Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“Remarkable” it was ever accepted, says report: Science to retract study on fish and microplastics

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Science is retracting a paper about how human pollution is harming fish, after months of questions about the validity of the data.

The move, first reported by the news side of Science on Friday, follows a new report from a review board in Sweden that concluded the authors were guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” and the paper should be “recalled.”

The report had some strong words for the journal and the university that conducted a preliminary investigation:

…the Expert Group finds it remarkable that Uppsala University, in its preliminary investigation of 31 August 2016, found no support for the presence of dishonesty in the research carried out by Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt.

And:

…it is remarkable that the article, given these deficiencies, was accepted by the journal Science.

The paper, which appeared last June, received widespread media coverage for suggesting fish larvae prefer to eat plastic over their own natural prey. But shortly after publication, a group of researchers alleged the paper contained missing data and used a problematic methodology.

In September, we reported that a preliminary investigation at Uppsala University conducted in August concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to launch a misconduct investigation. On September 23, Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board appointed an outside expert to review the case. Now that second probe has also ended, and it has found that authors of the Science paper — Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt of Uppsala University — to be guilty of “scientific dishonesty.”

The Science study was subject to an editorial expression of concern in December after the authors weren’t able to provide raw data, noting that the laptop that contained it was stolen days after the study was published. 

The report, available here, concludes:

…the Expert Group finds that Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt have been guilty of scientific dishonesty. Despite Oona Lönnstedt having been, in practice, responsible for the larger part of the alleged research, this does not free Peter Eklöv of responsibility. Peter Eklöv, in his role as senior researcher, bore significant responsibility for what transpired. Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt therefore have shared responsibility for the alleged deficiencies.

In view of the lack of ethical approval, the essential absence of original data for the experiments reported in the article, and the widespread lack of clarity concerning how the experiments were conducted, it is the opinion of the Expert Group that the article in Science should be recalled.

A spokesperson for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, said the Science team is working on a retraction and that the editorial expression of concern will be updated to link to the retraction notice.

Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology,” has been cited 24 times since it was published in June, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

Regarding the missing data, the report notes:

The fact that Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt produced no more than weak fragments of the original data and no original traceable data files, forming a basis for the research presented in the article, leads to suspicion that the research was not conducted, at least not to the reported extent.

We’ve contacted Eklöv and Lönnstedt for a comment, and will update the post if we hear back. In September, after Uppsala said it did not find evidence of misconduct, Eklöv told us:

Although  we have always been confident about our own innocence it is very stressful to be attacked by a group with the only purpose of discrediting our research.

An Uppsala University spokesperson referred us to this statement released by the institution last week. 

The conclusions reached by the two reports differ, but they also proceed from different regulatory frameworks and cover different quantities of material, and the University will have to take this into account in its decision. However, the reports agree that the data was inadequately backed up.

“The University will now examine the documents available in this matter and take a decision based on this examination. The process has been protracted and we intend to have a decision as soon as possible,” says Per Andersson, the responsible official at the faculty, who will now pass the matter on to the Vice-Rector for the next stage in the process.

This isn’t the first time the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board has produced different conclusions about a misconduct investigation than the institution. In 2015, the expert group chided two biologists and Uppsala University for events related to “extensive image manipulations” in five papers published between 2010 and 2014. The investigation found that two Uppsala professors acted “negligently” and “dishonestly” by failing to adequately supervise a doctoral student who had manipulated the images, and criticized the university for “significantly” delaying the investigation.

According to an in-depth report on the paper published in March by Science, seven researchers have claimed the paper contains fabricated data. Two of the researchers — Fredrik Jutfelt from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology in Trondheim and Josefin Sundin based at Uppsala University — were at the Ar Research Station on the island of Gotland in the Baltic sea, where the experiments supposedly took place. They, however, allege that the study was never conducted. 

Lönnstedt has told Science the experiments were carried out, and she believed allegations to the contrary are fueled by jealousy.

[11:30 a.m. eastern 5/3: Please see an update to this story.]

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