Lance Armstrong in the scientific literature: A “reconsideration”

japhysIn January, as Lance Armstrong was performing the 21st century version of a confessional — appearing on Oprah — we wrote about a 2005 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology about a “bicyclist who has now become the six-time consecutive Grand Champion of the Tour de France.”

That paper was, of course, about Armstrong, and in the months since our post, according to a just-published editorial, the editors of the journal asked author Edward Coyle of the University of Texas, Austin

 to write about how his 2005 paper should be interpreted in light of recent admissions to doping.

In a letter titled “Reconsideration of a Tour de France Cyclist,” published alongside the editorial, Coyle writes:

In 2005, this author published a paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology that described physiological changes that occurred in a Tour de France cyclist as he matured from 21 to 28 years of age during the period of 1992 to 1999 (2). This cyclist has recently admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. That leads us to wonder if any of the physiological changes reported in the 2005 paper might have been influenced by his drug use. The author’s only knowledge of his use of drugs or performance enhancing procedures comes from a televised interview when he reported using erythropoietin, red blood cell reinfusion, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone (Oprah Winfrey Network; January 17 and 18, 2013). In the televised interview this cyclist stated that use of some drugs began in the mid- 1990’s. The main physiological improvements he displayed over this seven-year period during which the author was testing him were an improved gross mechanical efficiency and a reduced body weight. It is also worth noting that four of the five laboratory based physiological testing sessions were performed in the pre-competitive season or with reduced training while one session was conducted at the end of the competitive season.

So what should happen to Coyle’s paper? Editor Peter Wagner:

Should Coyle’s paper therefore be retracted? We do not think so; the data are the data, free of author-related ethical concerns. His editorial seems to be the best solution, especially because there can be no definitive answer. How much of the subject’s performance was attributable to his genetics and training, compared to how much was contributed by possible doping, may never be known, but that does not constitute grounds for retraction.

Give the whole exchange a read before judging for yourself, of course. The original paper, as we reported in January, has been cited 62 times.

The discussion of Coyle’s paper does not address other questions that had earlier been raised about the paper, probably because there is nothing new on that front. But one of the authors of the letter critical of Coyle’s study has also co-authored a letter raising questions about two other papers — neither by Coyle — and the

ethics of studying athletes—exceptional enough to be subject to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) oversight—using manipulations of blood volume and hemoglobin concentration that would be banned in competition.

That letter earned a response from WADA, and the whole package seems worth reading, but isn’t online yet.

11 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong in the scientific literature: A “reconsideration””

  1. There are two issues:

    ONE: The status of the 2005 Coyle paper. In my opinion the editorial and Coyle’s letter on the subject address the relevant issues adequately. Anyone with sufficient interest in this subject can know the nature of the minor controversy and the context in which Coyle’s 2005 paper might be interpreted. I don’t see any point in retracting the paper. It provides a useful data point on the improvement of an athlete’s performance, although as Coyle’s letter makes clear, the extent to which the improvement was a consequence of training and the role of drug taking in this improvement are open questions.

    TWO: The entirely seperate issue concerns the ethics of implementing treatments/manipulations for research purposes in athletes that might counter specific sport-related guidelines relating to allowable practices. Again it’s a very useful opportunity for this issue to be discussed in the Journal of Applied Physiology. I don’t think the particular letters/editorial info for these are available yet. However I’d expect that athletes and their support staff are well aware of what treatments/manipulations are allowable in the context of their particular sports and so would decline to participate in research where these practices would compromise their elegibility for competition. One would hope so anyway!

  2. Minor clarification: Dr. Wagner *asked* WADA to comment – to say that the Schumacher et al. letter “earned” a response from WADA makes it sound the other way around.

  3. Also, both Schumacher and the Aussies (Martin and Gore) had previously commented (in separate letters) on Coyle’s original paper. All three are now co-authors of the letter questioning Robach et al.’s and Siebenmann’s ethics.

  4. This raises an interesting question that relates to the ethics of sports and science. Lance Armstrong cheated and has had his medals taken away and may have to give back his prize money. We have people appearing on RW multiple times, e.g,. today’s posting of the ninth retraction for Melendez. Do scientists get to keep their medals, for example awarded in good faith at the time by a learned society and prize money? This is in addition to the debate on whether research degrees such as a PhD should be rescinded.

    1. Don’t know if it is standard practice (probably not), but I know of two cases where a PhD was revoked (Stapel, the Dutch psychologist) and a prize revoked (Milena Penkowa, Danish neuroscientist, had the Danish Elite Research Prize revoked).

    2. Yes there are quite a few examples of PhD’s being rescinded. This is obviously appropriate if the fraud encompassed the PhD research itself. A notable example is Jan Hendrik Schon who had his PhD rescinded (and at least one prize rescinded too). Also recent examples of German government ministers having their PhD’s rescinced.

      Although these examples don’t relate to prize money there are also examples of scientists involved in misconduct having to pay back grant money either directly (Luk Van Parijs had to refund MIT for money spent inappropriately) or indirectly (e.g. Duke University reimbursed the American Cancer Society for quite a sizeable grant awarded to Anil Potti).

      I guess it’s rare that people that make truly significant contributions to science (and are thus awarded prizes) turn out to have committed scientific misconduct. In the more general case of misconduct the penalties involve being kicked out of one’s scientific career, losing one’s professorship, being kicked off the Medical Register (Andrew Wakefield) etc….

  5. My problem with the article’s is represented by its title: “Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures”. The fact that it concerns a “the six-time consecutive Grand Champion of the Tour de France” does not hold anymore, since his titles have been annulled. So at least an erratum is in place.

    But then still: science is about knowledge/conclusions, not about data. If I’d have run a gel with biological samples of unknown provenance there is no way that I can publish them saying “whatever, data are data. Look at those bands!”. So there is no point to this paper, since it is has become all hand-waving now.

  6. These are the exceptions, because they raised so much discussion as to whether it was right to revoke the degree. In Jan Hendrik Schoen’s case, the University of Konstanz revoked his PhD, only for Schoen to sue the University. Happily, on appeal Schoen lost.

  7. Incidentally… the description in the top post of Lance Armstrong as a “bicyclist who has now become the six-time consecutive Grand Champion of the Tour de France.” is slightly amusing. I’m sure most sports fans would call Lance Armstrong a “cyclist”; there can’t be many people that might think that he completed all those tours on a tricycle, for example…

  8. Like Andy Coggan, I’m on the EB of this journal. When the Armstrong scandal broke, I stated on Twitter that the paper should be retracted. That was nothing other than an angry reaction to Armstrong rather than Ed Coyle. My view of it all has softened and I think that the response of Wagner and Coyle are spot on under the circumstances, and I’m proud to be associated with a journal that spends the time, effort and pages to be this transparent.

    With regard to the data in Coyle’s paper, there are two issues. First, cycling efficiency is an extremely difficult parameter to study under the best of circumstances, and Coyle’s other data (published in the later 80s/early 90s) showed the critical contributory role of this parameter to cycling performance. It is therefore reasonable to focus on this in a case study report of an elite cyclist. Secondly, notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the calculation of efficiency, these papers have collectively stimulated a great deal of research into the effect of training on measures of efficiency/economy, which is sort of the point of presenting such a case study: you are never going to get a definitive answer from n=1, but you can stimulate new questions.

    One final point worth noting (and something people always seem to forget): the oxygen cost of running (economy) measured over Paula Radcliffe’s illustrious career systematically decreased (Jones A.M. (2006). The physiology of the world record holder for the women’s marathon. Inter J Sports Sci & Coaching. 1: 101-116). I don’t think anybody would seriously claim these data have been miscalculated!

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