Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Updated: Science fish-microplastics paper retracted

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Despite continuing to vigorously defend their work, the authors of a controversial paper about the effects of human pollution asked Science to retract the paper last week.

According to a release from Uppsala University issued today, authors Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt submitted their request to Science last week, noting they wanted to withdraw the paper “as long as a suspicion of misconduct remains.”

The release — which echoes a statement that was also provided to Nature — notes:

The researchers behind the study themselves requested to retract the article at the end of last week, following sharp criticism of the study in an opinion from the Central Ethical Review Board.

In their letter to the journal, the researchers explain their request to retract the article by stating that science has to rest on solid ground and that the results of their study, even if correct, will not be trusted as long as a suspicion of misconduct remains. For this reason, the researchers request to retract the published research article.

To recap: The June paper received widespread media coverage for suggesting fish larvae prefer to eat microplastic over their own natural prey. But shortly after publication, a group of researchers raised several allegations, including that the paper contained missing data and used a problematic methodology.

A preliminary investigation at Uppsala University conducted in August concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to launch a misconduct investigation. The next month, Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board appointed an outside expert to review the case; that second probe found that Eklöv and Lönnstedt were guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” and the paper should be “recalled.”

The Central Ethical Review Board also had some harsh words for Uppsala and Science, noting it was “remarkable” the university didn’t find evidence of dishonesty, and that the paper was ever published by the journal.

Science had issued an Expression of Concern for the paper in December.

Today’s Uppsala statement notes the episode has prompted some soul-searching. In a quote from Johan Tysk, Vice-Rector of the Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology at Uppsala University:

“We take what has happened very seriously. It may damage confidence in the University and in research. It is also very difficult for all those involved. We intend to thoroughly review all aspects of the case, but we cannot say at present exactly how we will go about this.”

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

Update, 5 p.m. Eastern, 5/3/17: The paper has now been retracted. Here’s the notice:

After an investigation, the Central Ethical Review Board in Sweden has recommended the retraction of the Report “Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology,” by Oona M. Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, published in Science on 3 June 2016 (1). Science ran an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding the Report on 1 December 2016 (2). The Review Board’s report, dated 21 April 2017, cited the following reasons for their recommendation: (i) lack of ethical approval for the experiments; (ii) absence of original data for the experiments reported in the paper; (iii) widespread lack of clarity concerning how the experiments were conducted. Although the authors have told Science that they disagree with elements of the Board’s report, and although Uppsala University has not yet concluded its own investigation, the weight of evidence is that the paper should now be retracted. In light of the Board’s recommendation and a 28 April 2017 request from the authors to retract the paper, Science is retracting the paper in full.

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