And the winner for longest time on record between publication and retraction is…

Photo by didbygraham via Flickr

We’ve had a few unofficial record-holders here at Retraction Watch. The current leader in the retraction column, for example, is Yoshitaka Fujii, who will likely retract 172 papers. He took that record from Joachim Boldt, with just shy of 90.

Today, we’ll take a stab at another record, longest time between publication and retraction. The apparent record holders, at 25 years, are I.E. Swift and V. E. Milborrow, who were at the University of New South Wales in Australia when they published “Retention of the 4-pro-R hydrogen atom of mevalonate at C-2,2′ of bacterioruberin in Halobacterium halobium” in the Biochemical Journal in 1980. Here’s the retraction notice from 2005 (hat tip Jeffrey Furman and colleagues, who noted the retraction in a paper earlier this year):

The recent discoveries of Rohmer et al. [1] have established that mevalonate is a precursor of terpenoids such as sterols and rubber, biosynthesized in the cytosol of plants, while pyruvate and glyceraldehyde phosphate are the precursors of terpenoids synthesized within chloroplasts. Both pathways produce isopentenyl diphosphate (IPP) as the building block of terpenoids, and some of it can enter chloroplasts and become incorporated into isoprenoids. Mevalonate is incorporated into isoprenoids in very low yields by intact isolated chloroplasts [2], but pyruvate and IPP are incorporated at a considerably higher rate.

These observations led us to re-examine some of the results reported earlier on the incorporation of stereospecifically tritiated mevalonates into a range of carotenoids. When the experiments were repeated, we failed to obtain incorporation of mevalonate into the compounds sought, and therefore we deduce that the original claims are not supported. We therefore withdraw our earlier conclusions about the biosynthesis of lutein, peridinin, diadinoxanthin, neoxanthin and bacterioruberin [3–7].

1 Rohmer, M. (1999) The discovery of a mevalonate independent pathway for isoprenoid biosynthesis in bacteria, algae and higher plants. Nat. Prod. Rep. 16, 565–574
2 Milborrow, B. V. and Lee, H.-S. (1998) Endogenous biosynthetic precursors (+)-abscisic acid. VI. Carotenoids and ABA are formed by the “non-melvanate” triose-pyruvate pathway in chloroplasts. Aust. J. Plant Physiol. 25, 507–512
3 Swift, I. E. and Milborrow, B. V. (1981) Stereochemistry of allene biosythesis and the formation of the acetylenic carotenoid diadinoxanthin and peridinin (C37) from neoxanthin. Biochem. J. 199, 67–74
4 Swift, I. E. and Miborrow, B. V. (1981) Stereochemistry of α, β and γ ring formation in bacterial C50 carotenoids. J. Biol. Chem. 256, 11607–11611
5 Milborrow, B. V., Swift, I. E. and Netting, A. G. (1982) Stereochemistry of hydroxylation of the carotenoid lutein in Calendula officinalis. Phytochemistry 21, 2853–2857
6 Swift, I. E., Milborrow, B. V. and Jeffrey, S. W. (1982) Formation of neoxanthin, diadinoxanthin and peridinin from [14C]zeaxanthin by a cell-free system from Amphidinium carterae. Phytochemistry 21, 2859–2864
7 Swift, I. E. and Milborrow, B. V. (1980) Retention of the 4-pro-R hydrogen atom of mevalonate at C-2,2 of bacterioruberin in Halobacterium halobium. Biochem. J. 187, 261–264

The paper has been cited 7 times, according to Thomson Scientific — all before the 2005 retraction, and all but once by the original authors.

We bring this up because long lag times — too long, if you ask us — are the subject of our just-published column in LabTimes, which we called “Delaying the Inevitable?” As we point out, 25 years is clearly an outlier, and so is 17, which was how long it took in another case we recently covered. But the lag is growing, a 2011 study found, and while there are a number of reasons this could be true — including that editors are “reaching back” further into history, which could mean it’s a temporary phenomenon — it still seems like reason for concern.

Read the whole column here, and let us know what you think.

5 thoughts on “And the winner for longest time on record between publication and retraction is…”

  1. Not sure if it is fair to Swift & Milborrow to highlight them like this. The doubt arose 19 years after they published their first paper on the topic, they investigated themselves, and decided to retract their papers themselves soon thereafter. No misconduct found, and one may wonder whether retraction was necessary in this particular case.
    Quite different from the “too long” in the cases where misconduct has been shown, but no action is taken for many years, like with Weiser.

  2. I post this mainly for academic interest rather than any serious record-beating, but if we’re going for longest retraction, the record-holder is supposedly Homer Jacobson at 52 years (1955–2007), according to this New York Times article. .

    However, the Jacobson ‘retraction’ is truly weird, and not really a retraction – for at least two reasons. First, I think it was a feature/opinion article, not original research. Second, intriguingly, Jacobson wrote to the American Scientist to ask them to retract only ‘two brief passages’ (!)

    I’m really curious to know how the American Scientist has dealt with this request. I don’t have access to the paper on JSTOR (It’s at Someone who does might like to check and see if the magazine really did ‘retract’ those two passages as he asked – and whether they flagged it up as changed.

  3. I did my PhD in a biochemistry lab down the corridor from Professor Barry Milborrow at the time of the publication of this retracted paper. He was a man of great integrity and wouldn’t have let it pass despite the time lapse. Sadly, he passed away in May this year.

    He was best known for the discovery of abscisic acid, the compound responsible for leaves falling off trees in autumn. He used to tell a story about how he really wanted to call it fornic acid but would’ve got into big trouble when describing the esters.

  4. In reply to Margaret Smith (@DrMobs) October 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Barry Milborrow dealt with the scientific issues in the right way.

    The story about an alterative name for abscisic acid is a good one to be remembered by.
    Certainly an easier spelling. Thanks for telling it.

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