Beg pardon? Researchers pull cancer paper because, well, um, you see …

dovepressWe’ve been writing about retractions for six years, and things tend to fall into easily recognizable categories — plagiarism, fabricated data, rigged peer review, etc.

So it’s always interesting to come across a notice sui generis, such as one that appeared in July in OncoTargets and Therapy, a Dove title, about a new way to detect tumor markers.

According to the retraction notice:

The authors respectfully retract this original research article. “We realize that some of the results referenced in this paper are preliminary analyses and may not reflect the final data and conclusions of the clinical trials cited”.

Okay, that wasn’t quite fair. We may as well have said, “according to the retraction notice, @#$(@*#$@ GARBAGE.” We’re not sure if the authors are saying their own data are potentially problematic, or if the notice refers to data the researchers have cited. Which, one might think, would be a useful thing to know.

A quick look at the references listed in “Comparison of tumor markers using different detection devices” — published in May 2015 by researchers led by first author Rong Tao, of Putuo District Center Hospital, in Shanghai and not yet cited, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science — shows 13 articles. Each of those references appears to be full studies as opposed to meeting abstracts or other work that might be considered preliminary. Several involved validation of testing methods — again, not exactly preliminary findings.

But let’s assume that the references are indeed preliminary. That’s not grounds for retraction. Why? Because that’s SCIENCE. ALL research is at some level preliminary if it’s not settled. If (and this is a gargantuan if) the paper was submitted in good faith, retracting it because some of the studies it cites are preliminary makes zero sense. It’s the opposite of what should be done.

We have to give the journal low marks here. Again, assuming the authors were acting in good faith means the peer review process failed (gasp!) to identify a weak manuscript prior to acceptance and publication. Or, if the editors were duped, shame on them for allowing the authors to issue such a tongue-tied mess of a retraction notice.

We emailed Jiangfan Shen, the corresponding author of the paper, for clarification, but have not received a reply. Our email to the editors was returned by Tim Hill, publisher of Dove Medical Press. Hill initially told us:

The retraction that you refer to was published by us at the insistence of Dr Tao and co-authors of the original, published paper who were very concerned that preliminary findings had been mistakenly published in his paper and that these could result in adverse consequences. We urged Dr Tao and colleagues to pursue their concerns via means of a Corrigendum to address each element on a point-by-point basis, but that was not acceptable to Dr Tao who insisted on a full retraction.

After initial plagiarism checking and author affiliation checks the original paper was peer-reviewed by three independent, external peer-reviewers. The manuscript was then editorially reviewed after peer-review and again after the revised manuscript and covering letter in response to peer-reviewer and editorial criticisms was received. Both editorial reviews were undertaken by by Dr Faris Farassati, Interim Editor-in-Chief of the journal.

None of them raised any concerns about preliminary results in the paper[.]

Which is all well and good — and not really to the point, namely: What, exactly, does the retraction notice mean? Is it possible that the authors also themselves generated results they believed too preliminary to report, or did they simply cite other researchers’ results they believed were too preliminary to include? We asked Hill again, and got this reply:

We have been trying to contact Dr Tao for the past few days to clarify this matter, but to date we have not received a response.

My view is that the authors have used data in their paper that may not accord with what was eventually reported in other published clinical trials that they have cited.

If we can obtain a response from Dr Tao or his colleagues I will, of course, let you know.

Clarity, folks. Accept no substitutes.

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3 thoughts on “Beg pardon? Researchers pull cancer paper because, well, um, you see …”

  1. Option 1: We would like to retract this paper so we can publish it somewhere else with a higher IF.
    Option 2: We realise now that the results are so screwed up that this paper would be a permanent embarrassment to us if it remained on the record.

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