The debate over the retraction of a highly controversial paper on the effects of GMOs on rats continues unabated. This week, Adriane Fugh-Berman and Thomas Sherman wrote on the Hastings Center website that
the process by which his paper was retracted reeks of industry pressure.
But in an editorial published online last week that was announced in December, Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) editor-in-chief A. Wallace Hayes defends the retraction, and responds to criticisms of how the paper was handled. We’ll walk through Hayes’s piece, and let you know what we’ve learned from the authors of the now-retracted study.
First, Hayes addresses one concern many raised, namely that a former Monsanto employee, Richard Goodman, now at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, was appointed as associate editor of the journal at the GMO manufacturer’s behest:
Contrary to what has been suggested by some, the appointment of Professor Richard Goodman, University of Nebraska, as an Associate Editor was not influenced by Monsanto or any other party. Members of the editorial board are chosen based on their expertise as toxicologists/ scientists. It is the goal of this journal to have a variety of different viewpoints. In this case, as in other cases, I as Editor-in-Chief listened to as wide and diverse a set of expertise as possible. To wit, Professor Goodman, along with other members of the editorial board was involved in initial discussions of the Séralini paper and the request to view raw data. When the request was made to Dr. Séralini to review the raw data, the journal suggested to Dr. Séralini that all parties involved sign a confidentiality agreement. This confidentiality agreement was designed to protect Dr. Séralini and his data so that it was (A) not viewed by anyone he did not want to view his data and (B) that it would not go beyond the people he agreed would review the raw data. Not initially, but during the process, Dr. Séralini made a direct request that Professor Goodman be excluded, and we at FCT readily and quickly agreed. It is understandable that Dr. Goodman’s involvement, however small, might be cause for concern for some. However, the decision to retract the paper was mine alone, made by me exclusively and not by a vote of the editorial board. Further, when Dr. Séralini asked for Dr. Goodman’s involvement to stop, I agreed, fully and promptly.
A side note about this paper and confidentiality: When the study was first published, Seralini told reporters they would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement if they wanted to see the whole paper, meaning they couldn’t seek outside comment until the embargo lifted. That bugged us, because it seemed like an attempt to turn reporters into stenographers, and garner uncritical coverage.
Nicolas Defarge, one of Seralini’s co-authors, now tells us that
Like for any paper, we asked that it remains confidential up to its publication. We were suspicious, because we knew that Monsanto was pressuring on this topic: We had experienced high pressure before the publication of two former papers (about the re-analysis of a 90-day rat feeding studies by Monsanto.
Defarge then points to Goodman’s appointment as associate editor as “proof of this pressure,” but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t explain the highly unusual confidentiality agreement since that appointment happened afterward. So we’re still disturbed by the lack of transparency Seralini and his colleagues demonstrated when seeking publicity.
But we digress. Back to how the retraction was handled by the journal: While the journal did publish a letter from Monsanto about the study, Hayes wrote,
neither the company nor any of their scientists put any pressure on the Editor-in-Chief regarding this matter.
Hayes discusses the question that many — including us — have raised: Does this retraction follow the Committee on Publication Ethics retraction guidelines? He writes:
The COPE guidelines were consulted when making this decision. According to the COPE guidelines, “Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if … they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error).” (COPE, 2009). The retraction statement could have been clearer, and should have referred to the relevant COPE guidelines. The data are inconclusive, therefore the claim (i.e., conclusion) that Roundup Ready maize NK603 and/or the Roundup herbicide have a link to cancer is unreliable. Dr. Séralini deserves the benefit of the doubt that this unreliable conclusion was reached in honest error. The review of the data made it clear that there was no misconduct. However, to be very clear, it is the entire paper, with the claim that there is a definitive link between GMO and cancer that is being retracted. Dr. Séralini has been very vocal that he believes his conclusions are correct. In our analysis, his conclusions cannot be claimed from the data presented in this article.
If we may: Referring to the COPE guidelines only points out that this retraction doesn’t actually seem to conform to them. The verbal dance Hayes does around that fact is a noble effort, but we don’t see the basis in those guidelines. The unreliability has to be due to either misconduct — which Hayes takes pains to say was absent — or honest error. Data being “inconclusive” is not evidence of honest error such as miscalculation or experimental error.
About the only error that Hayes can really point to, if you follow the logic, is the error that he made in accepting the paper. But he had some help. Co-author Defarge tells Retraction Watch that the peer reviewers recommended that the paper be “accepted with minor revisions” — which it was.
And even before being peer-reviewed, the FCT was “the most responsive” of all the journals the authors sent their abstract for consideration, Defarge said. Those other journals? Nature, Science, PNAS, The Lancet, and PLOS ONE.
Now, we’re all for editors doing what they think is best for a given paper. If Hayes had come out and said, “look, we made a mistake accepting this one, it’s just an awful study, we have to retract it,” that would have been unusual, too, and have prompted vigorous debate. But claiming COPE guidelines somehow support the decision doesn’t seem valid.