In the wake of Harvard’s gritty performance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — they were eliminated Saturday — a pair of faculty members at the Ivy League institution are calling foul on two controversial journal articles that have already been corrected.
Walter Willett, an oft-quoted Harvard nutrition expert, is calling for the retraction of an eyebrow-raising article earlier this month challenging the relative health benefits of fats from fish and vegetables over those in meat and butter.
The article, which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, quickly came under fire and the researchers — from the University of Cambridge — ended up making several corrections. Despite the changes, the authors have stood by their work, according to a piece this week in Science.
But that hasn’t stopped Willett from urging a retraction. Per Science:
“They have done a huge amount of damage,” says Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “I think a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered.”
And, to bring the point home:
Willett says correcting the paper isn’t enough. “It is good that they fixed it for the record, but it has caused massive confusion and the public hasn’t heard about the correction.” The paper should be withdrawn, he argues.
Now, we certainly agree with Willett that journals ought to handle retractions with as much fanfare as they treat the original studies. But the rest of his argument is one that seems up for debate. Do scientific journals have the responsibility to correct everything downstream of the studies they publish? If the authors made appropriate corrections and satisfied the editors’ concerns, they have met their duty and the paper should stand, yes? Willett himself seems to acknowledge this by admitting that the authors “fixed it for the record.”
Speaking of downstream effects of studies, in 2012, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital retracted statements in a press release about a study by Willett and co-authors in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about aspartame and cancer.
And Willett isn’t a stranger for calling for a purging of the record of data with which he disagrees. In 2011, he demanded the retraction of a press release from a Dutch university that, he claimed, had greatly misrepresented findings from a study of milk intake and heart disease. He subsequently retracted that demand.
Maybe something’s in the water up in Boston, because today another Harvard physician, Abraham Morgentaler, director of Men’s Health Boston, has released a letter to JAMA calling on the journal to retract a November 2013 article linking testosterone therapy to greater risk of cardiovascular illness and death.
According to Morgentaler, the paper which garnered the attention of the New York Times editorial page, is fatally flawed, with egregious errors including misstated numbers of patients and, incredibly, the inclusion of women in a cohort purportedly limited to men. A March 5 online correction backs him up:
Incorrect Number of Excluded Patients Reported in the Text and Figure: In the Original Investigation entitled “Association of Testosterone Therapy With Mortality, Myocardial Infarction, and Stroke in Men With Low Testosterone Levels” published in the November 16, 2013, issue of JAMA (2013;310:1829-1836. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.280386), incorrect data appeared. The second paragraph of the Results section should have read, “We excluded the following patients from this cohort: 2798 patients who had initiated testosterone prior to coronary angiography; 1301 patients who had missing coronary anatomy data or whose coronary anatomy was categorized as other; 128 patients who had testosterone prescribed after MI because treatment decisions after an event were likely to be different and because coronary anatomy data to assess coronary disease severity were not uniformly available; 112 patients who had started testosterone prior to having a testosterone level checked; 100 patients who were women; 17 patients with hematocrit levels higher than 50%; 12 patients with PSA levels of 4.0 ng/mL or higher; and 9996 patients who had total testosterone levels of 300 ng/dL or higher.” Figure 1 should have included “1301 Missing coronary anatomy,” “128 Had testosterone therapy prescribed after myocardial infarction or stroke,” and “100Women” in the box listing excluded patients. This article has been corrected online.
The letter to JAMA is signed by 125 experts, among them:
8 emeritus professors, 51 additional full professors, 6 journal editors, and 10 presidents of medical societies.
A number of those experts have received funding from Abbvie, which makes Androgel, and other drug manufacturers.
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