What should happen to a paper published by Theranos?

Elizabeth Holmes, via Wikimedia

Last December, a group of scientists at a biotech firm published a paper on a “miniaturized, robotic clinical laboratory.” The technique, according to the authors, “would benefit patients and physicians alike.”

Nothing terribly unusual there. But what was — and what caught the eye of a Retraction Watch reader — was the name of the last author: Elizabeth Holmes.


If that name is familiar, it’s because you’ve been keeping up with news about Theranos, the blood testing company — now shut down — that Holmes founded to great fanfare. The whole story can be found in Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who has been on the Theranos case for years. But the upshot is that Theranos — and Holmes — were charged with fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in March.

The recent paper, in Bioengineering & Translational Medicine, was published on Christmas Eve of last year, long after Carreyrou’s reporting on the company had begun to appear. Carreyrou mentioned it in a Wall Street Journal story about the company’s attempted pivot to a “mini-lab,” as did Rebecca Robbins of STAT.
As best we can tell, no one has raised questions about the paper’s findings. Samir Mitragotri, editor of the journal, tells Retraction Watch:

We are monitoring the situation and have not made any specific plans.

The situation brings to mind that of Paolo Macchiarini, the surgeon who was fired from the Karolinska Institutet after being found to have committed misconduct in his work on artificial tracheas. As Science reported in April, Macchiarini published a paper earlier this year on the subject. In that case, “The journal’s editor says he was unaware of Macchiarini’s history before publishing the study,” Matt Warren reported.

So what should happen to the Theranos paper, if anything? You tell us: Take our poll:

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18 thoughts on “What should happen to a paper published by Theranos?”

  1. There should be a fourth option to select: verify the results independently and then either left as is if it works out, or retracted if it cannot be reproduced.

    1. I just glanced at the manuscript. It doesn’t appear to be the type of paper that allows replication since it’s a test of proprietary equipment that’s describe in very broad terms. The only way to replicate would be for the company to supply you with the apparatus.

      1. Well, since Theranos’s “technology” was completely fraudulent, then replication probably is not worth pursuing.

        After the deep-voiced faker was deep into fraud investigations, after years of multi-billion dollar valuations, based on her “technology, “…’Edison’ machines which were touted as revolutionary – not just by Holmes but by the fawning media and even the Clintons. Theranos has now told regulators that it threw out all Edison test results from 2014 and 2015, effectively confirming it has no proprietary technology…”

        https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-05-18/elizabeth-holmes-admits-theranos-technolgy-fraud-restates-voids-years-test-results

        Why would a “scientific” paper about fraudulent non-existent technology be maintained?

        Remember, 97% of media hailed the fraud as a genius!

  2. Ideally the peer review process should make the author inconsequential. However, since that isn’t always the case, there should be a note. If the findings are worth review, it should be reviewed regardless of who wrote it.

    1. The notion that anything could be reviewed regardless of who wrote it is fundamentally mistaken. Science is based on trust (and always has been; one wishes more scientists would read Steve Shapin’s ‘A Social History of Truth’). Reviews of manuscripts are based on trust; if you cannot trust that what I’m saying in the M&M section of my manuscript is what I really did, all your reviewing will be meaningless. Consequently, if evidence shows that a researcher lied when she talked about her research, then her publishing career should be over.
      But there is more to this than the problem of trust between scientists. In a climate in which an ever growing fraction of the public is becoming hostile to all kinds of experts and science in general, I think it is a disastrous mistake to allow fraudsters like Holmes, Macchiarini, Voinnet, etc. to publish in scientific journals ever again. To external observers, we look like the mafia.

      1. I agree and then somehow I disagree, too. Yes, my gut feeling also is that a fraudster should never be allowed to publish again. But on the other hand, thieves and even murderers are released from prison after sentence served and are given a new chance. Should in science somebody be punished for life after a single transgression? Or only if they did it twice? Thrice? Without a trial? Somehow this all makes me uncomfortable. Science needs to get rid of fraudsters, but somehow we also need to remain just…

  3. This company and everyone and everything associated with it is fraudulent, publishing the paper was completely idiotic and the editor should be removed and the publisher should take down the journal.

    This kind of nonsense getting published is why most ‘scientific’ research is false and a waste of taxpayer money.

    The education system is feeding this sort of nonsense to its students, or inmates, depending upon your point of view.

    1. To conclude from this case that “most” research is false is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For every fraudster there are hundreds if not thousands of honest hard-working scientists producing valid results that often result in life-saving treatments. Just look at the increased survival times for most cancers in the last few decades. That’s not a waste of taxpayer money, that’s money well-invested!

  4. There will be a full review. No misconduct will be found. No correction necessary. Welcome to modern science research.

  5. The woman is a pathological liar and a fraud. Read “Bad Blood” and realize there’s not a chance in hell that anything she says or does is true.

  6. There should be a bright line where, if crossed, disqualifies you from all research, not just publishing papers. Deliberate fraud would clearly be over that line. Without severe consequences, the potential gain outweighs the potential loss, and we will see more of it.

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