Why was that paper retracted? Editor to Retraction Watch: “It’s none of your damn business”

L. Henry Edmunds, photo by University of Pennsylvania

Yesterday, we reported on the retraction of a 2004 study in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. As we noted, the notice’s language was, um, fuzzy, referring vaguely to

an investigation by the University of Florida, which uncovered instances of repetitious, tabulated data from previously published studies.

Today, we are slightly more clear, although what we really got was an earful of other language.

We had the pleasure of speaking this morning with L. Henry Edmunds, Jr., the long-time editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, who gave us a better sense of why his retraction notice was so delicately worded. Edmunds, responding to question of why the letter didn’t say more about the matter:

It’s none of your damn business.

Ranting against “journalists and bloggists,” Edmunds, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, said the purpose of the retraction notice was merely

to inform our reader that the article is retracted.

Curiosity and details be damned! After all, he added,

If you get divorced from your wife, the public doesn’t need to know the details.

Sarah Palin’s coterie couldn’t have said it better. And when it comes to the separation of life’s grit from public personae, we get that sentiment. Unfortunately for Edmunds, however, we’re talking science, not politics. How well would it go over if a researcher’s results section read like this:

I cured cancer. Don’t worry about the data.

We’re sure Edmunds wouldn’t accept such a manuscript. So why does he think his readers should get that treatment?

To be sure, we’re not insisting that Edmunds disclose the details of the Florida investigation, although we’d certainly like to know about that, and have contacted the university. But obscuring the nature of the offense and then refusing to help clear up the ambiguities — even if the situation is unclear only to a couple of addled “bloggists” — is a different animal entirely.

By the way, we fared somewhat better with the paper’s lead author, anesthesiologist Felipe Urdaneta. Urdaneta told us that the researchers had “mistakenly” used a data set from previous work of theirs. “It was not plagiarism,” he said. Urdaneta said the university had “exonerated” him in its investigation, but did not know about the fates of his coauthors.

Update, 12:30 p.m. Eastern, 1/5/10: In response to requests for the original interview, including a comment below, here’s a transcript of the conversation Adam had with Edmunds. It’s verbatim except where we’ve noted it was garbled, and what we write in italics at the end.

RW: We have a post up today about the retraction in your journal of the paper by the Florida group. I wanted to ask you about the retraction notice, which we think is a little vague. We were wondering why you chose to word it the way you did …

Edmunds: That’s none of your damn business. That’s a transaction between the journal and the authors.

RW: But the notice …

Edmunds: If you get divorced from your wife, the public doesn’t need to know the details. It’s you journalists and bloggists who … [garbled]

RW: Don’t you think your readers might want to know about …

Edmunds: Our notice is designed to inform our reader that the article is retracted.

RW: Yes, but …

Edmunds: This is a very unpleasant problem. The University of Florida conducted an investigation.

Edmunds then said something to the effect of “That’s all I’m going to say about this.”

24 thoughts on “Why was that paper retracted? Editor to Retraction Watch: “It’s none of your damn business””

  1. Excuse me, but who funded the research in this retracted paper? Any taxpayer money in there? And where do the authors work? Any of their institutions get any taxpayer dollars? We people out here are the investors. It IS everyone’s business.

  2. You can’t make this stuff up.

    Wouldn’t it be a wee bit obvious when checking the data before publishing that the set might be the wrong one? Scientists are, after all, trained to be meticulous and detail orientated.

    Doing the ostrich thing is a recipe for a public relations disaster.

  3. So, let me get this straight: a crooked scientist submitted apparently bogus data, and instead of outing the crook, the editor views it as comparable to a divorce?? A messy private matter, not a matter of outright professional misconduct??

    Shades of Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened.

    Look, this is messing with patients’ health and safety, not to mention the reputations of doctors who might be suckered by the corrupt article. As a fan of both doctors and patients, I’d find it completely appropriate to post the crook’s name and photo on every lamppost at the next convention.

    People need to see that it’s just not a good idea to try to advance their careers by playing fast and loose with science and patient safety.

    1. Well said. I am not disagreeing with you on the statement that patient health and safety is compromised by this situation we are discussing. Patient treatment improvements and safety are not sustainable with such a low regard for accuracy as depicted above, because of the researcher’s apparent priority on being the sole source of information. The transparency of patients participating in their health management creates an atmosphere of total priority on independently verifiable facts. Some researchers have their goal as being the only source of information on a subject, and are not reliable for evidence-based answers to patient questions.

      I am not in any way stating that any editors or researchers integrity and honesty are lacking, I am specifically saying that retraction merely signifies that the results and data are still preliminary.

      It is vital for patients to inform themselves about how to identify data that is strong enough to be applied to a health situation. The way much medical news is reported rewards writers for telling readers what side to take, so if things are reported objectively this causes some readers to be confused, because only “experts” rather than patients are encouraged to interpret raw information.

      “Human nature” is a mythological concept perhaps, but I think that if we make it too difficult for the honest scientists to admit fault through the retraction process, only dishonest scientists that have little conscience will predominate. My impression of Retraction Watch is that it encourages transparency and refinement of accuracy in research results. I know of scientists and definitely health professionals that benefit greatly and appreciate Retraction Watch blog.

      I also appreciate your(e-Patient Dave)comments very much, and your significant insight into finding a solution. I am in no way saying that I am right and others are wrong. I am not a doctor and am not trying to portray myself as such. I’m just attempting to find health information that is useful.

  4. Can we see the original email? I’d like to write a nice email to Dr. Edmunds explaining why such information is useful and it would help if I could see his full email.

    1. Thanks for your interest. Call us old-fashioned, but we prefer to do these interviews by phone rather than email whenever possible. We’ve added a transcript to the end of the post.

  5. Unpleasant? It is part of his business and if a part of his business is unpleasant to him, why, it may not be his ideal job. On the other hand, I am pleased to have subscribed to this blog, as it turns out again and again that transparency is exactly what we need. Thanks for this.

  6. LOL, what a truly unprofessional reaction, I’m going to contact Elsevier’s head about this. Just because [Edmunds] had this kind of reaction…unbelievable. kiss ATC’s impact factor down the toilet.

    Comment edited for language.

  7. Your marriage doesn’t get funded by the public unless you are a royal prince/princess but research does. Why is it so hard to reveal the findings of any investigation? Everyone but the offender get to benefit! Readers can decide if any of the data can be useful even if a paper get retracted for genuine mistakes on one or two figures.

  8. What do you expect, he is a surgeon.

    Q: What is the difference between God and a surgeon?
    A: God is God and a surgeon thinks they’re God

  9. Is it wrong I kept hearing his response in the voice of Grandpa Simpson?

    “Damn kids with yer hippity-hop! Get off my lawn!”

  10. Actually, marriages *do* get funded by the public- that’s what tax benefits to married couples do.
    Thus, I do not think everything that gets funded by the public is the public’s damn business. The public funds VA hospitals, that doesn’t mean HIPA shouldn’t apply to the patients.

    HOWEVER, that’s just a theoretical point. Science cannot thrive without transparency. The ‘right to know’ comes from the basic cultural values of science. I don’t know what is wrong with the editor- there’s no point in having a journal at all if you aren’t using it to disseminate accurate information.

    That said, if the problem is literally *simply* replication of data, none of the conclusions will be wrong. The details of how the same study got published twice would be fascinating, but they do not particularly affect patient health.

  11. It is increasingly obvious that it is not just the ethics of researchers which can be involved in retractions. The ethics of the journal editors and the journals themselves (including their peer-review process) are obviously very relevant.
    He may be a wonderful surgeon and husband for all I know but as an editor-in-chief he is no role-model and he does not impress.

  12. This is the spoiled-brat PR equivalent of covering both ears with your hands and loudly singing LA LA LA LA LA…I’M NOT LISTENING!

    From an issues-management perspective, Edmunds’ response ranks right up there as one that can be effectively quoted and used in future PR training classes as an example of how NOT to reply.

    As I used to warn students in my media training courses, never say anything to a reporter today that you really don’t want to see in the headlines tomorrow.

    This is why.

    Thanks for running the complete transcript here for us.

    1. Theoretically, since the work was done at the University of Florida, a public institution, and a Veterans Administration hospital, also of course a public institution, FOIA would apply. But such requests can take ages. We would argue it’s much more consistent with transparency — and the scientific method — for the journal to publish a clear rationale for the withdrawal.

      1. I’m from the UK, so not sure how the process works entirely in the US. Of course the journal should provide a clear rationale – I was just wondering whether, in the absence of them doing so, it’s worth pursuing other routes to find out.

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