Beyond retractions: A technique gets an obituary

Sometimes, apparently, a retraction isn’t enough to put research findings to bed forever. Consider this obituary recently posted online at the Journal of Pediatrics, for a method of detecting gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in children:

We commonly recognize the contributions of distinguished members of the pediatric community and, with regret, their passing. It is appropriate, therefore, that we acknowledge the timely death of an old friend, the pH probe. Crushed to death under the weight of evidence against it, it was found abandoned in a trash can with a note that read, ‘‘Good riddance to a bad test.’’

To be fair, the pH probe has always been the standard bearer for mediocrity.

The obituary goes on:

Labeled the gold standard for diagnosing reflux disease, it should have been so only to alchemists.

Now here is science at work! The obituary, commenting on a new study of a different method for diagnosing GERD, notes that the evidence simply isn’t there for the pH probe. So in a public forum — and only somewhat tongue-in-cheek — the obituary’s author, Philip Putnam, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, puts its passing into the record.

It’s a model of transparency for clinical research, in which the advent of techniques and treatments are often trumpeted while their failures are swept under the rug, never given a proper burial.

Of course, it might give some editors and researchers heartburn.

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