In 2005, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity announced that obesity researcher Eric Poehlman had committed misconduct in 10 published papers. You might think that all of those ten articles would have been retracted a decade later.
You’d be wrong. Only six of them have. Here’s what Elizabeth Wager (a member of the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, our parent non-profit organization) found when she went looking through the record.
One of Poehlman’s papers is missing from Medline, and the journal is untraceable.
One 1998 paper in Coronary Artery Disease appears to have no notice besides a link on its PubMed entry to the ORI’s list of problematic papers. In 2005, the journal published a letter from Poehlman saying he accepted “full responsibility for the falsifications and fabrications in the referenced Coronary Artery Disease paper:”
My co-author was unaware of my actions, and now I publicly exonerate him. Please take whatever appropriate steps are available to you to correct the Coronary Artery Disease review article and inform the scientific community.
Half of the 100 citations of the paper came after 2005, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Current EIC Harold Dauerman told us the editor at the time decided a retraction was not necessary:
As the CAD article was a review article, Dr. [Burton] Sobel (the former Editor in Chief of Coronary Artery Disease) allowed a correction of the literature reference and a retraction of the review was not required.
One of the non-retracted papers, originally published in 1993 in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology & Metabolism, has a 2005 correction that states one of the markers they tracked with women’s age was “falsified” and the actual numbers were quite different:
Pages E450–E455: Poehlman ET, Goran MJ, Gardner AW, Ades PA, Arcerio PJ, Katzman-Rooks SN, Montgomery SM, Toth MJ, and Sutherland PT. “Determinants of decline in resting metabolic rate in aging females” (http://ajpendo.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/264/3/E450). In the referenced paper, we reported cross-sectional changes in a number of physiological and metabolic markers in a cohort of 183 women aged 18–81 yr. In particular, we reported a significant decline in total triiodothyronine (T3) and free T3 as the women aged, and we concluded that aging per se might contribute to these reduced hormone concentrations (see Fig. 3, A and B, Table 2, and related text).
I now wish to report that the data for total T3 and free T3 in that paper were falsified and that the actual data reveal that there is no significant decline in total or free T3 with age. The actual thyroid hormone data demonstrate a positive, but not significant, correlation with age, in contrast to the false claim of a statistically significant decline with age.
This paper is therefore being corrected by the publisher, the American Physiological Society, at the request of the author, E. T. Poehlman, as required by the Office of Research Integrity. (A Letter to the Editor is published in this issue.)
Seventeen of the 98 citations of that paper came after 2005.
Another 1998 review in Obesity Research — now called Obesity — only published a comment from Poehlman in 2005. That letter stated that the review included an article that he knew was “falsified and fabricated,” and echoed the language from the letter he sent to Coronary Artery Disease.
The paper has been cited 53 times since 2005. After Retraction Watch contacted Obesity, a spokesperson told us the journal was planning to retract the paper.
The paper missing from Medline is in a journal called Recent Research Developments in Nutrition, Wager told us, adding she can’t find it in a Google search either:
although oddly I found Vol 6 here.
Wager said all of the affected papers should have been pulled:
I can’t think of any good reason for issuing a correction after somebody has been found guilty of misconduct and ORI has said the article is affected … it should be retracted, no ifs or buts!
There are many possible reasons why journals don’t retract papers right away, she said, some of which she gleaned during a 2013 study in Science and Engineering Ethics, in which she and a colleague interviewed editors of science journals:
My guess is that important factors are:
– overworked editors (editing journals on top of their day job)
– editors and publishers who aren’t sure what to do (which is why we developed the [Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines])
In some cases there may be other reasons, eg journals switching publishers, and occasionally threats of legal action probably do cause delays …
But there are ways to improve the system, she added:
The fact that some journals / publishers manage to retract much quicker than others suggests it would be possible to speed the process up.
This isn’t the first time Wager has noted journals’ slow pace in pulling problematic papers – in 2013, she and her colleagues presented data at a 2013 conference showing that 10% of the 88 papers flagged for fraud by Joachim Boldt were still lingering in the literature. They published the findings in 2014 in PLOS ONE.
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