There’s parsing a-plenty in the American Journal of Physiology Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology this month. The journal has retracted a 2010 paper by researchers at Chiba University in Japan, who lifted much of their manuscript from an article by other scientists in a different publication.
The authors of the paper, “The estrogen paradox in pulmonary arterial hypertension,” confess that they misappropriated text. But how they do so is a case study in subtlety:
We hereby retract this article for the following reasons: Due to negligence including a communication error between authors, the article contained a number of passages that were copied verbatim and close to verbatim from an excellent review in the field by Tim Lahm et al. in Critical Care Medicine (36: 2174–2183, 2008). We also did not reference the source of these passages.
We offer our formal apologies for this error and for any inconvenience associated with the publication of the article. The paper is therefore being retracted by the American Physiological Society at the request of Dr. Sakao and with the approval of the coauthors.
The key construction here is “negligence including.” What follows is “a communication error between authors” that led to the plagiarism. What exactly does that mean?
And what about the other “negligences” not covered by communication error? Those go unenumerated, unfortunately. We emailed the first author of the paper, Seiichiro Sakao, for comment but haven’t received a reply.
We also reached out to the editor of the journal for comment and will update this post when we hear back.
However, we think the verbal gymnastics of this retraction notice raise an important question about the role editors play in the issuance of retraction statements. Although we’re sympathetic to the argument that editors aren’t in the business of forcing confessions from errant contributors, there’s a difference between requiring clarity and transparency and demanding an author-da-fé.
After all, readers and, perhaps more so, editors of other journals, have a right to know what really happened with a retracted paper. Was it an innocent miscommunication that led to plagiarism or an intentional act that ought to raise the index of suspicion for future submissions?