JAMA takes all calls for retraction seriously — even from PETA

JAMAA 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.

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15 thoughts on “JAMA takes all calls for retraction seriously — even from PETA”

  1. I am not sure what you mean by “Even by PETA”. Are you suggesting that they should not consider letters just because they came from an organization that deals with animal rights?

    They have two forms of claims, scientific and ethical. The scientific ones, most specifically the one regarding the age of the elephants, should be taken very seriously.

    The ethical ones should be taken even more seriously. The claims that the research is being used to get more funding for animal abuse, or was done on animals that were abused, should be investigated and if true, it should be a good enough reason for retraction.

    1. There are two claims that PETA makes here. one is that the source is unreliable the other is that it is used to justify abusive practices by third parties. The first one seems to be untrue as the source seems to be an accepted one by others in the same field and second one is outside the scientist’s control and should never be grounds for retraction. If I somehow found that kicking baby pigs cured cancer, surely it would result in more baby pigs to be kicked but that doesn’t make the research less scientific. If I didn’t get prober ethical permits before kicking baby pigs however, that is a different story.

      1. I am sorry Burak, but you are a bit confused. I mentioned two points, one scientific and one ethical. When I was talking about how the animals are treated, I clearly explained that I am talking about ethics and not science. I have no idea how you were able to misunderstand this.

        And the point about the age of the elephants is scientific, and very valid one, if true. The database was just one of their points, it wasn’t the only point.

    2. Why is this surprising? See the above article and quote from Oransky.

      The “even by…” statement is emphasized because those calling for the retraction are most likely driven by an personal/political agenda that is thinly veiled scientific criticism.

  2. I find it very troubling that the circus funded the research, that the research was conducted in part by circus employees, and that the circus then used the findings to support its own claims. And I find it problematic, at the very least, to use a population that has a very shortened lifespan to make general claims about the species as a whole, without controlling for that variable.

  3. I think this post ought to be retracted. It’s totally biased reporting right from the title. Why is it impossible that PETA isn’t correct? Because of their political views? I thought we were talking about science. And just because a paper is cited and has some media attention is irrelevant also.

    1. I completely agree with Elliot. The title is biased, attempting to ridicule PETA. Whether you generally agree with PETA or not, it is completely irrelevant to the questions they raised, that need to be examined with unbiased mind. A shame.

  4. Captivating the elephants and presenting research data using them are two entirely different aspect.
    Researcher has done nothing wrong in collecting the blood and data from captivated elephants, and besides they have also made it clear in their paper, besides have also mentioned funding agencies. So as far as the retraction due to animal ethics violation is ruled out.
    The another aspect, using the animals in circus and cruelty is a seperate issue and should not have any consequence to the paper published usning them. IMHO.

    1. Hello Gandhi,

      IMHO, your opinion is wrong. The way how animals are held and treated before the experiments is an integral part of the ethical approval. This is why there are regulations how animals should be treated.

      Also, let me give you an example. In the Sinai desert, there are groups that kidnap immigrants/refugees who are trying to cross the desert, kill them and sell their organs (a true story!). Let’s say some kidney get to my hospital, and I get samples from them, produce stem cells and publish a nice paper with my experiments. I did nothing wrong because I did not take part in what happened before to the refugees, I just took samples from the kidneys that already got to my hospital. Is that ok? Well of course not. The whole process must be ethical.

  5. Huh, when I read the first headlines I thought that PETA was making dubious demands for the sake of publicity or whatever, but both their ethical and scientific objections to the study and the questions about the independence/integrity of the involved parties actually appear appropriate.

  6. I’ll echo what others have said — the ‘even PETA’ angle here is odd and unfortunate. Journals should evaluate requests for retraction based on the content of the criticisms, not on the reputation of the party levying them. It’s nice to see that JAMA seems to understand this; surprising and sad that Retraction Watch seems not to.

  7. i was going to write a long response but instead chose to summarize it; it is in the best interests of people, animals, science,medicine and ethics to ignore PETA

    1. I was going to write a long response but instead chose to summarize it; it is exactly the opposite.

  8. Whenever non-scientists agencies or activists call for retractions of peer-reviewed science, one should be concerned and take pause. Personal agendas here are often at the forefront, rather than scientific integrity.

    See when creationists have tried to get research published on evolution retracted from PNAS.


    When climate skeptics try to get climate science research retracted from peer-reviewed journals (and try to ruin the reputation of the scientists).


    And not to mention the whole messed up war between genetic researchers and the anti-GMO crowd.

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