The president of the Karolinska Institutet (KI) is frustrated.
At the beginning of the year, Ole Petter Ottersen informed a journal that one of its papers — co-authored by former superstar Paolo Macchiarini — had been tainted by misconduct. But the journal declined to retract it.
Despite the fact that KI had conducted its own investigation into the integrity of the paper, the journal Respiration argued that it was “not in a position to make a judgement on whether or not to retract this article.” Instead, it proposed publishing KI’s argument for why the paper should be retracted, along with a rebuttal from the authors.
To Ottersen, this is just wrong. Yesterday, he posted some of his correspondence with the journal, which includes his request for retraction, the journal’s response, and his rebuttal. Ottersen’s blog post concludes:
I am both surprised and disappointed with the journal’s response. This is an article based on unethical research that has caused unnecessary suffering for a severely injured patient. The paper has to be withdrawn.
As I see it, editors of medical journals have a collective responsibility for the integrity of the published record. When notified of ethical breaches they have an imperative to act, and when faced with a formal decision on scientific misconduct they should ensure that the paper be retracted or removed. Failure to respond will undermine trust in medical publishing and in medical research at large. In the case at hand the reader will not even find an expression of concern.
“We do not want to patronize the readers”
For years, KI has been investigating the impact of Macchiarini, who was dismissed from KI in 2016; investigations have concluded that he was guilty of misconduct in multiple papers. (Check out our timeline for more details.) Earlier this year, KI concluded that Macchiarini and three of his coauthors had committed misconduct in a 2015 paper in Respiration. But more than five months later, the paper has not been retracted, nor flagged with an expression of concern.
“Autologous Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells as Treatment in Refractory Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome” has been cited twice since it was published in 2015, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Journals are often criticized for taking too long to act on allegations about research — or failing to do so altogether. Sometimes, that’s because they’re waiting for institutions to complete their investigations. But that’s not the case here, as Ottersen notes in his blog:
Despite a number of notifications, the journal has failed to retract the article in question – an article that may negatively impact clinical practice and cause human suffering. This is why I now choose to publish parts of the dialogue that I have had with the Journal’s editor.
Ottersen told Retraction Watch the goal of publishing some of the correspondence was to put pressure on the journal editor to do the right thing:
I think retraction is justified and I am disappointed that the editors have chosen not to retract.
The correspondence dates from February 6 to April 4. In a February 6 email, a representative of the journal says it has been contacted by one of the authors, who asked them to delay the decision. (Macchiarini tells Retraction Watch he wasn’t that author.) She notes:
The Editors and the publishing house are both of the opinion that it is the journal’s duty to the scientific community to provide a platform for discussions and a forum for debating. Furthermore, the background of the conflict between the two parties should be transparent to the readers to enable them to form their own opinion.
Therefore, we would like to ask all parties concerned to write a ‘Letter to the Editor’ pertaining to this conflict for simultaneous publication.
Ottersen replied February 23:
We are not interested in engaging in a discussion about this matter.
We believe, that based on the evidence available to the journal, we are not in a position to make a judgement on whether or not to retract this article. We have, therefore, decided to leave it up to our readers to build their own opinion on the matter and decide for themselves with regard to the validity of the conclusions. We do not want to patronize the readers of the journal ‘Respiration’.
That’s not a solution, Ottersen told us:
Our stance on this paper is clear from our decision and report. When ethical standards have been violated it is incumbent on editors to act.
Macchiarini told Retraction Watch he is not the author who objected to the retraction:
I can’t judge Karolinska Institutet’s decision to publish the correspondence because I am not aware of all their correspondence-related facts and, as such, I can’t have an opinion. But it’s clear to the scientific community and others, that KI appears (once again) to have abandoned any attempts at compliance with the internationally accepted requirement for any accusations of misconduct to be investigated in a confidential manner, to ensure fairness to all parties.
We’ve contacted Herth and Nold for more information about why the journal didn’t want to retract the paper, and will update if we hear back. The journal hasn’t retracted a paper in more than a decade.
Last month, Ottersen posted a blog about a researcher who published papers using a fake name and affiliation — KI. Multiple papers are slated for retraction.
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