Hmmm: SAGE’s attorney explains why weight loss retraction notices said less than those of other journals

In May, we broke the story of Edward Shang, a weight loss surgeon who made up most, if not all, of the patients he reported on in at least one study. We’ve been following the case since then, including three more retractions in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (JPEN).

As we noted in a June 22 post, the notices in JPEN were a bit more lean than the first notice we found, in Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases. The latter read:

This article has been retracted as the senior author, Dr. Edward Shang, claimed that 60 patients had undergone gastric bypass whereas only 21 patients had undergone surgery during this time period. Dr. Shang was unable to provide the raw data for the study, the name of a single patient, or a witness to patient entrance into the trial. Dr. Shang has agreed to withdraw this manuscript from publication.

A notice in another journal (with its own confusing back story) was brief, but did make it clear there was fraud involved:

This article is being retracted by the Publisher due to the inclusion of fraudulent data within the article.

The JPEN notices, however –which are behind a paywall, which isn’t what the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which JPEN is a member, recommends — says, by way of explanation, only:

The authors of the above articles have requested their withdrawal, notifying the Journal that the clinical trials described in the articles were not conducted as written in the article. The Editor-in-Chief, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, and the Publisher have determined to retract the articles.

Yesterday, nearly a month after asking the editor of JPEN for comment, we heard back from its publisher, SAGE’s, corporate counsel, Sara van Valkenburg:

On behalf of The American Society for Parenteral & Enteral Nutrition, Kelly Anne Tappenden, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, and SAGE Publications, I am writing in response to your message inquiring about the retraction notices relating to the Edward Shang et al. articles.  It is our policy to strictly uphold transparency and accuracy of the academic record.  To that end we drafted the retraction for the Shang articles incorporating the full information made available to us by the authors, which we received in March 2012.  We felt the gravity of the notice – the authors’ admission that the “clinical trials described in the articles were not conducted as written in the article” – was sufficient on its own to establish that the articles were not reliable scholarship and should be completely discredited by means of retraction.  It is our policy to limit retraction statements to that information which can be reasonably verified or supported by the information available to us.   At the time the retractions were prepared, we were not aware of the additional information included in the May 9th press release issued by the University Hospital of Mannheim and the retractions you’ve referenced below.

Thank you for your inquiry and please do not hesitate to let me know if you need any additional information.

We like to be generous of spirit whenever anyone offers information, since that encourages transparency. However, we just don’t see how any reader could walk away from the JPEN notice feeling reasonably edified. “[N]ot conducted as written in the article could mean virtually anything.

Perhaps production schedules meant that the notice had to be done and dusted before those in the other journals appeared. But it suggests that the journal did nothing to follow up with Shang’s university, nor did it ask Shang himself any foll0w-up questions. Regardless of timing, JPEN didn’t push for information the way other journal editors did.

That seems like a reasonable thing to point out, given that peer reviewers and editors are supposed to be tasked with critically analyzing submissions so that readers can trust what’s in their journals’ pages. We’ve heard versions of “retraction notices aren’t peer-reviewed” and “we defer to what authors want to put in notices,” but we’ve never found those arguments very convincing. Neither do many editors, thankfully.

What we find really dispiriting about this response from SAGE is who ended up sending it. We have nothing against Sara van Valkenburg, whom we’ve never met. We have nothing against attorneys, either. But why does a publisher’s corporate counsel have to respond, instead of a journal’s editor?

SAGE”s emails include this tagline: “The natural home for authors, editors and societies.” But are any of those people actually responsible for the journals they publish?

3 thoughts on “Hmmm: SAGE’s attorney explains why weight loss retraction notices said less than those of other journals”

  1. “But why does a publisher’s corporate counsel have to respond, instead of a journal’s editor?”

    Aha! It’s a question of professional role and professional ethics.

    An editor would be expected to uphold the standards of scientific practice and publishing. A lawyer is expected to uphold the interests of her client exclusive of all other considerations.

    So either the corporation refused to allow the editor to say what he or she wished to say; or else the editor refused to say what the corporation wished the editor to say. The lawyer may ethically say (is indeed ethically bound to) anything to client wishes.

    A letter from a lawyer is a sure sign you are receiving a snow job…

  2. There should be a universal policy in place that applies to all journals. If we can’t trust the published data, then how can we make scientific progress?

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