Surgery journal publishes — then retracts — response to letter that never appeared

Annals of Surgery

How’s this for confusing: A surgery journal is retracting researchers’ response to a letter about their paper, because the letter was never actually published.

According to the managing editor of the Annals of Surgery, the letter — about a 2011 analysis of IV fluids in trauma patients — was accepted, prompting the journal to ask for a response from the authors of the 2011 paper. But the letter-writers never supplied required forms, such as conflict of interest. After spending two years trying to track them down, the journal decided not to publish the letter.

In the meantime, however, the authors’ response to the letter was “inadvertently published,” forcing the journal to retract it.

The original letter addressed a 2011 analysis, “Prehospital Intravenous Fluid Administration Is Associated With Higher Mortality in Trauma Patients: A National Trauma Data Bank Analysis.” The study, which challenged a standard routine of trauma care, received other letters to the editor.

Here’s the retraction notice (which is indexed on PubMed but the full text is behind a paywall):

The Editors and Publisher retracted the article, “Reply to Letter: ‘ATLS Protocols of Initial Intravenous Fluid Administration for Trauma Patients; Needing a Revision?’” by Haut et al, published ahead of print in Annals of Surgery on March 18, 2015. The letter this responds to was withdrawn from consideration after being accepted.

When reached for a statement, corresponding author of the 2011 paper, Elliott Haut at Johns Hopkins, told us:

We simply wrote a reply to a letter to the editor that Annals of Surgery received about our paper (now about 4 years old).

I do not know anything about why the original letter to the editor was pulled.

A spokesperson for the publisher, Wolters Kluwer, had a bit more information for us:

Some background on this situation will help to clarify the actions taken: A letter was submitted and accepted but never published because the author’s [required forms were] never received. After multiple attempts by the editorial office to contact the authors of the original letter without success, the letter was withdrawn. In the meantime, the reply to the letter was received and accepted as well, but inadvertently published without the accompanying letter.

The spokesperson also explained why retraction was the best option:

It was determined that keeping the reply in print without the original letter did not make any sense. However, since the reply was published, we did not want to simply pull the reply letter offline without any record or notice in the literature. Retracting the letter and publishing a retraction notice was the most transparent route to manage this situation.

Managing editor Steve Cavanaugh filled in some additional details:

The reason we retracted the response by Dr. Haut is because the letter could not be published.

When my team and I assumed responsibility for the editorial office functions in July 2013, there was a large backlog of accepted papers, including many letters to the editors, that needed attention, the letter in question being one of them. Unfortunately, the authors of this letter never supplied the Conflict of Interest and Copyright release forms, and after 2 years of trying to obtain these, we gave us and withdrew the letter. The reply to this letter, by Dr. Haut et al, had been accepted however, and so we now had a response to a letter that would never be published.

Our publisher’s policies required that we retract the response, rather than just pull it, so we published it in the table of contents of an issue, but immediately retracted it. We regret the hassle for Dr. Haut and his coauthors who took the time to reply to the letter, only to have the work wasted.

Happily, we do not have any other papers from that backlog that will need similar treatment.

When asked about the contact information, he said:

I suspect that the authors moved or changed email addresses, which is why we couldn’t contact them. I did spend considerable time trying to track them down and find a current email address, but was unsuccessful.

Cavanaugh told us the corresponding author was listed as Mohsen Mousavi at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Iran. We’ve reached out to the email address supplied with the 2011 letter but haven’t received a response. We’ve been unable to locate any current contact information for Mousavi. We’ll update if we hear anything more.

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