and analyzes the viewpoint within a scientific discourse on the topic.

To many scientists, this is too little, too late. As Johns Hopkins biologist Kenneth Witwer notes, publishing a rebuttal actually legitimizes the ‘debate’ by putting AIDS denialism on equal footing with the opposition. (Witwer has called on scientists to boycott the publisher in response.)

AIDS denialism isn’t just a fun internet conspiracy. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Cape Town have estimated that around 340,000 people died between 1999 and 2007 thanks to the South African government’s refusal to acknowledge the link between HIV and AIDS, and provide timely treatment and education to prevent its spread. That’s every person in 19 Madison Square Gardens filled to capacity, dead because powerful individuals put their faith in discredited science.

We emailed with Nicoli Nattrass, a researcher at University of Cape Town who has written extensively about AIDS denialism, about this paper. Here is part of her response:

It is not good enough that Frontiers In now calls this denialist piece ‘an opinion piece’. It should have been retracted as it is full of demonstrably false claims. Just because there are lunatic fringe beliefs that have persisted in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, does not justify reprinting these claims without requiring the author to engage with this evidence.

The FPH commentary, by University of Connecticut AIDS researcher Seth Kalichman, defends the journal’s decision (“At the expense of her own credibility as well as the reputation of Frontiers in Public Health, Patricia Goodson has actually performed a public service. It is important for people to know that AIDS denialists do indeed still exist”) while heavily criticizing the paper itself:

Goodson’s article is a primer on AIDS denialism unlike any seen in what is purportedly a peer-reviewed journal. Goodson relies on material found in articles more than two decades old, a time when HIV first emerged and there were legitimate questions raised about a then unknown pathogen. Goodson’s article relies on self-published books, blog posts, essays, and fringe articles. There is no credible research offered by Goodson to support her opinion that there is any debate about HIV as the cause of AIDS, simply because there is no such debate.

Frontiers has a history of fumbling controversial papers. They also have an 80-90% acceptance rate, according to the Economist:

Its peer reviewers, whose names are known, accept 80-90% of submissions, rejecting only those which are fatally flawed. Authors of successful manuscripts pay a publication fee, ranging from $750 to $2,600, so that readers can have free access to articles. A paper’s merit is gauged after publication, using assorted internet metrics like the number of downloads.

Tara Smith at ScienceBlogs has more on the people who reviewed the article before it went to press:

The two reviewers, Preeti Negandhi and Lalit Raghunath Sankhe are also apparently both members of the FPH editorial board, despite almost no academic record. Neither has experience in HIV/AIDS , but the latter appears to be the editor,  Sanjay P Zodpey’go-to reviewer, while the former only has one publication listed on the FPH page, co-authored with Zodpey on public health capacity development in India. No publications are listed on Sankhe’s page, but there was one I could find which may possibly be associated with this name. Other than that, zero record in PubMed.

We’ve reached out to the journal editor and Goodson, and will update if we hear back.

Like Retraction Watch? Consider supporting our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, and sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post.

  • Fees February 24, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    So, will Frontiers reimburse the author for “downgrading” from a category A paper (US$ 1900) to a category C paper (US$ 250)?

    Incidentally, the “statement of concern” that was originally linking from RW’s original story has apparently just disappeared:

    • Michiel B. Dijkstra/Frontiers Communications February 25, 2015 at 5:56 am

      Thank you for your query. I would like to clarify that our original Statement of Concern of 26 Sep 2014 has not simply disappeared, but been explicitly replaced by the present Publisher Statement (dated 11 Feb 2015). “The following statement summarizes the outcome of our investigation and replaces the Statement of Concern”.

  • David Rasnick February 24, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Why doesn’t Retraction Watch also reach out to the critics of the HIV hypothesis of AIDS that Goodson cited in her article?


    • AshK February 24, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      I always wonder why the proponent of the acecepted theory/hypothesis are always worried about the alternate view, which they term as the denials. In the loght of failure of every possible mean to prepare vaccine, effective therapeutics it is time after 30 years to listen to other voices.

    • ychnyc February 24, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      Yes, and when the Retraction watch is at it, they should also reach out to the critics of the theory of gravity and heliocentric hypothesis.

    • Ed February 24, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      Why not reach out to the doddering dinosaurs of denial? Because there’s no scientific debate, and the story isn’t about that anyway. It’s about how an Open to Anything (OA) publisher accepted a sad excuse for a paper and then refused to retract it.

    • Richard Jefferys March 4, 2015 at 11:23 am

      For anyone unfamiliar with David Rasnick, here he is on a conspiracy radio show in 2010 with Liam Scheff and an HIV-positive woman named Karri Stokely discussing his efforts to explain to Stokely’s doctors why AIDS denialists had a better idea of how her medical care should proceed than the doctors (Rasnick actually went to the hospital with Stokely to do this).

      Stokely had developed CMV colitis, a serious opportunistic infection, after stopping HIV treatment in 2007 due to encountering AIDS denialist misinformation on the internet. Stokely and her new AIDS denialist friends, including Rasnick, decided that the CMV colitis was something else that could be treated with surgery, and were trying to insist that Stokely undergo surgery even though she was severely immune deficient.

      As was seen frequently in the era prior to effective HIV treatment, Karri Stokely’s CMV eventually also manifested in the eye causing CMV retinitis and blindness; she died soon after in April 2011.

      In the course of the interview Rasnick explains his view that HIV tests should be outlawed because then “most of this stuff clears up and goes away.”

      Although Rasnick claims HIV treatment “injured” Stokely, the internet preserves Stokely’s own description of how she was doing in 2007 after 11 years on HIV treatment:

      “I m VERY healthy, never had an opport. infection, and do an all natural approach with everything else.”

      Note that Stokely, after becoming immersed in AIDS denialism, later returns to the thread to disavow these comments.

      However, in a separate post shortly after stopping HIV treatment, Stokely also states that her routine while on treatment included a daily 3.5 mile “power walk.”

      And that after stopping treatment, symptoms made this no longer possible, and that rapid weight loss occurred.

      Here also is a more recent example of someone on the “Questioning AIDS” forum who has lost their vision due to CMV retinitis:!

      Frontiers journals have been successfully used by AIDS denialists in their efforts to get more of their misinformation, misrepresentations and lies into PubMed (the goal being to try and cloak the BS in a patina of credibility). Goodson’s dismal screed is actually labeled “Public Health Education and Promotion.”

  • Sylvain Bernès February 24, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    The current Frontiers web site gives publishing fees in the range 1900-250 USD:
    I don’t know from where the figures quoted by “the Economist” come from.
    On the other hand, the degradation of the HIV article to an “Opinion” also means a drop for fees, from Category A (1900 USD) to Category C (250 USD). At least, the author earned some moneys back (but has lost a lot of credibility).

  • Leonid Schneider February 24, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    How about an “Opinion” paper in a Frontiers journal about Earth being less than 6000 years old and dinosaurs never having existed? The journal could bring a critical “Commentary” and we could have a civilized academic discussion whose view was is scientifically more plausible.

  • Lee Rudolph February 24, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Yes, and when the Retraction watch is at it, they should also reach out to the critics of the theory of gravity and heliocentric hypothesis.

    Phlogiston and the Luminiferous Ether would like to have a word with you.

  • herr doktor bimler February 24, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Caloric — Teach the controversy.

  • Phronesis February 24, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    This debate has always seemed to me to be an interesting example of the difference between science and medicine.

    The scientific debate over basically anything must remain open. Put up your evidence and wait for the proponents of the current theory to die if you have too.

    Medicine on the other hand is only interested in outcomes. Clinical trials show that the anti HIV drugs work in mitigating or preventing AIDS. Assuming that HIV causes AIDS and acting accordingly (prophylaxis etc) has also been proven to reduce the rate of AIDS. This doesn’t prove that HIV causes AIDS but it does legitimise acting on the assumption that it does.

  • John Mashey February 25, 2015 at 3:43 am

    At least two citations come from JPandS, whose context is explained here.

    7. de Harven E. Human endogenous retroviruses and AIDS research: confusion, consensus, or science? J Am Phys Surg (2010) 15(3):69–74.

    18. Bauer H. HIV tests are not HIV tests. J Am Phys Surg (2010) 15(1):05–09.

    See JPandS home page, and its 22-pageCumulative Index includes interesting topic and book reviews, incliding
    Abortion, AIDS, HIV/AIDS, Atlas Shrugged, Bauer, H (7 articles),

    Bauer, H. The Origin, Persistence, and Failings of the HIV/AIDS Theory – 12(4):121 – 122, 2007 (reviewed quite favorably.),

    Freedom, Global Climate Alarmism … and many other topics and authors beyond my scope of recognition, but perhaps more familiar to others here.

    • Mika Thane March 10, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      And now JPandS has just published yet another HIV/AIDS denialist paper, promoting Goodson’s article, and – surprise, surprise – Henry Bauer’s book and internet posts.

  • Future accountability? March 4, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Michiel B. Dijkstra/Frontiers Communications February 25, 2015 at 5:56 am, states “Thank you for your query. I would like to clarify that our original Statement of Concern of 26 Sep 2014 has not simply disappeared, but been explicitly replaced by the present Publisher Statement (dated 11 Feb 2015). “The following statement summarizes the outcome of our investigation and replaces the Statement of Concern”.”

    Actually, this is of extremely grave concern, at least to me. Publishers should never be allowed to “substitute” documents in this way. The correct thing for Frontiers to have done would be to leave the original document in place, then to update with a new document. Time and time again, we are seeing publishers’ web-pages, documents and other absolutely essential information simply be replaced, without a single trace, or historical documentation, of the previous versions or copies.

    This trend does not only apply to Frontiers, but in fact alot of the main-stream STM publishers. It is not to late for us scientists to star to take screen-shots of everything we see that exists now, at least that is in debate, or of relevance to conflicts or discussions, because there is no guarantee that they will “poof” disappear tomorrow.

    Mr. Dijkstra, I ask, in 10 years from now, will that one sentence statement be enough to hold Frontiers accountable for a document that was just simply “replaced”? I’m sorry, but I disagree with this action and this policy. In the same that scientists are held up to the highest levels of scrutiny, stressful ones at that, like original data sets, supplementary data sets, original records, previous versions of documents, etc. why should publishers be held up to different (lower) standards?

    To the wider scientific community, we need to scrutinize publisher smuch more and hold them up to the exact same publishing and ethical standards that they are aggressively imposing on us. For far too long, we have served as the pawns on the chess-board while the kings and queens sit in the back row, reaping the benefits of the battle raging on the front line. But, when necessary, that back row has got to be held accuntable, and, on occasion, be toppled in a check-mate.

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.