A leading medical journal is taking a second look at a recent high-profile paper about elephants’ lower risk of cancer, after receiving a call for retraction from a somewhat unusual corner: the animal rights group PETA.
This isn’t the first time the activist group has called for a retraction — last year, it nudged a journal to pull a paper that had been flagged for fraud by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. Their latest target: A 2015 paper in JAMA, which PETA claims contains inaccurate information.
What’s more, the organization argues, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus — which partly funded the research — is using the findings as “justification for the continued use of abusive training techniques with elephants.” Yesterday, PETA sent a letter to the journal asking it to either retract the paper or issue an expression of concern, claiming:
[T]he very premise of this article is based on unreliable data and its authors have used those unsubstantiated claims to mislead the public ….
Howard Bauchner, Editor in Chief at JAMA and The JAMA Network, told us:
All requests for retraction are evaluated for merit. After the initial evaluation, we may decline to retract, gather additional information to determine how to proceed, and/or ask the authors for their response to the request for retraction. We are just completing our initial evaluation.
“Potential Mechanisms for Cancer Resistance in Elephants and Comparative Cellular Response to DNA Damage in Humans” has been cited 12 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.
The paper — which earned major media attention when it was published late last year, such as from CBS News and Newsweek — found that elephants have a much lower chance of developing cancer than other mammals, perhaps due to multiple copies of the gene encoding the tumor suppressor p53.
That conclusion doesn’t hold water for PETA, which argues in a letter sent to JAMA yesterday that the data stem, in part, from a “source no more reputable than Wikipedia” (presumably the Elephant Encyclopedia, reference #14 in the paper). What’s more, the authors studied only captive animals, the group notes, which don’t live long enough to develop cancer.
As cancer risks increase the longer one lives and captive elephants typically die very young of captivity-induced diseases like arthritis and foot problems, concluding that elephants rarely get cancer is as erroneous as it would be to study children and conclude that humans rarely contract heart disease.
(Click here to read the entire letter, signed by Heather Rally, Wildlife Veterinarian in Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA.)
We heard from a representative of Elephant Encyclopedia’s Dan Koehl, who told us:
My database is not perfect, its probably filled with some 5% errors.
It’s the largest and only of its kind online on Internet, and as to my knowledge, physically existing, in the world. It is frequently used by researchers, who prefer my database to the European and American studbooks. Its visited by 1 000 – 2 000 visitors/day.
It is sourced, e.g. most records can be double checked.
Whatever PETA thinks about Wikipedia, or if its relevant to compare Wikipedia with www.elephant.se, only they know.
The paper was co-authored by two researchers at the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, and the findings are being misused by the circus, PETA alleges:
In the months since JAMA published the article, the circus has used it to publicize its shows in dozens of towns and to justify its use of bullhooks on elephants, which are abusive training weapons that have been banned in many towns. The circus has used the so-called findings of this study to propagate deceptive and misleading headlines implying that elephants don’t get cancer. Citing such scientifically unfounded findings and employing them as a justification for the continued use of abusive training techniques with elephants is unethical.
Rachel Mathews, Captive Animal Law Enforcement Counsel for the PETA Foundation, told us that the organization is concerned that the circus is using the paper to promote its own agenda. For instance, said Mathews, the circus is using the paper to justify its use of bullhooks — a heavy object shaped like a fireplace poker — to get close enough to elephants to obtain the blood samples used in cancer research.
Captive elephants may not get much cancer, but that’s because they’re dying young of diseases caused by captivity. They die of tuberculosis, arthritis, chronic foot problems, and stress-related herpes viruses. They die young—many as babies—and they develop psychotic behaviors from being chained and abused. Captivity kills elephants, and Ringling doesn’t want people to know it.
These elephants have spent their lives shackled in chains, and forced to live in parking lots and arena basements. Ringling has taken everything from them and made millions, but even in so-called retirement the circus is finding new ways to exploit them. If Ringling truly cared about the elephants, it would retire them to an accredited sanctuary instead of using them as test subjects and breeding machines.
It’s unclear how this will play out, but such calls for retraction rarely end well, according to our co-founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. As they wrote earlier this year in STAT:
…we rarely see anything good — including the sought-after retraction — coming from these petitions and public demands.
Calls for retraction often seem politically motivated, and while that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, it gives more heft to the “Oh, you’re just conflicted” arguments that leave everyone throwing up their hands, engaged in a shouting match. Scientists, journal editors, and universities often appear to be backed into a corner, reacting defensively, and sometimes not even making corrections.
The sense one gets is that the people calling for these retractions — often followed by the word “immediately” — are less interested in correcting the scientific record than they are in punishing those whose views they don’t share.
Update 6/2/16 7:48 p.m. eastern: We’ve heard from the last author on the paper, Joshua Schiffman at the University of Utah:
I have been contacted by JAMA and cannot comment further.
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.