Asthma study yanked for serious ethical violations

springerplusA paper in SpringerPlus on treating asthma with antioxidants was retracted on September 25 for something of a trifecta of ethical problems.

The retraction notice indicates that the patients never consented, there was no ethical review, and the university supposedly overseeing the study had no knowledge of it:

Improved treatment of Asthma by using natural sources of antioxidants Nguyen Van Toan1,2* and Tran Thi Hanh3 1 School of Biotechnology, International University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 2 Faculty of Applied sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK 3 Home Clinic, 345 D5 Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Retraction The original version of this paper (Van Toan and Thi Hanh 2013) is retracted because of ethical concerns: the clinical trial was not approved by an ethical board and the authors did not provide evidence that patient consent was obtained. The scientific advisor for this clinical trial (ANZCTR 2012) at the University of the West of England UK (an affiliation of the corresponding author) indicated he was not aware of this study and that the university was not involved. It is a requirement that experimental research reported in SpringerPlus was performed with the approval of an appropriate ethics committee, and that research carried out on humans must be in compliance with the guidelines of the World Medical Association. Dr. Max Haring, Executive Editor for SpringerPlus References Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry (2012) Trial ACTRN12 612000766819: Improved treatment of Asthma by using natural sources of antioxidants. Accessed 03 Sep 2014 Van Toan N, Thi Hanh T (2013) Improved treatment of Asthma by using natural sources of antioxidants.

SpringerPlus editor Max Haring gave us the details:

We were alerted to this by a reader who found that the article differed from the published trial registration. The article indicates the study was randomized but the registration states: “Allocation to intervention: Nonrandomized trial”. The reader also noted a difference in patient numbers between the publication and the registration.

SpringerPlus requires any experimental research that is reported in a manuscript to have been performed with the approval of an appropriate ethics committee, and research carried out on humans must be in compliance with the Helsinki Declaration. Informed consent must also be documented and these documents must also be made available if requested by the editorial staff.

This manuscript was rejected by another Springer journal but the author chose to resubmit to SpringerPlus. Due to human error it was understood that the article had been recommended as a transfer with portable peer review to SpringerPlus, and that certain concerns had been addressed. We no longer use this method for transfers after peer review for rejected manuscripts, and now screen all submissions to SpringerPlus for ethical and other issues before peer review.

And about that “scientific advisor” who didn’t know anything about the study? That would be Steven Neill, a University of the West of England plant scientist who has never, as far as we can tell, done any human research. Paper author Nguyen Van Toan received his PhD from UWE in 2007, but otherwise his only connection to the school seems to be his listing himself as an affiliate on the retracted paper.

Haring again:

I contacted professor Steven Neill at the University of the West of England and informed him about our intention to retract this paper: he indicated that he nor his university had any knowledge whatsoever of this research. It is entirely possible that the author overstated or incorrectly listed his affiliation with UWE.

We talked to a representative for the university, who confirmed they had no record of the study, though they have not answered whether either paper author works at the school. We’ve also reached out to the authors, and will update with any new information.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

14 thoughts on “Asthma study yanked for serious ethical violations”

  1. I have had my fair set of exchanges with Dr. Max Haring about SpringerPlus. I am glad to see that this business model that was being employed by Springer Science + Business Media has now changed course. I am not sure exactly when this “automatic-transmission-of-papers” business by Springer S+BM started, but I can indicate that at least three of my own papers, which were rejected by other Springer journals because they were “out of scope”, were automatically transferred to SpringerPlus, causing me to cry foul. SpringerPlus was, most definitely, nothing more than a rechanneling of papers in order to boost the financial coffers of Springer S+BM before authors had a chance to submit elsewhere. Until this new policy was in place, Springer S+BM was attempting to make good business off bad or not-that-perfect science. This indicates that all papers published in SpringerPlus to date need to be carefully scrutinized in post-publication peer review. “Due to human error it was understood that the article had been recommended as a transfer with portable peer review to SpringerPlus, and that certain concerns had been addressed.” What does this even mean? How can Springer S+BM assume that the authors of a paper with errors that is automatically transferred will have addressed the errors and how is that possible when papers were automatically rerouted? Dr. Haring then states: “We no longer use this method for transfers after peer review for rejected manuscripts, and now screen all submissions to SpringerPlus for ethical and other issues before peer review.” Yet notice clearly how he fails to indicate the reasons why the change was made, and the exact date when this change in policy was adapted. Furthermore, Dr. Haring clearly does not address the issue of post-publication peer review to examine all past “automatically” transferred papers that had been rejected from other Springer S+BM journals.

  2. It seems that the retraction note does not link to the original paper. Thus, for readers who have not known the retraction not, the original paper seems to be OK.

    1. Yep, this is the original version of the retracted paper in SpringerPlus’s website. As I said above, this problem is due to the fact that the retraction note is not linked to the original paper. I think SpringerPlus should make a watermark like “Retracted” on the electronic versions of the retracted paper.

      1. Ok, so we have a retraction referring to the article dated 25 September 2014 (doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-558) here:

        We have an article dated 25 September 2014 (doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-558) for which the above retraction presumably refers to:

        Plus we seem to have an article dated 26 June 2013 (doi:10.1186/2193-1801-2-278) here:

        Are these two articles separate versions of the same one, are they different articles or what? I am confused.

          1. Good to see that Dr. Haring has come forward to respond publically, as any responsible publisher should. Actually, Dr. Haring (and Springer), for the sake of transparency, could you also please clarify the following, which remain unclear:

            a) When exactly did SpringerPlus start?

            b) When exactly did this “policy” change (exact date), and where is the public notice on the SpringerPlus page about this change?

            c) Would it be correct and accurate to state that the automatic rechanneling of rejected papers by Springer journals in any field of science was two-fold: a) to boost revenues for a business model that is seeing losses to the non-Springer OA movement; b) to try and “capture” papers before they got lost to competing publishers.

            d) Could you kindly provide an update on the position held by Professor Steven Neill and the University of the West of England.

            e) Could you please indicate if anti-plagiarism software is being used to screen all papers submitted to, or published in, SpringerPlus, and if in fact Springer S+BM has uniformly adopted the use of anti-plagiarism software across all of its books and journals, especially those that rejected papers that then landed up being published in SpringerPlus. This is because at least one case of a retracted paper based on plagiarism has been documented here at RW [1]. There is still an unresponded question about that study: who is “we”? And why can we not find the original full paper with a water-marked stamp RETRACTED across each page, as suggested by COPE (Springer S+BM is a COPE member, as you know).

            f) On the top page of SpringerPlus [2], it states: “Note that we will not reject a manuscript because it is out of scope or for its perceived importance, novelty or ability to attract citations…” and “our editorial policy is clear: we will either accept your manuscript for publication or not, our editors will not ask for additional research.” Do you not feel that such editorial policies clash with those imposed upon the authorship by more “traditional” Springer S+BM journals?

            g) If we add the word “retraction” into the search function at SpringerPlus, why does this retracted study not appear listed?

            h) In your opinion, given that 620 papers have already been published in SpringerPlus, that there are only two retractions thus far, and that the process was admitted by Springer S+BM to be flawed, should there not be an independent post-publication peer review of the 600+ papers already published?

            Your public interaction and input would be greatly appreciated so that the scientific community can retain / regain /sustain trust in the journal / publisher, and its academic quality control processes.


          2. SpringerPlus was launched in 2012 especially for manuscripts that are difficult to publish in other journals: SpringerPlus does not reject articles because the subject is deemed outside the scope, unfashionable, a niche field or unable to attract citations. Our only essential requirement for acceptance is that the articles are scientifically and methodically sound, as judged by our editorial board and our reviewers. SpringerPlus accepts manuscripts as direct submissions as well as from other Springer journals through our portable peer-review system: more information on that procedure can be found here:

            All articles published in SpringerPlus are peer-reviewed. In this case the manuscript by mistake had been marked as recommended for portable peer review after revisions, our editor assumed that all major concerns were addressed and only asked for minor changes. SpringerPlus no longer uses this method for manuscript transfers after peer review.

          3. Barely a week after these exchanges, I received another request to transmit a rejected paper, rejected based on “space limitation” issues, to SpringerPlus. Although the paper was not automatically transmitted, the hybrid rejection + transfer style employed in this business model is of concern to me, mainly because of certain language used therein, such as “I believe that your manuscript is very well suited for the journal SpringerPlus”, “I would like to advise you to transfer your manuscript there”, “you will not be asked for additional research”, “SpringerPlus charges a one-off payment”, etc. I wonder if the EIC is even aware, or even concerned.

            Date October 30, 2014.

            “Dear Dr. [redacted],

            I regret to inform you that Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture (PCTOC): Journal of Plant Biotechnology is unable to accept your manuscript for publication. However, I believe that your manuscript is very well suited for the journal SpringerPlus and I would like to advise you to transfer your manuscript there.

            SpringerPlus is an Open Access journal which accepts manuscripts in all disciplines of science, technology, engineering, humanities and medicine. The journal has an all-inclusive scope; it publishes all manuscripts judged to be scientifically sound by reviewers. SpringerPlus will not reject a manuscript because it is out of scope or for its perceived importance or ability to attract citations. SpringerPlus will either accept your manuscript for publication or not, you will not be asked for additional research. Please note that you do not have to do reformatting of any kind. You can find more information about the journal at

            Open Access

            SpringerPlus charges a one-off payment (article-processing fee) to cover all editorial costs and fund the Open Access publication of the articles it publishes. All articles in SpringerPlus are freely downloadable for anyone, no subscription is required and copyright remains with the authors: articles can be used without any restrictions. If your institution is a SpringerOpen/BMC member, or if you work in a country listed here, you may be entitled to a discount or full waiver of this APC. For more information please visit our website or contact your librarian or funding agency.

            If you agree to transfer your submission to SpringerPlus, please click here: [redacted]

            This offer is valid until 28 Dec 2014.

            Upon receipt of your approval, the SpringerPlus editorial office staff will transfer your manuscript files across for you. Please note that you will have an opportunity to update or revise the manuscript before final submission to the editorial board, and that we will not transfer your manuscript without your approval.

            If you have any questions, please visit the journal website or contact our editorial team at

            With kind regards,

            Sergio J Ochatt, Ph.D.
            Editor in Chief
            Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture (PCTOC): Journal of Plant Biotechnology

            Reviewers’ comments (if any):

            This journal receives a large volume of submissions and therefore each submission undergoes a preliminary review. I would also like to stress that while PCTOC as many other journals publishes review articles, that is not its main vocation whereby the possible number of reviews per volume is highly limited and the selection pressure very stringent. Indeed, we aim at publishing one review per volume (i.e. 3 issues/volume) only.
            For these reasons, this manuscript cannot enter the review process, and will not be considered for publication in PCTOC.”

          4. Scientists cannot understand why we should be so critical of Springer Science and Business Medium. Allow me to explain, briefly, using information quoted from the SIMBA report: “Simba sees OA rising to $440 million by 2017… That would make OA 3.9% of the total market. … The most interesting part of the Simba report to me is a table that lists the ten largest OA publishers by revenue. Springer, including its BioMed Central unit, is number one. PLOS is number two.” [1] In other words, the more money a publisher makes off science publishing, the greater the responsibility it has towards the academic community and the public. Post-publication peer review should by now be an entrenched part of every Springer S+BM’s academic portfolio, but is not. Not even close. The reason we have to ask is, why not?

  3. I wish just to deposit this information publically. Just for the record. I claim that one of the sources of errors in the literature, from personal experience, lies in the faults of the proofing department. Maybe not major errors, but errors nonetheless. The publishers are thus responsible, 100%, for these errors. This further cements a well-recorded (at RW)notion that publisher-induced error is to blame for some of the erosion of quality and integrity in the scientific literature, although as yet unquantified. A good resource at RW is:

    All proofs that I have received for most if not all my papers published in Springer journals over the past few years, and possibly longer, have been assembled in India. Specifically this address:

    Scientific Publishing Services
    No.6&7,5th Street,Radhakrishnan Salai,
    Chennai, Tamilnadu
    Pincode 600 004

    If one searches a little more (without too much effort, I might add), one discovers, albeit a rather outdated (2006) site ( that the following publishers were all being handled by the same apparently Springer-run company SPS:
    Springer Verlag, Elsevier, Blackwell, Oxford,

    I should aso note that all proofs for the Elsevier journals I deal with are also produced in Chennai, India. In fact, this is the type of advertisement that appears for job positions related to Elsevier in India (copied here, just in case the website suddenly disappears):
    “Company Profile:
    Elsevier, as part of the Reed Elsevier Group Pic, is a market leader for scientific, technical and medical publications and information. The company publishes more than 1,800 journals, 2,200 new books per year and a range of innovative electronic products. Reed Elsevier India Pvt. Ltd. is the regional headquarter for the South Asia Region. Over the years, we have successfully served our academic, government and corporate customers in South Asia. A key component of our success is the continuous expansion of our product lines. Consequently, we are now seeking dynamic and dedicated persons to join the company as-


    Job Description:
    The incumbent will be a key member of the Management Team and will take charge of our scientific & technical book publishing division and will be responsible for managing editorial teams and projects. The incumbent should be well-versed with commercial aspects of publishing including production cost-estimation, financial planning and pipeline management. The person will work closely with sales team to incorporate market feedback in the products. The ideal candidate will be 35-40 years of age with professional qualification in science & technology with keen interest in publishing. Editorial experience in publishing scientific books, journals or newsletters is essential.


    Job Description:
    The incumbent will develop products in print and multimedia to serve the continuing medical education needs of health practitioners. The successful candidate will liaise with national advisory boards of clinical specialists and manage a team of medical writers, ensuring completion of the planned projects on schedule. The person would possess an MBBS / M Pharma degree or a post-graduation degree in life science with proven skills in medical writing, creating print products as well as developing multi-media content, excellent communication skills and a work experience of 5-7 years in pharmaceutical industry or a medical communications company.


    Job Description:
    The incumbent is required to develop Elsevier’s publishing programme in Health Sciences. The key functions are commissioning authors, syllabi research, market research, organizing reviews and product development. The successful candidate will be around 28 years of age with a first division post graduate degree or a degree in medicine, having command over the English language, excellent communication and analytical skills, and proficiency in MS Office with a positive and dynamic attitude. Prior publishing experience is desirable but not necessary.


    Job Description:
    The incumbent will be responsible for managing the entire workflow, copyediting, typesetting, designing, artwork, proof-reading, indexing, CRC, PDF, XML and ensuring quality checks at each stage. The person will also interact with authors to address queries until the final copy is ready. Result orientation in terms of quality and timeliness is critical for this position. The ideal candidate should have team building and team management, technical editing / proof-reading skills. PhD / MPhil / PG in life science / biology / medicine with minimum 5 years experience in project management and copyediting and in-depth knowledge of XML based prepress workflow is a must. Candidates who are currently managing a team of copy editors and having extensive knowledge of book publishing and production processes will be preferred.


    Job Description:
    The incumbent will be responsible for managing workflow related to publishing of journal from acquisition of articles to editing, prepress & production. The ideal candidate will have an MBBS degree or a post graduate qualification in Life Science with 3-5 years of experience with a journal or Life Science magazine publisher. The candidate should have command over the English language, strong written communication skills, medical writing skills & proficiency in MS Office. Having project management skills will be an added qualification.


    Job Description:
    The incumbent will develop medical information content on specific issues / topics relevant to practicing clinicians based on available information / publications. The successful candidate will co-ordinate with the in-house content-development team for the various projects assigned. The person will possess an MBBS / M Pharma degree or a post-graduation degree in life sciences with proven skills in medical writing, excellent communication skills and command of the English language and a work experience of 3-5 years in medical writing / communications. Prior experience in developing multimedia content would be of special advantage.

    Location: Delhi & Chennai

    Sri Pratap Udyog,
    1st & 3rd Floor,
    274, Captain Gaur Marg
    New Delhi – 110 065
    Email: ”

    In fact, Elsevier and Reed Elsevier invest heavily in recruiting in India, including the legal company, LexisNexis:

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