Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“A big mistake:” Paper about the dangers of Wi-Fi pulled for plagiarism

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A report that presents guidelines for treating people allegedly harmed by signals from Wi-Fi and mobile phones was pulled two weeks after publication for plagiarism.

However, the retraction note, published in the March issue of Reviews on Environmental Health, doesn’t use the word “plagiarism,” and instead blames the move on lost citations and errors. The editor of the journal, David Carpenter, told us the report — which takes the controversial stance that WiFi can cause harm to some people — was retracted because “major sections of it had been taken directly” from another source, without reference.

The journal didn’t catch the plagiarism because it didn’t send the report out for peer review, Carpenter said:

[W]e didn’t subject the article to the full peer review that is applied for all other submissions, and that always include an on-line search for plagiarism.

The reason, Carpenter told us: the paper “was the outcome of a large committee.”

Here’s the retraction note for “EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2015 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses:”

The authors regret to announce the following: The EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2015 has been retracted by the authors. During the preparation of the EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2015 several citations were lost and other errors were detected. This was completely unintentional and the authors are very sorry for this. However, the content and conclusions of the Guideline are not altered by this. A revised version will be published as soon as possible.

The paper has not been cited, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

EUROPAEM had announced the retraction on December 11 on their blog (translated from German by Google Translate),

The EUROPAEM EMF guideline in 2015, published on 27 November 2015 in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health, has been withdrawn by the authors on 11 December 2015 for editorial reasons.

Corresponding author Gerd Oberfeld, who works at the Department of Public Health in Austria, confirmed to us that the report was plagiarized. Regarding the lack of peer review, he told us:

There are arguments in favour of a peer review and against for the guideline. The pro arguments are, that it will be always good to have a peer review. The arguments to have no peer review in this specific case, are, that it has already been a large international group of experts that wrote the guideline. It was decided by the EIC to have no peer review.

The report argues that people with electromagnetic hypersensitivity are prone to problems after exposure to wireless sources, and was published by the European Academy of Environmental Medicine (EUROPAEM), which advocates on environmental issues. The special issue of the journal included several articles on electromagnetic hypersensitivity (also referred to as electromagnetic sensitivity, electrosensitivity, EHS or ES). The World Health Organization says that research hasn’t confirmed the existence of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Carpenter elaborated on the retraction note to us:

The issue was not that there were errors in the original document, but rather that major sections of it had been taken directly from the BioInitiative Report with[out] reference.

Interestingly, Carpenter was a co-editor of the BioInitiative report, which came out in 2012. Three authors of the EUROPAEM Guidelines were contributing authors on that 2012 report: Oberfeld, Igor Belyaev, who works at the Cancer Research Institute of the Slovak Academy of Science, and Michael Kundi, who works at the Medical University of Vienna.

We asked Carpenter how the article made it into the journal containing material plagiarized from a document that Carpenter had edited:

I didn’t notice it myself, as in my role as Editor in Chief I don’t usually read most of the submitted manuscripts. In addition we made a big mistake with this article.  Since it was the outcome of a large committee, we didn’t subject the article to the full peer review that is applied for all other submission, and that always include an on-line search for plagiarism.  So we missed it.  But the moment the article appeared on-line two authors who were part of the BioInitiative Report noticed immediately that several sections were reproduced in this articles without any reference to the source.

The revised version is currently out for peer review.

Carpenter told us:

Plagiarism is unethical and is really a crime. A revised version has now been submitted to the journal and is currently under review.  I expect that the corrected manuscript will be published in the second issue of Reviews on Environmental Health in 2016.

We asked him to clarify why the retraction note didn’t mention plagiarism:

The retraction note was a polite way of saying “plagiarism”, in that there were not adequate references.  I don’t think there is repercussion for most of the authors.

Carpenter told us that just one author was responsible for the plagiarism, but he declined to tell us which author:

the problem here is that there was one bad apple among the authors, which has resulted in embarrassment to all of them.

We asked Carpenter if the retraction had anything to do with the skepticism surrounding electromagnetic hypersensitivity:

Certainly the retraction had nothing to do with skepticism on ES research, but rather one author who is extremely careless in acknowledging his sources.  That sort of thing only contributes to the skepticism, unfortunately.  I view the evidence for adverse health effects from EMF at non-thermal intensities overwhelmingly strong.

The plagiarized material comes from the BioInitiative Report, which has received criticism for its “slanted review,” and also concludes that electromagnetic fields can have harmful effects:

Bioeffects are clearly established and occur at very low levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation. Bioeffects can occur in the first few minutes at levels associated with cell and cordless phone use. Bioeffects can also occur from just minutes of exposure to mobile phone masts (cell towers), WI-FI, and wireless utility ‘smart’ meters that produce whole-body exposure. Chronic base station level exposures can result in illness.

The retracted EUROPAEM guidelines recommend treatment and public health measures for electromagnetic hypersensitivity:

The primary method of treatment should mainly focus on the prevention or reduction of EMF exposure, that is, reducing or eliminating all sources of EMF at home and in the workplace. The reduction of EMF exposure should also be extended to public spaces such as schools, hospitals, public transport, and libraries to enable persons with EHS an unhindered use (accessibility measure)

Despite the conclusions of the EUROPAEM guidelines and the BioInitiative Report, other evidence shows the electromagnetic fields (EMF) that permeate our modern environment are not associated with symptoms such as nausea and headaches, and do not appear to pose problems for people with electromagnetic hypersensitivity. From the World Health Organization:

A number of studies have investigated the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”.

Oberfeld has a previous retraction for a study, according to a press release published in 2008 by Forum Mobilkommunikation, a communications company:

Much attention has been given to a ‘study’ conducted in the Federal Province of Styria by Dr. Gerd Oberfeld of the Salzburg Landessanitätsdirektion (Office for public health of the Federal State of Salzburg, Austria) in which he claims to have established a cancer cluster with direct causal link to a mobile phone base station.

Among other shortcomings the major issue of this study was that the purported owner of the base station, the Austrian incumbent A1 Telekom Austria (formerly Mobilkom Austria) could demonstrate that no base station existed at the time at the location in question. Dr. Oberfeld agreed to an out-of-court settlement and withdrew the study.

The retracted study is “Environmental Epidemiological Study of Cancer Incidence in the Municipalities of Hausmanstätten & Vasoldsberg (Austria),” a spokesperson for A1, a communications company in Austria told us.

Belyaev, the first author, has a previous retraction for an article that was accidentally duplicated within the same journal, “Toxicity and SOS response to ELF magnetic field and nalidixic acid in E. coli cells,” published in Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis.

Many of the authors are connected to advocacy organizations, some of which explicitly promote awareness of electrohypersensitivity.

Amy Dean, the second author, has served as the president of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which provides continuing medical education on electromagnetic hypersensitivity (and has received skepticism from Stephen Barrett on Quackwatch for promoting questionable ideas).

Co-author Markus Kern is affiliated with the Kompetenzinitiative, a group that advocates on environmental and health issues.

The affiliations for Claus Scheingraber listed on the paper are a working group for electro-biology, and the Association for Environmental- and Human-Toxicology. Last author Roby Thill is affiliated with the Association for Environmental Medicine in Luxembourg.

Co-authors Belyaev, Wilhelm Mosgöller, affiliated with the Medical University Vienna, and Olle Johansson, affiliated with the Karolinska Institutet, signed a call for the retraction of an Economist article which noted “concerns about the danger posed to human health by radio waves are misplaced.”

Johansson leads a group that “investigates health effects of modern, man-made electromagnetic fields as well as the functional impairment electrohypersensitivity.” His work is highlighted by an advocacy group called the Cellular Phone Task Force.

The editor of the journal, David Carpenter, who is based at the University of Albany, has said electromagnetic fields could be linked to dangerous health effects. In a 1995 episode of Frontline titled “Currents of Fear” he said:

In my judgment, they are dangerous. Up to 15 percent of all cases of childhood cancer might be attributable to exposure to magnetic fields from the power lines in the street.

Update 8/5/16 2:40 p.m. eastern: The 2016 version of the guidelines has been published.

Hat tip: Alexander Lerchl

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  • Anonymous March 22, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    the paper “was the outcome of a large committee.”

    How is this an excuse for not conducting peer review?

  • herr doktor bimler March 22, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    This Bioinitiative Report?

    Moreover, Sage and Carpenter, authors of the introductory and concluding sections, clearly have their own political axes to grind. In a recent letter they emotionally attacked the World Health Organization and a major standards setting group (The International Commission on Nonionizing Radiation Protection, ICNIRP). The overall impression is that the BIR has been structured to give scientific support to Sage’s activist ideas.

    “Picking Cherries in Science: The Bio-Initiative Report”

  • Lee Rudolph March 22, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    the paper “was the outcome of a large committee.”
    How is this an excuse for not conducting peer review?

    Perhaps the committee was so large that it contained all conceivable peer reviewers. (I would hope that the pool of potential peer reviewers for this, ahem, “contrarian” journal is small, but my hopes are often dashed.)

    • LMW March 23, 2016 at 8:33 am

      They could have sent it to the individuals on the plagiarized BioInitiative report who spotted the issue …

  • Anonymous March 23, 2016 at 1:50 am

    What is environmental medicine, anyway?

  • Coward March 23, 2016 at 5:04 am

    Much more interesting is the question if the methods of the paper are clean, and if the found effect is sound…

    • Neuroskeptic March 23, 2016 at 9:09 am

      I would agree with you in most cases, but in this case there was no method – or rather the method was “a bunch of experts sat down and wrote some guidelines”. If those guidelines are plagiarized then the method was flawed.

  • David Walker March 23, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I love that phrase! “Citations were lost”. That sounds better than “Material was lifted which we presented as our own, but which was not”.

    And it reeks of “mistakes were made”. No one was responsible for losing the citations, they were just “lost”.

  • David Walker March 23, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    I couldn’t resist adding a comment about this:

    “The primary method of treatment should mainly focus on the prevention or reduction of EMF exposure, that is, reducing or eliminating all sources of EMF at home and in the workplace.”

    If you can’t eliminate sources of EMF, I wonder if you could reduce bodily exposure somehow. If only there was some kind of metallic substance that would shield the human body from EMF. Hmmmm…. Can I make a suit and a hat out of something I might have around the house?

  • herr doktor bimler March 23, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Anonymous March 22, 2016 at 2:24 pm
    the paper “was the outcome of a large committee.”
    How is this an excuse for not conducting peer review?

    Especially since “The revised version is currently out for peer review”.

  • Einar Flydal March 28, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Taking for granted that only thermal levels of non-ionizing radiation can possibly have any biological effects, it follows that every researcher finding or defending evidence of biological damage at sub-thermal levels should be suspected for bad science and/or unethical behaviour.
    This is indeed the main discrediting mechanism in your article.
    That said, quoting substantial parts without referencing is of course bad. But without the prejudice above, the story would stop there, not by throwing suspicions on the rest of the team and their project, insinuating unethical behaviour and/or ill-documented or faulty science.
    If looked for, it would not be difficult to find solid support for their views, findings and therapeutical guidelines in the immense body of research they reference, as well as in the WHO / IARC cancer classification of microwave radiation at sub-thermal levels as 2B.

    Even your hat tip to German radiation researcher Alexander Lerchl seems somewhat bewildered: Not long ago, he published his study showing that indeed, sub-thermal microwave radiation had a catalyst effect on induced cancer in mice. So, any assurances of such radiation not having detrimental biological effects seem premature, to say the least.

    Discrediting the evident conclusions from massive but unconventional research findings referenced, by criticizing careless quoting of text (in a medical guideline – i.e. not a research paper) seems akin to discrediting Dr. Semmelweis’ findings using the disbelief of the Vienna medical establishment as proof.
    It smells.

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