What happened to Joachim Boldt’s 88 papers that were supposed to be retracted?

a&amisconductcoverCHICAGO — Almost two years after editors at 18 journals agreed in March 2011 to retract 88 of former retraction record holder Joachim Boldt’s papers, 10% of them hadn’t been retracted.

That’s what Nadia Elia, Liz Wager, and Martin Tramer reported here Sunday in an abstract at the Seventh International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication. Elia and Tramer are editors at the European Journal of Anaesthesiology, while Wager is former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

As of January 2013, nine of the papers hadn’t been retracted, Tramer said, while only five — all in one journal — had completely followed COPE guidelines, with adequate retraction notices, made freely available, along with  PDFs properly marked “Retracted.” From the abstract (see page 18):

A total of 79 (90%) retraction notices were published, 76 (86%) were freely accessible, but only 15 (17%) were complete. Seventy-three (83%) full-text articles were marked as retracted, of which 14 (15.9%) had an opaque watermark hiding parts of the original content, and 11 (12.5%) had all original content deleted.

The findings were slightly mystifying, given that these were papers the editors themselves had agreed to retract. When the researchers contacted the 18 editors to ask why they hadn’t followed COPE guidelines, one cited “personal health problems.” Three referred the team to their publishers, and one “challenged the principle that data in retracted articles should be preserved, as these data were false and therefore valueless.”

Perhaps most worrying were the two publishers who said they hadn’t retracted six of the papers because of legal threats from Boldt’s co-authors. Jigisha Patel, of BioMedCentral, reacted this way from the audience:

Whenever an editor suggests a retraction, a lawyer’s letter arrives. This may explain the findings.

We’ve covered two such cases unrelated to Boldt, here and here.

We asked Anesthesia & Analgesia editor in chief Steven Shafer, who led the charge to retract Boldt’s papers, for comment:

I have heard that some of the German anesthesia journals did not retract papers because of fear of litigation. I don’t think that is valid, but I’m neither German nor an attorney. I think that the BJA, the Canadian Journal, and A&A retracted everything.

Shafer said he looked forward to seeing the details of Tramer’s team’s analysis, and that he thought his journal’s 23 Boldt retractions complied with COPE guidelines:

As I understand the report, in at least 18 cases (23 – 5 done correctly) we screwed up somehow. I’d like to know what I missed, particularly since I seem to be doing this a lot!

An unrelated paper came out earlier this month suggesting a method for revealing problematic data, using a retracted Boldt paper as a test subject:

To illustrate our four-step procedure, we have applied it to analyze the data reported by Boldt et al. in an article that has been recently retracted for fraud [10,11]. It should be pointed out that the Editor-in-Chief decided to retract the article after several letters were sent to the journal pointing out the surprisingly small variability in cytokines measurements reported in the paper. Using this article as an example helped us to illustrate that, even though each step of our approach might be well known by statistically trained reviewers or readers, strictly applying this four-step procedure could have provided some important warning signals when apprising Boldt’s manuscript.

Tramer’s presentation on failings at anesthesiology journals prompted Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, to ask, “Isn’t it time to end “hobby editors?” Not surprisingly, that earned an outcry from the some 500 editors, publishers, and researchers gathered for the conference, which we’re attending through tomorrow. Nope, said Tramer, who is one such hobby editor. “But help us!”

11 thoughts on “What happened to Joachim Boldt’s 88 papers that were supposed to be retracted?”

  1. Hobby editor or not, the tradition of the editorial position is that (i) you protect your sources; (ii) the buck stops with the editor. That means that the editor upholds the aspirations of society and, yes, will and can go to jail. In more brutal and jurisdictions, where there is no rule of law, the editor may face execution. That is the history of editors.

    So in science, we need editors who are willing to stand up to legal bullying. There are sufficient legal resources (including pro bono) and sufficient drive for freedom of speech and human rights in countries where the rule of law applies that resort to the law by a fraudulent scientist will result in their case being lost.

    Despite German (or even more dangerous, UK) libel laws, I cannot see such a case succeeding.
    Not good news, not much fun for the editor who takes a stand, but I am not sure there is any other way out here.

    1. I am glad to see Liz Wager, formerly of COPE in this RW blog post. I am also glad to see that the post relies heavily on so-called COPE ethical guidelines. This allows me to make a pertinent critique and pose some challenging questions for COPE (maybe Wager can also provide a more balanced response as she is no longer there, although she appears to continue to have a personal blog on the COPE web-site: http://publicationethics.org/blog/659. COPE charges journals, editors and publishers, on a per journal basis, for COPE membership fees (http://publicationethics.org/files/Subscription_rates_2013.pdf). These fees are not cheap, and for large publishers, who have hundreds or thousands of journals, the costs are calculated to be in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. For example, according to that PDF file, it costs 42,000 UK pounds per year for a publisher with between 1500 and 2000 journals. Thus, theoretically, Elsevier would be paying about 50,000 pounds a year based on a rough estimate of their claim of having > 2500 journals (http://www.sciencedirect.com/). A publisher like Springer, with what appears to be 2785 journals (http://link.springer.com/search?facet-content-type=%22Journal%22), would be paying in excess of 50,000 pounds a year. Judging by your membership list (http://publicationethics.org/members) of 261 members/clients, I estimate that the profit runs into the hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, possibly even exceeding a million pounds a year. Translated, this is a highly profitable business. My question is rather simple. Does it make sense for a group that profits from selling ethical codes to lecture about ethics? I should note that several members (current or former) of COPE have direct links with many of the publishers, i.e., COPE members. Therefore, how can this not be perceived as conflicts of interest? I believe that COPE needs and its trustees/council members (http://publicationethics.org/about/council) to come forward and explain publically what seems to me to be somewhat contradictory policies. Nowhere on the COPE page are there are disclaimers about the lack of conflicts of interests between its trustees and the publishers. Nowhere are there declarations about whether or not trustees are paid a salary from the 5-6 figure cash pool I estimated above. Nowhere is it explained how these massive profits are used to run and sustain COPE. Nowhere are there financial declarations about costs. I struggle to see the transparency of COPE. Are my perception and interpretation that odd?

    1. The active researchers who, beside their official job of supervising students, teaching, and various administrative task, also are responsible for everything that happens at a journal. Compare to the professional editors at several journals, whose job, and only job, it is to make sure everything runs smoothly at the journal.

  2. Response to JAT dS: COPE is a UK-registered charity and charitable trustees are not allowed to be paid. As Chair of COPE I only ever received out-of-pocket expenses (e.g. travel to attend meetings) and I can vouch for the fact that the same is true of the current trustees. As for COPE ‘selling ethical codes’, all COPE’s guidelines, including the flowcharts are freely available on the COPE website — we’ve never charged for any of them. COPE also waives or reduces fees for journals that can’t afford to pay (e.g. those from developing countries) and I was responsible for lowering the fees paid by smaller journals during my time as Chair. All COPE’s trustees and Council members post their conflicts of interest on the website. You’re right that COPE gets nearly all its funding from publishers, but it uses this to fund research, meetings, etc. When I was Chair of Council I was very aware of the fact that funding from publishers could create a potential conflict of interest but, in that time, we published a Code of Conduct for publishers (as well as the one for editors) and heard several complaints about member journals, several of which were upheld. I hope a current Council member might comment on their current policies and activities but rest assured that they’re not getting rich from this. I’d also suggest you judge COPE on its products (i.e. the guidelines) — lots of people seem to find them useful and that was why I gave up quite a bit of my time (as I’m self-employed) to work for this organization as a volunteer.

    1. Dear Liz Wager, I appreciate the response, but it has multiple gaps in the information, which concern me tremendously. I continue my critique, and would also appreciate more fine-scale details. If ethics is so central to our understanding of retractions, and if so many of the journal sand publishers that are central to the retractions being displayed on this blog, then why shouldn’t the committee that receives their financial support and “blessing”, i.e., COPE, bit also be fully scrutinized and subject to analysis and critique like all authors and publishers? This is the premise for what you will hopefully be allowed to read next.

      1) Since when do charities have 5 or 6-figure revenue?

      2) Who exactly are these “trustees”, why is no list available on the COPE web-page, and how do they benefit financially from the sales of ethics?

      3) Why is there no list of exactly which members obtained a discount (full or partial)? Why are the exact amounts or percentages of the discounts not indicated anywhere on the COPE page?

      4) “COPE gets nearly all its funding from publishers, but it uses this to fund research, meetings, etc.” Could you detail exactly how funds are used?

      5) If funding supports research, why are there no lists that show exactly what research projects are being funded by COPE, and exactly the stipend being allocated to the funding of those projects? If there is such a page, please provide the link. Most importantly, any publications that have derived from COPE funding, do they contain an appropriate acknowledgement and conflicts of interest statement? Please provide a full list of projects and research funded by COPE so that the scientific community can do an independent analysis.

      6) The disclosures about the COIs of current members is insufficient. The Curriculum Vitae of all members should be provided, in html or PDF format, with a full history of their engagements with the publishing industry, publishers and journals. How can COPE give advice about COIs and ethics and transparency and then keep all of these issues under wraps, undisclosed, without a more honest public disclosure?

      7) The COPE website states “COPE has supported the UK Panel for Research Integrity (UKRIO) and the World Conferences on Research Integrity (Lisbon 2007, Singapore 2010, Montreal 2013). It also has links with the Council of Science Editors, the European Association of Science Editors, the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors and the World Association of Medical Editors.” Please explain clearly what the term “links with” means exactly. Why have no COIs been declared? Why are there no links with all other ethical bodies around the world or do they simply not exist in about 175-190 countries?

      8) In her latest piece “Restoring the integrity of the clinical trial evidence base” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3685511/pdf/bmj.f3601.pdf, why has the fact that Dr. Virginia Barbour is the Chair of COPE not been clearly indicated in the Conflicts of Interest statement? Why has this information not been provided for all papers published (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Virginia+Barbour) during her stay as a COPE member?

      12) Can you please indicate the process by which we can apply for the COPE Council, what the requirements are, and who forms part of the selection committee?

      13) http://publicationethics.org/files/OPE_Regulations_2010_Feb_2010_final_approved.pdf Why is data from 2009 still being displayed?

      I agree with you only about one statement in your response. I also hope that a current COPE member also takes the initiative to address my criticisms.

      Ethics comes from the heart. It requires some well-organized, passionate persons who are suitably qualified in science AND in publishing, without a hand in the back pocket of publishers, without any past link to publishers who are current COPE members, who are true independents and scholars, who are also scientists and appropriately trained, to provide a fair and balanced judgment on ethics.

  3. I find L. Wager’s response unsatisfactory.

    1. To be a COPE’s trustee and be a Council member is not the same thing. While trustees are not paid, are Council members paid?

    2. It is not correct that, I quote, “When I (L. Wager) was Chair of Council ….. we published a Code of Conduct for publishers (as well as the one for editors)…” In fact, the COPE Code existed before that, under the chairmanship of Dr. ….., or even earlier.

    3. My main objection, however, is related to the value of their “product”:

    a) Code is not their only product, they give advice and guidance to some 5000 editors of scientific journals, and have concrete “cases”. How is this even possible when the advice and guidance come from their people who are not scientists (L. Wager being such example)?

    b) One might say that even not being scientists, they formally know and uphold the Code, the rules and the definitions. Well, there could be a grave doubt about this. And this doubt would happen to be their better alternative, because the other alternative would be the intentional falsification of the rules, see further.

    c) In my case, of which I shall speak on any appropriate occasion because in this case COPE prevented retraction of a paper by ruling that UNPUBLISHED ARTICLE CANNOT BE PLAGIARISED, this organisation prevented the correction of the record of science, such correction being COPE’s most noble task. COPE, under L. Wager as the Chair, as they later said, made this “mistake”. Actually, this “mistake” falsified the common definition of plagiarism as well as COPE’s own definition of plagiarism. And, my question whether they don’t know and don’t understand the rules, or – whether they intentionally falsified the rule, remains unanswered by L. Wager, even though she herself once replied to me, but again, unsatisfactorily.

    d) With regard to the fabulous money collected through the subscription of 5000 journals, it should be also noticed that the other fabulous money is being made in science with the PLOS publishing, and that business happens to be the property of a COPE Council member.

    I therefore, call for two audits of COPE, one financial and one scientific.

    And, personally, I do not think that COPE should be allowed to get away with their “mistakes” (there was more than one) in my case: this is about 5 years of my PhD research, my discoveries and the rest of my life being thrown away.

  4. I would like to respond to the factual questions and assertions made by Mr Pyshnov.
    1. Neither COPE Trustees nor Council members are paid.
    2. The Code of Conduct for Publishers was produced in March 2011 (adding to the Code of Conduct for Editors which was developed earlier).
    3. I have an MA in Zoology from Oxford University, did some postgraduate research at the University of Reading zoology department and, more recently, obtained a PhD from the University of Split Medical School on the effects of peer review on reporting medical research.

  5. Sorry, Dr. Wager, at the time of which I speak, your credentials were known as “medical diploma”. You now should much better realise that your “mistakes” in my case prevented the retraction of an obviously plagiarised paper, prevented the correction of the record of science.

    You used the pretext that the particular editor received my complaint a couple of months before becoming a COPE member, and you explicitly allowed him not to follow the COPE Code and procedure. As a result, the record of science was not corrected.

    Now consider this: your pretext was unrelated to the obviously plagiarised contents of the paper, and, on the other side, the journal now has a new editor. The door is open for correcting the record of science by retracting the paper. If you are committed to honest practices in science, go ahead and write to the new editor, ask him to follow the COPE Code and procedure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.