A mysterious retraction in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has retracted a 2009 abstract, but don’t ask us why. The retraction notice for “Children with asthma and no URTI, more commonly have rhinovirus in their exhaled breath, than in mucous,” is another one we’ll file under “opaque“:

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors.

The authors have identified inconsistencies within the data that may have affected the results of the study.

The study has not been cited since it was published, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

We asked the editor of JACI for more details about the reasons for the retraction. He forwarded our request to the journal’s managing editor, who responded:

The abstract was retracted at the request of the authors following a review prompted by inconsistencies in the data that they identified when preparing a manuscript based on the study. Following the review, they were concerned about the accuracy of the data that had been collected and thus the validity of the conclusions.

That wasn’t quite “none of your damn business,” but it didn’t tell us all that much more, either. So we asked what kinds of inconsistencies the authors found. We’ll update if we hear more from JACI or two of the authors, who haven’t responded at all to requests for comment.

Update, 8 p.m. Eastern, 2/15/11: We heard back from Euan Tovey, one of the authors of the abstract:

To provide further detail: The inconsistencies related to what an individual’s lab-book recorded in terms of patients and infections. These came to light when this data was compared to hospital records, during the process of manuscript preparation. As noted, we reported our concerns about the validity of the data and following a review, there was no adequate explanation and the concerns remained.

While the phenomena of exhaled virus aerosols continues to be supported by other studies, this study should not be taken to  support a higher prevalence in exhaled breath compared to mucus samples as reported in the abstract, or that there are differences between people with asthma compared to controls. We retracted the Abstract to ensure that public data in this area is accurate.

Tovey also — graciously, we might add, since this doesn’t seem like the major problem — acknowledged the complaint of one of our commenters:

And mea culpa, I did incorrectly spell the noun ‘mucus’ as noted on your site.

We’re still curious if the inconsistencies seemed the result of error, falsification, or something else, and will update if we find out.

Please see another update about this post.

5 thoughts on “A mysterious retraction in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology”

  1. I can understand that the authors might be inclined to hold back on transparency about the problems, but I hope we can evolve (quickly) to finding it a normal, health part of the scientific process when we discuss human errors.

    Corruption (e.g. vaccines/autism) is a different matter. But any scientist with integrity knows that honest mistakes happen, and IMO discussion of them should be welcomed, not punished.

    I’ll repeat that in healthcare, the cost of poorer science is weaker medicine, which means avoidable death or harm.

  2. This highlights an important issue. This abstract, like some but not all out there, contained some data, which makes it more likely that someone could cite it in another publication. Note that many meeting abstracts do not contain data as they are often written many months in advance of the meeting, which is a possible reason why authors may not consider them needing a retraction. I wonder how many meeting abstracts there are out there, from which a paper was subsequently published and then retracted, but the abstract is still live. Could be something for you to look into?

    And I am not entirely surprised that there is no reasoning given – if the “identified inconsistences” are not directly concerning anything published in the abstract itself (remember, your average paper will contain much more data than just what was in this preliminary abstract), I don’t believe there is a necessary reason to include it. Of course it would be nice to know, but it’s more an academic question than a necessity at this point.

  3. Yes, the spelling is hardly the major issue: “mucous” is the adjectival form of the noun “mucus”, so it’s not a spelling error per se, rather more a grammatical mistake … And yes, Tovey was rather gracious in response to such pedantry!

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