Rice researcher in ethics scrape threatens journal with lawsuit over coming retraction

Guangwen Tang, a rice researcher at Tufts University, landed in hot water in 2012 after her team was accused of feeding Chinese children genetically modified Golden Rice without having obtained informed consent from the parents.

Now, she’s suing both Tufts and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which reportedly is retracting a paper, “ß-carotene in Golden Rice is as good as p-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children,” based on the federally funded research, claiming that the retraction would constitute defamation. (That retraction hasn’t happened yet.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the retraction = defamation line. Readers might remember Ariel Fernandez, who threatened to sue us for writing about an expression of concern. Maybe a course on the Streisand Effect should be mandatory for PhD students?

According to a 2012 Nature report, the trial was chock-full of ethical missteps. Tang brought the rice into China illegally, and one of her Chinese partners faked ethics approval documents. During the study, a Chinese official emailed Tang saying he was taking mention of GMO off the consent forms, because it was “too sensitive,” according to reporters on China’s state television channel. Three Chinese officials ended up being dismissed for violating ethics laws, and Tang received a two-year suspension from conducting human research. From Nature: 

The trial was designed to test how efficiently the β-carotene is converted to the vitamin once ingested. The US study team was led by Guangwen Tang, a nutrition scientist at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and was part-funded by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the US Department of Agriculture.

According to a paper published online by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on 1 August, each group of two dozen or so children aged six to eight ate meals containing Golden Rice, spinach or β-carotene capsules for lunch every week day during the three-week trial.

But none of the children, their parents or school teachers was aware that Golden Rice was involved, according to a 45-minute investigative news programme broadcast on 8 December on CCTV, China’s state television channel.

The informed-consent form said that the rice contained β-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. Nor did it highlight uncertainty around any potential risks of ingesting such rice.

After a year-long investigation, Tufts concluded that Tang had breached ethical regulations. In addition the two year human studies ban, any future research she conducts will take place under the watchful eye of a supervising scientist. From NPR:

But Tufts, after spending more than a year carrying out its own review, now says that the study was not “conducted in full compliance with … policy or federal regulations.” According to the Tufts report, the researchers did not adequately explain the nature of golden rice and made some changes in the study without getting approval from the committee at Tufts that is supposed to review all research involving human subjects.

Here are details of the complaint, from Courthouse News Service:

After completing the research, Tang wrote a scientific article titled “ß-carotene in Golden Rice is as good as p-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children.” The American Society for Nutrition published the article in its journal in 2012.

“The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” has thousands of subscribers and more than 3 million hits to its online journal site per month, according to the complaint.

Tang says the article got a lot of attention in the scientific community and has been downloaded more than 32,000 times.

Nevertheless, she claims, the American Society for Nutrition, which owns the journal and holds the copyright, told Tang that it planned to retract her article due to an investigation into her research protocol.

The university last year suspended Tang’s human-subject research “pending further analysis,” according to the lawsuit.

Although it found no evidence of research misconduct with respect to the study, and no health or safety problems, the university told Tang she would be subject to disciplinary actions regarding future research, she claims in the complaint.

She seeks an injunction and damages for defamation, breach of contract and interference with business relations.

We can’t verify Tang’s claims about the popularity of her article. But it has been cited 12 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

It’s unclear if any lawsuits have been served yet. AJCN editor Dennis Bier declined to comment, citing legal sensitivity. We’ve reached out to Tang’s lawyer for a copy of the lawsuit, and will update with anything new we learn.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen and Raychelle Burks

12 thoughts on “Rice researcher in ethics scrape threatens journal with lawsuit over coming retraction”

  1. I’m confused. Tang broke the law by illegally briging in transgenic rice into China and “Tang received a two-year suspension from conducting human research.” These are facts, not fiction. Being called a name, being accused of something when a case is incomplete, or public revelation of facts such as in this story can be extremely stressful for a scientist, especially since most scientists I know are really quiet, want to stay in the shadows and conduct their work quietly and peacefully. So, public exposure like this must be traumatic. The instinct is most likely to lash out in defense and to claim defamation. Having a retraction, or the threat of one, most likely is also equally traumatic, because it can be a game changer in a career (I wonder what is Tang’s age and her career progress thus far?). So, we can empathize with this tortuous process. I, too, was really defensive against RW when they publically broke the story about me being banned from Elsevier’s Scientia Horticulturae. Goodness knows, Ivan and Adam got the red-hot end of the poker stick, since I was fuming not only about how the story was going to be launched, but how quickly they had pieced together a story for RW. But I have come to understand that this seems to be the cut-throat business of journalism and this is the way that it works. Although we do not enjoy some of the process, it is (presumably) nonetheless valid. I don’t agree that suing is the right way to go, but each has their way of interpreting, and acting in defense. In my case, I spent many days and weeks of deep suffering and also posted about 90 comments to explain the deep-rooted conflicts and batles that I had been facing with Elsevier and Scientia Horticulturae that led to my banishment, I believe. So, may I suggest to Tang to take a step back, breathe in deeply because this story is not going anywhere, nor is the reality of her case. Instead, would it not be more fruitful if she just came out fully in public to explain herself in detail (feelings, background, circumstances)? She may regain some trust if she does that. Some interesting, sometimes contradictory stories about GMPs in China (only a sample of the discussion raging online):

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this has something to do with the ncreasing words of tension between China and the US and her allies (aka Japan and SE Asian countries) over the new maritime limits…

        1. Perhaps this fact leans more credence to his words?

          No, it doesn’t. He’s a full-on crank, including HIV/AIDS denialism.

          The real issue here is the fuel that Tang’s misconduct may have supplied to anti-GMO reactionaries, particularly with respect to Golden Rice, which has the potential to save millions from vitamin A deficiency and all that goes with it, including mortality due to measles and blindness.

  2. I thought that infamous paper (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/96/3/658.full ) should already been retracted. As editor of Scientific Ethic I wrote to Dr. Tang and also the editor of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) which published the Tang paper (see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_502041670102egam.html ). The journal, also the society running the journal, replied me for planned investigation but Dr. Tang, the “corresponding” author, has never replied, even though some concerns about her paper were clearly expressed to her.
    I also published an Open Letter denouncing the biased report on the Golden Rice Test on Chinese Children (see http://health.gmw.cn/2012-09/15/content_5083303.htm ).
    As far as I know, the Tang paper not only violated ethic regulations in both USA and China (see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_6b87a08e0101aq9n.html) but also contains some identified data problems (see http://blog.sciencenet.cn/home.php?mod=space&uid=460310&do=blog&id=610987 ). The identified data problems were communicated to both the journal and the author (see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_502041670102ego1.html ). But so far I have not seen any resolution on these problems.
    Now, a proven ethic-violator and a potential research-misconductor even came back with a lawsuit against “defamation” on her because of an unrealized retraction. Come on, if I was the editor of AJCN, I would immediately retract that golden rice paper and then defeat the evil accusation on a right court.

  3. What a shambles! This has been rumbling on for years. A group of scientists wrote to Tufts University to complain about clear breaches of the Nuremburg Code in the Golden Rice experiments, and were given short shrift. There was a complete lack of ethical oversight. That was in February 2009. We tried to contact Tang, and she never replied to any message. This was despicable, shady, unethical scientific research from the start, and should never have been allowed. The Golden Rice Project managers are themselves culpable for encouraging proper research protocols to be ignored or bypassed.

  4. “Critics note that discrepancies remain over the full details of the trial. For instance, the CDC’s investigation revealed that the children ate Golden Rice just once during the study — and not lunch every day during the three-week study as the paper states.

    “How much Golden Rice did the children have exactly?” asks Wang Zheng, a policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Policy and Management in Beijing. “Either the researchers are lying about this now or they lied about it in their paper. It’s a serious offence either way.” ”

    I ask not just how much GR2 they had, but if it were only one meal why? What worries showed up to change the protocol?

    1. Well Wang Zheng – policy researcher – misread the paper then. Because the paper clearly states that they had one dose of the GR on “dose day” or day zero. And then the subjects were followed for 3 weeks with blood samples taken to follow how much of the pro vitamin A that was in that single dose was converted into vitamin A. What I think is a serious offence is misreading a paper and accusing someone of committing a serious offence as a result.

  5. She brought cooked rice into china. Which is not a GMO. Because a GMO has to be alive. Cooked rice is not a bio-hazard. So that accusation is BS

  6. Roger Morton there is a difference between permission to grow a GMO and to import it as a constituent of food. There is a separate approval process and only some foods sourced from GMOs are allowed to be imported into China, and fewer GMOs are allowed to be grown there than imported processed as food.

    There seems to be confusion in that China was removed from the ethical permission which was transferred to USA. https://clinicaltrials.gov/archive/NCT00680212/2008_07_16/changes Though in the paper it was said there was Chinese permission.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3417220/ and that may have been where one of the accusations was directed.

    There may have been permission at one stage, before it was known that this involved beta carotene in food from a GMO. Since it appears there may not been permission once that was known, it could be why bringing in the food then become smuggling.

    The Chinese parents had not known about that source, it has been claimed, and it is possible Wang Zheng may have been going by what the parents were being told.

    As an extra I would like to note that smokers dosed on beta carotene got more cancer than those who got it from food in a study. Furthermore that the GR produced higher beta carotene effect than the natural meal of spinach, so that if beta carotene is a cancer risk so may be GR.

    1. If GR is a cancer risk to smokers because of its beta carotene content then so is any green leafy vegetable that might be proposed as an alternative solution to combating vitamin A deficiency. Which by the way IS causing blindness and death to malnourished children. In any normal persons risk analysis mitigating a known actual risk trumps hypothetical risks every time.

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