Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Retract, replace, retract: Beleaguered food researcher pulls article from JAMA journal (again)

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Brian Wansink

A high-profile food researcher who’s faced heavy criticism about his work has retracted the revised version of an article he’d already retracted last month.

Yes, you read that right: Brian Wansink at Cornell University retracted the original article from JAMA Pediatrics in September, replacing it with a revised version. Now he’s retracting the revised version, citing a major error: The study, which reported children were more likely to choose an apple over a cookie if the apple included an Elmo sticker, was conducted in children 3-5 years old, not 8-11, as the study reported.

Although Wansink told BuzzFeed he asked the journal to retract the paper, Annette Flanagin, Executive Managing Editor for The JAMA Network, told us the editors requested the retraction:

Dr Wansink contacted us and informed us that the funder of the study had alerted him to this additional substantial error. In light of the fact that he had assured us that there were no other errors at time of the previous Notice of Retraction and Replacement, the seriousness of this newly reported error, and the inadequate oversight of the data collection and pervasive errors in the analyses and reporting for this study, the editors determined that the article needed to be retracted and recommended that Dr Wansink and coauthors retract the article with a Notice of Retraction signed by them. This is indicated in the Retraction notice published today in JAMA Pediatrics.

Flanagin told us she was surprised the authors didn’t catch such a major discrepancy, especially after revising the study:

We understand that the study data were collected “in 2008 by staff who are not authors of the published study (they were acknowledged for their roles in data collection in the original article).” The authors describe the following in the Retraction notice: “When we wrote the manuscript in 2011, we had assumed that since most data were collected in local elementary schools, the study participants were in the same 8-11 year-old age range that we typically use for our studies in elementary schools. In reviewing our records again, we realized that the study was conducted with 3 to 5 year olds who were in Head Start programs, some of which met in elementary schools.” As per standard practice, we had asked the authors to recheck their data before proceeding with the plan for retraction and replacement, and they confirmed that they had done so and that there were no additional errors. They also added a reproducible research statement to the replacement article with a link to the data files.

Here is another excerpt from the notice:

In our previous notice of Retraction and Replacement, we stated, “We confirm that there are no other errors or omission in the original article.” Given this additional substantial error in reporting the correct ages of the children and the inadequate oversight of the data collection and pervasive errors in the analyses and reporting, the editors have asked that we retract this article. We regret any confusion that this has caused the readers and editors of the journals.

According to BuzzFeed, Wansink discovered the mistake last week:

…emails obtained by BuzzFeed News via public records requests suggest that another paper by this research team, a study about carrots published in Preventive Medicine in 2012, looked at kids in preschools while claiming to be about older children. Wansink did not answer any questions about this study.

These age discrepancies matter because both studies are touted as evidence for the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, the $22 million, federally funded program that gives advice to nearly 30,000 elementary, middle, and high schools about how to get kids to choose healthy foods.

When Wansink and his colleagues retracted “Can Branding Improve School Lunches?” the first time, they listed numerous mistakes, which they said were made “inadvertently.” The description of the methodology changed significantly — for instance, children were offered either a cookie or an apple, not both — and explained the instances where certain individuals were excluded.

The paper has been cited 22 times since it was published in 2012, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

The first “retract” of a retract/replace?

JAMA is one of several journals that allows researchers to replace flawed articles with new versions; earlier this year, Flanagin said the journals would consider the mechanism in cases where papers were affected by “honest pervasive error.” This is the first time we’ve seen a replacement article get retracted — could this affect the reputation of retract/replace as a reliable publishing tool? Flanagin said:

We believe that Retraction and Replacement is a good mechanism for authors who admit honest and inadvertent pervasive error in a study for which the science is still considered valid.

At the time we considered the previous report of pervasive errors for this study, and following the April 2017 Cornell University formal internal review that determined “while numerous instances of inappropriate data handling and statistical analysis in four published papers were alleged, such errors did not constitute scientific misconduct”… and with the previous confirmation from the authors that there were no other errors in this study, we believed that Retraction and Replacement was appropriate.

With the additional information now received, we no longer believe the study is valid and that is why we asked the authors to retract their article, which they have now done.

Last month, Wansink retracted another paper that had fallen under heavy criticism. Wansink has been under fire since November 2016, when a blog post he wrote prompted a backlash from readers who accused him of relying on problematic research methods to generate questionable data.

In early 2018, the editor of JAMA Pediatrics — Frederick Rivara — will assume the helm of a new open-access JAMA journalJAMA Network Open.

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Comments
  • LMW October 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    I guess this addresses the contradictions pointed out in a comment to a previous post (http://retractionwatch.com/2017/09/22/prominent-food-researcher-retracts-paper-jama-journal-replaces-multiple-fixes/):

    “Mary Kuhner September 24, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    I note that the retract-and-replace does not address a key issue brought up in Nick’s original critique, namely that the paper says these were 8-12 year olds but multiple descriptions of this work in Wansink’s books refer to them as daycare children, and the original paper used the word “preliterate” of them.”

  • Nick October 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    According to the BuzzFeed article that is linked to in this report, Wansink was e-mailing colleagues in February of this year looking for the data for this article, and in those e-mails he explicitly stated that he believed that the data were collected in “daycares”. The claim that he only realised this “mistake” last week stretches my credulity some way beyond its elastic limit.

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