Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

12 years after researcher found guilty of misconduct, journal retracts paper

with 4 comments

In 2005, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity found an obesity researcher had engaged in scientific misconduct.

More specifically, the ORI report revealed that Eric Poehlman, then based at the University of Vermont, had “falsified and fabricated” data in 10 papers. The 2005 report asked that the journals issue retractions or corrections to the papers. By 2006, six of those papers were retracted (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). In 2006, a judge sentenced Poehlman to one year and one day in prison for falsifying research data.

In 2015, we explored how long it takes a journal to retract a paper. We found that four of the 10 papers had still not been retracted — one appeared to be missing from Medline, another had received a correction (as the ORI report requested), and two had not been retracted or corrected (1, 2).

Until now.

In April, a 1998 review was finally retracted from Obesity Research— now called Obesity. According to the managing editor, the journal realized it hadn’t retracted the paper after our editor Alison McCook contacted them in 2015. Here’s the retraction notice:

The above article, published in May 1998 in Obesity Research (now titled Obesity), has been retracted by the journal Editors-in-Chief, Eric Ravussin and Donna H. Ryan, and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. The article is being retracted following the admission of Eric T. Poehlman that this article is based on falsified and fabricated research: Coauthor Tchernof was unaware of his actions and was not involved in any way.

The notice links to a letter written by Poehlman in 2005, in which he accepts “full responsibility for the falsifications and fabrications” found in the ORI investigation and exonerates his co-author:

My co-author was unaware of my actions.

Effects of the menopause transition on body fatness and body fat distribution” has been cited 110 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science – 60 times since the journal published the 2005 letter from Poehlman.

The managing editor of Obesity told us:

The fact that the article was never retracted was brought to light in August 2015 when we received an email from Alison McCook at Retraction Watch. She was working on a post checking the 10 publications flagged as having been affected by Dr. Poehlman’s misconduct. She noticed that the article in our journal (then titled Obesity Research and published by Nature) had never been retracted and wanted to know whether we had plans to do so.

We were unaware that the article was never retracted so we immediately contacted Wiley and asked them to do so. Unfortunately, we were having issues with an unresponsive Journal Publishing Manager at that time, and the retraction did not occur until recently.

We also reached out to the former editor-in-chief of Obesity Research to whom Poehlman addressed his 2005 letter to find out why the paper wasn’t retracted in 2005. She told us:

I thought everything had been retracted.

Another possible reason the paper fell through the cracks: The journal became Obesity in 2006 and switched publishers in 2008. We decided to tally Poehlman’s retractions in 2015 after Elizabeth Wager (a member of the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, our parent non-profit organization) decided to review his record. When we spoke to Wager about this issue in 2015, she noted that there are many possible reasons why journals don’t retract papers right away — based on a 2013 study she co-authored, one factor can be “journals switching publishers.”  

The managing editor of Obesity agreed:

… that may explain it.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Written by Victoria Stern

June 21st, 2017 at 11:45 am

  • Lin June 21, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Can someone explain to me why this isn’t the standard? Specifically, when a scientist uses fraudulent data to secure public monies, that person should ALWAYS face criminal sanctions, as do other types of government contractors who are caught cheating. Further, there seems to be an increase in cases of fraudsters who sue their accusers of defamation or wrongful termination, or falsely claim whistleblower status, seemingly applying the logic that the best defense is a strong offense. All of this extra litigation adds to the financial losses suffered by the funding agencies and universities involved. Think of the legal fees, the extra time and effort of people who did the original investigations, etc. This could easily double the losses when considering the grants alone.

    Honestly, people–fraud is fraud! It’s a simple concept. If you commit fraud you should face criminal penalties!

  • Miguel June 21, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Here’s an example of an even longer gap between publication and retraction: A paper published in 2001 in Annals of Mathematics (arguably the most prestigious journal in pure math) was just retracted by the editors in 2017: No reason was given. Perhaps a gap was found in the proof – not a misconduct or anything of that sort. This is a rare occurrence for Annals of Math. Interestingly, there was a case in that journal whan a critical gap was found in a published proof but the paper was not retracted. Instead, only an erratum was issued by the author, Daniel Biss. (The retraction of one of Biss’ papers from a different journal was reported here on Retraction Watch not long ago.)

  • Theresa Defino June 28, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Doesn’t explain why it took another two years after RW asked!

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