The authors of a popular — and heavily debated — F1000Research paper proposing a method to prevent scientific misconduct have decided to retract it.
The paper was initially criticized for allegedly plagiarizing from a graduate student’s blog — and revised to try to “rectify the overlap.” But according to F1000, it is now being retracted after an additional expert identified problems with the methodology.
Today, F1000 added this editorial note to the paper:
Due to the methodological concerns raised by a peer reviewer during the post-publication open peer review process, the authors will retract this article from F1000Research. The formal retraction note will be posted in due course.
The paper, “How blockchain-timestamped protocols could improve the trustworthiness of medical science,” caught the media’s attention after it first appeared in February 2016, receiving mentions in The Economist and FierceBiotech (as well as our site). In the paper, physician Greg Irving of the University of Cambridge and John Holden of Garswood Surgery in the UK how to use a blockchain—the technology that powers the digital currency bitcoin—to audit scientific studies, as well as prevent misconduct in clinical trials.
Sabina Alam, Editorial Director at F1000, sent us this statement:
We were alerted to concerns about the methods and scientific validity of this article in a comment posted on the article. In the interest of completeness of the peer review process and addressing these concerns we invited a fourth peer reviewer, William J. Knottenbelt, an expert in cryptocurrency. Professor Knottenbelt submitted a peer review report stating that the methodology was not correct. Upon reading this peer review report the authors requested that the article be retracted. We have now placed an editorial note on the paper to notify readers it will be retracted. A full retraction notice will be posted on our site soon and we will work with PubMed to have all versions of the article indexed there retracted. As we have Crossmark implemented throughout our site, it should be clear that the paper is retracted, no matter what version people access.
That additional expert, William Knottenbelt at Imperial College London, told us he agreed with the authors’ decision:
I think the sensible thing for them to do is to retract it.
Knottenbelt, a computing expert, said he believes the authors misinterpreted one step of their methodology:
It was an understandable confusion, because this whole area is very complicated.
He added that he wasn’t surprised the initial reviewers of the paper missed the problem, as well, given the type of varied expertise they would need to have to review a paper on this topic:
I think if people are going to work on this kind of stuff then they need to bring together the right combination of multidisciplinary expertise.
It wasn’t methodology concerns that initially sparked the debate about this paper — it was the allegation by Benjamin Carlisle, a doctoral candidate studying biomedical ethics at McGill, that the paper had plagiarized his 2014 blog post. Even after the authors updated the original paper to try to address the overlap, Carlisle told us last July that he still believed the new version was a “mirror image of my blog entry.”
Carlisle’s advisor, Jonathan Kimmelman, told us today he suspected the plagiarism allegations may have ultimately prompted this retraction:
I think the plagiarism allegations probably brought much more careful scrutiny to this article than would have otherwise occurred.
Kimmelman added that he thought the paper should have been retracted earlier for plagiarism alone, but is happy it has finally happened:
This has been a long process, and I’m pleased to see this outcome.
Knottenbelt concluded that this retraction was an example of how publishing should happen — authors release findings, then retract them if outside experts uncover errors:
This is how the scientific process is supposed to work…That’s what peer review is for.
Update, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, 5/24/17: Daniel Himmelstein, who had commented on the F1000 paper, connects some dots for us in the comments, noting that Knottebelt’s “review reaches the same conclusions as my blog post 3 months earlier.” He’s talking about this blog post, which we highlighted in Weekend Reads a few days after its publication.
Update 5/25/17 9:07 p.m. eastern: We’ve heard from author John Holden, who told us:
The paper was revised after consultation with others and following considerable efforts to provide a method that was entirely reliable.
When it became clear that this could not be achieved it was decided that retraction was scientifically the right course of action to take.
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