The journal Epidemiology Biostatistics and Public Health has issued back-to-back corrections for a 2015 paper after the authors failed to disclose conflicts of interest with the asbestos industry and included an “erroneous citation.”
The mistaken citation was more than just a clerical error, critics argue — it undermines one of the key arguments of the paper, “Critical reappraisal of Balangero chrysotile and mesothelioma risk,” which disputes claims that an asbestos mine in northwest Italy was responsible for numerous cases of an aggressive form of cancer called mesothelioma. The authors, led by Edward Ilgren formerly of Oxford University, claim that “myriad sources” of other forms of asbestos—rather than the asbestos produced at the mine, called chrysotile—exist in the region “to account for the alleged cases.”
However, according to a recently added correction, the citation does not support one of the authors’ claims about how other forms of asbestos arrived at the mine area.
Concerns about the paper arose in July 2015 when 23 scientists, organized by Kathleen Ruff, founder of a Canadian advocacy website, RightOnCanada.ca, and author of a book calling for an end to Canada’s export of asbestos, sent a letter to EBPH’s editors “regarding the failure to disclose conflicting interests” in the paper, citing evidence linking all four authors to asbestos industry organizations or consulting companies.
Ruff, who has previously written about conflict of interest disclosures, told us she became aware of the paper while paying attention to literature published by scientists with financial ties to asbestos interests.
In the letter, Ruff and colleagues requested that the EBPH “adopt and implement a clear policy requiring that Conflict of Interest Statements for each author and anyone involved in the development of an article” and join the Committee on Publication Ethics. They also requested the journal retract the article.
The authors of the original paper decided to write the correction.
Here is the text of the correction:
Ilgren EB, Independent Consultant, has acted as consultant to companies in asbestos litigation. Pooley FD, Emeritus Professor, University of Cardiff, has acted as a consultant to asbestos companies. Kumiya YM has no conflicts of interest. Hoskins JA has attended and spoken at several meetings on behalf of the Chrysotile Institute.
In the same journal issue with the correction, a Letter to the Editors from eight scientists based in Italy cite “gross mistakes” in the Ilgren paper, arguing that it
is full of other mistakes that we cannot report in full, such as misprints, wrong quotations, and statements with no supporting evidence.
The scientists pointed to a specific reference, #11, that did not support a claim about how other forms of asbestos arrived at the mine area.
In the next issue of EBPH, a correction was published about that citation:
There is an erroneous citation at page 5: “Crocidolite and amosite were also transferred to Balangero in jute bags .” This statement cannot be found in Ref. 11.
No new citation was provided, nor has the line been changed in the online version of the article.
According to Ruff, several rounds of correspondence between her group and the journal editors followed the initial July 2015 letter, including two letters Ruff provided to us. On August 11, 2015, Ruff and scientists raised concerns about a second EBPH paper from three of the same authors. In September, they vented frustrations about the editors’ lack of response to the group’s requests to consider retracting the articles and “initiate an investigation to evaluate whether Ilgren’s articles comply with the scientific standards.”
In October, Franco Cavallo, the president of the Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology (SISMEC), which publishes EBPH, responded to the group, noting that SISMEC’s Executive Committee had “thoroughly discussed” the two papers. They wrote:
As for the scientific content of the two articles, the Committee has expressed concern about their consistency and issued a warning concerning the peer-review process. Our Society has decided to engage in a serious commitment toward the safeguard of our ethical standards, which will oblige us to accurately consider the review procedure, in order to assure our readers that the process has been followed and that all ethical standards and the quality of the reviewers be well assessed.
Ruff and colleagues replied to Cavallo on October 9th, stating that they were “disappointed” in SISMEC’s actions and called on the organization “to take the serious action of retracting the article.” They have not received a response, Ruff told us.
In response to a request from Retraction Watch about whether the journal plans to change their disclosure policy and/or retract the paper, Boccia and La Vecchia responded:
We are considering joining COPE. We do not see a need to change our CoI policy.
They told us that they have no plans to retract the article.
Ruff described her account of the corrections at RightOnCanada. She told us:
The failure of the Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology (SISMEC) and its journal, EBPH, to retract the article constitutes a serious violation of scientific and ethical standards and a betrayal of public trust…SISMEC said it would take strong action to address the wrongdoing and to ensure that its journal would, in future, uphold proper scientific and ethical standards. But it has failed to do so. And it has ignored our request that it address the scientific and ethical failings of its journal through a transparent, participatory process.
If a professional, scientific organisation, such as SISMEC, will not take action to uphold proper scientific and ethical standards, what hope is there of stopping misconduct and improper influence by vested interests? If a professional, scientific organisations will not uphold scientific integrity and the public good, who will?
EBPH has also published corrections for two more of Ilgren and Hoskins’ papers where competing interests were not originally disclosed. The first correction is for a 2015 paper, “Kandovan the next ‘Capadoccia’? – A potential public health issue for erionite related mesothelioma risk.” It states:
Ilgren EB, Independent Consultant, has acted as consultant to companies in asbestos litigation…Hoskins JA has attended and spoken at several meetings on behalf of the Chrysotile Institute.
Ilgren EB, Independent Consultant, has acted as consultant to companies in asbestos litigation. Van Orden DR – has acted as consultant to companies in asbestos litigation. Lee RJ – has acted as consultant to companies in asbestos litigation. Kumiya YM has no conflicts of interest. Hoskins JA has attended and spoken at several meetings on behalf of the Chrysotile Institute.
We’ve reached out to Ilgren and will update if we hear back. We have been unable to locate contact information for John Hoskins.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our new daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.