Should a paper on mindfulness have been retracted? A co-author weighs in

Myriam Hunink

Two weeks ago, we covered the retraction of a PLoS ONE paper on mindfulness following criticism — dating back to 2017 — by James Coyne. At the time, the corresponding author, Maria Hunink, of Erasmus and Harvard, had not responded to a request for comment. Hunink responded late last week, saying that she had been on vacation, and with her permission we are posting her comments — including a correction she and her co-authors had originally drafted –here in the spirit of what she called “a fair and open discussion on Retraction Watch.” 

We sent an email to PLoS ONE in response to their intention to retract our paper explaining why we disagree with retraction but it seems they did not change their statement and went ahead with retraction. We suggested that discussing the methodological issues is a more rational approach and beneficial than retraction but received no response.

In spite of its methodological limitations, we feel the paper is a valuable contribution.

Three points are made in the retraction statement: 1) the assignment of an editor with a shared affiliation; 2) the limitation of the methods used; 3) the conflict of interest statement:

  1. About the assignment of an academic editor with a shared affiliation: We were unaware of who the academic editor was and that he/she had a shared affiliation. We can see the point that such a shared affiliation should be avoided, but the assignment of an editor is the responsibility of the journal and the editors, not the responsibility of the authors.
  2. We agree that methodologically the best would have been to meta-analyze the original data from each of the RCT’s. We were open and upfront about the issue of double counting with our approach from the start and made this explicit. The reviewer accepted our method of dealing with the double counting. We did what the editors asked and wrote a correction to make it even more explicit than it already was. We elaborated on the limitation of our approach and provided additional analyses in a Correction statement sent to PLoS ONE on Nov 14, 2018 which was not published. Our correction statement showed that our pooled results are consistent with the range of results published in the original meta-analyses. Furthermore, we pointed out that 2 outcomes (stress and quality of life) were not affected by double counting. For the outcomes depression and physical functioning only 1 RCT was double counted and for anxiety only 3 RCTs were double counted. Thus, even though our approach has limitations, the conclusions are justified by the data.
  3. In an email, PLoS ONE indicated that the conflict of interest issue was not the reason for retraction. Nevertheless, it was still prominently stated in the retraction statement.

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14 thoughts on “Should a paper on mindfulness have been retracted? A co-author weighs in”

  1. Dr. Hunink:

    Regarding your third point, “In an email, PLoS ONE indicated that the conflict of interest issue was not the reason for retraction. Nevertheless, it was still prominently stated in the retraction statement;” I note that these two sentences are not mutually exclusive. For example, if the *only* issue with the paper was the absence of the disclosure of a competing interest, then perhaps a correction would have sufficed.

    And it does appear that potential conflict of interests were not disclosed. The original article stated, “Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist,” which appears to be inaccurate. Do you believe that the statement in the retraction notice about competing interests is factually incorrect (duplicated below for your convenience)?

    Herbert Benson and Gregory Fricchione hold or have held positions at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is paid by patients and their insurers for running the SMART-3RP and related relaxation/mindfulness clinical programs, markets related products such as books, DVDs, CDs and the like, and holds a patent pending (PCT/US2012/049539 filed August 3, 2012) entitled “Quantitative Genomics of the Relaxation Response.”

  2. I happened to come across this. I don’t think this article should have got retracted at all – instead, the authors should have got a chance to address any limitations of the article. I also wonder what ‘conflicts of interest’ the people who wanted this article retracted so badly had!

    1. TLC: If you follow the link in the article, one of the people who expressed concerns *is* identified and you can click through to his bio.

      However, the issue in the paper about potential conflicts of interest (or competing interests) is one of disclosure, and not a declaration of bias. PLoS ONE journals ask authors to disclose possible COIs, and explain that they will notify the public if one is discovered post-publication, as they did here. Doesn’t seem controversial.

      https://journals.plos.org/plosone/s/competing-interests

  3. What does a patent application on genomics have to do with the research in the retracted paper? How does the existence of a patent application on genomics create a conflict of interest here? No one has attempted to explain this, so is it just throwing mud to see how much sticks?

    The authors didn’t pick the editor. Yet RW calls this “another potential conflict of interest”? Who is conflicted, the editor? PLOS for selecting him?

    The paper did apparently have a problem with methodology and execution that the authors addressed in a correction. As far as I can tell no one accused the authors of anything nefarious.

    The article highlights the perceived commercialization (“books, CDs, DVDs, and the like”) of research. If (some of) the authors are getting royalties, and merchandise sales might be affected by the research results, that it seems like that should have been disclosed as a financial interest. But then, does any researcher who writes a book and publishes it need to disclose a financial interest when they do further research on the topic?

    This seems to me a case of academic rivalry based largely on a distaste by some for books and merchandise marketed to patients. I’m not fond of that either, but facts as presented, compounded by the snarkiness of this RW reporting, leave me unconvinced that the paper should have been retracted.

    1. Anonymous – I have thoughts about your points:

      1. What does a patent application on genomics have to do with the research in the retracted paper? How does the existence of a patent application on genomics create a conflict of interest here? No one has attempted to explain this, so is it just throwing mud to see how much sticks?

      The point of a disclosure is to alert the readers of the *potential* for bias. This publisher has a very clear explanation of their required disclosures (I provided a link to before, but here it is again: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/s/competing-interests). This specifically mentions disclosing patents, “Patent applications (pending or actual), including individual applications or those belonging to the institution to which the authors are affiliated and from which the authors may benefit,” as a potential conflict. Additionally, both a co-author and the journal (apparently, in a message to the co-author), explain that the retraction was not made because of the omission of the COI disclosure, but fixing the disclosure is proper according to the journal’s policies. Therefore the corrected disclosure was included a) in the original correction, and then b) in the eventual retraction. All of this is unambiguous and uncontroversial.

      2. The authors didn’t pick the editor. Yet RW calls this “another potential conflict of interest”? Who is conflicted, the editor? PLOS for selecting him?

      As PLoS ONE acknowledged (“After the article was published, it came to light that the handling Academic Editor shared an affiliation with three of the authors. Due to this potential competing interest…), after they noticed this potential conflict they had an independent editor look at the situation. Dr. Coyne was the one who pointed out that it would have been better for the original editor to have identified the potential conflict up front. Arguably, the journal should have done a better job of selecting an editor. Again, this is unambiguous and uncontroversial.

      3. The paper did apparently have a problem with methodology and execution that the authors addressed in a correction. As far as I can tell no one accused the authors of anything nefarious.

      I agree: I don’t think the retraction statement suggests anything nefarious. As to whether the corrected methods and analysis met the standards of the new editor – apparently they didn’t.

      4. The article highlights the perceived commercialization (“books, CDs, DVDs, and the like”) of research. If (some of) the authors are getting royalties, and merchandise sales might be affected by the research results, that it seems like that should have been disclosed as a financial interest. But then, does any researcher who writes a book and publishes it need to disclose a financial interest when they do further research on the topic?

      I discussed my views in response to item 1 above; see the journal’s policies.

      5. This seems to me a case of academic rivalry based largely on a distaste by some for books and merchandise marketed to patients. I’m not fond of that either, but facts as presented, compounded by the snarkiness of this RW reporting, leave me unconvinced that the paper should have been retracted.

      As to the motives of critics, we can speculate; however, the journal made the decision to retract the article, not the authors of Retraction Watch, so perhaps your comments would be more fruitful if directed toward them.

      1. 1. No journal requires authors to disclose every such patent and patent application as a potential conflict. IP is only a potential conflict if it is relevant to the work being submitted. No one submits lists of all their issued and pending patents to a journal when most or all are irrelevant and not a potential COI. No journal wants them to – what would they do with such a list? You have a duty to identify and disclose any that are potentially relevant to the research.
        2. PLOS shouldn’t have assigned the first editor they did. This was a problem of their doing, not the authors.
        3. The journal handled the review badly, and instead of identifying the problems went ahead and published. A retraction could have been avoided if they handled the submission in a competent manner. As it is, they issued a retraction, which hurts the authors a lot more than it does them.
        4. So, as I asked, does everyone who writes a royalty-generating book, monograph, or textbook on their subject have a potential conflict of interest with their subsequent research? I’ve never seen such a disclosure.
        5. Thanks for the advice on more fruitful comments, but I can write and RW can decide whether to publish.

  4. You asked the wrong question. The correct question is: Should a paper on mindfulness be published? The answer is no!

  5. The failure to disclose that 2 authors had serious financial conflicts of interest was not mentioned prominently in the retraction notice. It was paragraph 5 out of 6 and began with “In addition…” Most of it was just quoting what the disclosure should have said.

  6. A few years ago (around 2015), I came across “skeptical e-books” on the internet (which were quite expensive) written by James Coyne (I am not sure if he is still doing it). So, perhaps his ‘motivation’ was to try and collect material for those books, or to demonstrate how efficient he is…

    1. I had seen before his “books”. A collection of blog posts for over $30. But now he thinks a 100 minute video is worth $100? What a joke!

      1. True. Also, we need to remember that his e-books, etc., are not peer reviewed contributions – they are merely his opinions. Additionally, judging from some of his blogs that I have read, I realized that he is merely playing with words – there is no substance to what he presents.

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