Neuro journal retracts case study with redundant data

If that headline has you scratching your, well, head, we don’t blame you. After all, case studies are, by definition, unique — but not this one.

Neurological Sciences, the official journal of the Italian Society of Neurology, has retracted a 2009 article by a Korean scientist after learning that the manuscript contained elements of a 2007 publication in a different publication.

According to the notice:

This article has been retracted upon request of the author since he unwillingly reported clinical data already published in the article “A case of Acute Organotin Poisoning” (C.I. Yoo, Y. Kim et al. J. Occup Health 2007; 49:305-3010, DOI

The now-retracted paper has been cited just once, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The author of the 2009 article, Chang Ho Hwang, shares an affiliation with the authors of the earlier paper — Ulsan University — making us wonder how the “unwillingly reported” data found its way into his manuscript. We think a side-by-side of the abstracts is instructive here:

The Hwang paper:

Organotin compounds are commonly used in industrial and agriculture. It causes toxic effects on skin, eyes, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and nervous system. After cleaning a di-methyl tin tank, 43-year-old man showed a dizziness, disorientation, visual hallucination, and agitation. Through a measurement by liquid chromatography and inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, di-methyl tin and tri-methyl tin was detected. Although magnetic resonance (MR) image 3 days after exposure showed no abnormal signal intensity, follow-up MR images 15 days after exposure revealed abnormal extensive signal intensities in the white matter that was not ever coincident with previous reports. It was hardly explainable that previous abnormal signal intensities of MR image nearly disappeared 4 months later. We present a case of a patient who developed acute toxic leukoencephalopathy from an acute inhalational exposure to methyl tin with sequential MR images showing an involvement of white matter that was not ever reported.

And the 2007 article:

A 43-year-old male with disorientation and behavioral change was admitted to a hospital. He had been working as a tank cleaner for several different companies in the previous 8 years and a week before admission, he had cleaned a tank containing dimethyltin (DMT) for 4 days. A day after finishing the job, he suffered decreased memory, behavioral change and progressive mental deterioration when he arrived at the emergency room. The result of spinal tapping was negative but on the 4th day of admission he deteriorated into a state of coma along with metabolic acidosis and severe hypokalemia. High levels of DMT and trimethyltin (TMT) were detected in a highly sensitive urine analysis. After conservative treatment and chelation therapy, the patient showed some clinical improvement but the neurological defects persisted. CONCLUSION: The patient appeared to have been intoxicated from the acute exposure to a high level of organotin while cleaning the tank.

The Journal of Occupational Health belongs to the Japanese Society for Occupational Health.

We have a question or two about this case. Did Hwang see an opportunity to publish on the case in a different journal on a slice of the topic (the MRI data) that didn’t get as much, if any, attention in the original manuscript? That doesn’t make the second paper any less a duplication of the first.

We should also note a potential red flag here: A single author using the word “we” in the more recent article. That’s a pronoun that ought to be reserved for group efforts. (We use “we” because while each post is signed by one of us, we write and edit them together.) It has proven to be a signal for something amiss before.

0 thoughts on “Neuro journal retracts case study with redundant data”

    1. Heheheh.
      What about people without functional corpus callosi? Or multiple personality disorders?

      Seriously, would the retracted paper be OK if it was entitled “Unique MRI signal changes in a previously reported case of Organotin poisoning” ? Not having seen the papers, I don’t know if the MRI results were reported in the first paper–if they were not, a second publication should be OK, no?

  1. This makes me wonder about the ethics of slicing up a big research project into segments that are published in various journals with little or no mention that related analysis and results from the same project are published elsewhere. This was done quite a bit when I was a master’s student in horticulture. Professors and graduate students were trying to get multiple papers out of the same research project, so they would package some results for one journal and other results for another journal, targeting the focus of each journal. The expense and labor of establishing the project would do double duty, although different data would be collected for each manuscript.

    I never did this and I didn’t think it was the best practice. I would rather see a long paper reporting everything that was done instead of several short papers reporting subsets of the findings. But now I wonder if it is not just contrary to my taste but also unethical to report on different facets of a project as if they were unconnected to each other. In this medical journal instance, it was a single poisoning of a single patient that got multiplied into two reports on the same patient, potentially leading readers to believe that more cases of tin poisoning existed. But might multiple manuscripts generated by a single experiment in the ground be misleading also?

  2. It’s the norm in mathematics to use ‘we’ even if you’re the sole author—because you and the reader are going together on a journey of discovery. I thought the same principle would apply to other disciplines.

  3. I remember that math textbooks often use “we” as in “we rearrange the equation to read …” as a polite way of issuing instructions or explaining the steps for solving a problem. I have not seen the use of “we” to indicate a sole author in biological sciences. The sentences in the active voice are something like “We evaluated 50 cultivars in a completely randomized design replicated twice” and so forth. The reader did not participate in planting the field trial, so s/he cannot be interpreted as being included in the “we”. Only the experimenters/authors participated in planting the field trial.

    1. The American Physical Society style guides describes the acceptable use of “we” in a single author paper, if it “politely includes the reader.”

  4. “Unwillingly”? Not “unwittingly”?

    The second of those would make sense. The first doesn’t. How can you submit redundant data in a new paper without wanting to?

    Also, if I was in charge of Neurological Sciences, I wouldn’t have accepted the 2009 paper without serious edits, because it barely makes sense. That’s what PhD students are for. Find one with better English than you have, get the paper rewritten, you get a coherent paper that will be cited more often, they get a publication – everyone wins!

    1. “I unwittingly dismissed this unwilling contributor to ambiguous errors…”
      Which is the derivation of Conrad’s Second Maxim:
      You don’t know it’s not an hallucination unless someone else sees it, too.

    2. Surely there are better uses to which Ph.D. students can be put, both for their own careers and for the ethics of science. Ph.D. students “win” by producing their own research results, not by padding their resumes with courtesy authorship credits given in exchange for language editing services. Someone who reworks a manuscript to fix English mistakes and to present the material in a more understandable way should not get authorship credit. I have done this many a time for non-native English speakers. I have never been listed as an author nor even acknowledged as having edited the manuscript. I would consider authorship acquired in this way as akin to authorship acquired by merely putting up the money for the research.

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