Karolinska told a journal to retract a paper by Macchiarini. It refused. The story didn’t end there.

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 The paper has to be withdrawn.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 But more than five months later, the paper has not been retracted, nor flagged with an expression of concern.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.

On March 10, editor Felix Herth and Karger representative Thomas Nold wrote:

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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5 thoughts on “Karolinska told a journal to retract a paper by Macchiarini. It refused. The story didn’t end there.”

  1. After looking at the correspondence, I have some sympathy for the journal and little, if any, for Ottersen. Whether to retract is simply not KI’s decision. They can (and should) advise the editors as to what evidence they’ve uncovered, and the editors should take this into account, but KI is not in charge of the process or the final decision. Sending condescending letters announcing that the rector has reached a final decision that the paper must be retracted and that you therefore refuse to engage in discussion is not a good way to engage constructively with the journal. From the outside, it looks like Ottersen tried to bully the journal into rubber stamping the KI investigation, and flipped out when they refused.

    1. Haven’t read the correspondance but most of the public “Macchiarini reports” – is it really your stance that several official investigations condemning the publication record in question as unethical, leaving at least one author fired from a position within both university and hospital, don’t merit a retraction?

    2. Respiration requested ICJME include the journal on their list of those accepting ICJME recommendations: http://www.icmje.org/journals-following-the-icmje-recommendations/#R

      ICJME recommendations on Scientific Misconduct, Expressions of Concern, and Retraction:

      Respiration is free not to accept ICJME recommendations but the journal should not be on the list under pretense.

  2. I totally disagree with Anonymous. Journals should fully respect the decision of an independent investigation. The publisher Karger appears arrogant, especially due to all we know regarding Macchirini. There is no trust left in the research performed by Paolo Macchiarini, and I really hope that more publishers will act responsibly and retract his articles containing invalid science.

    One of the biggest challenges in science is that too few articles are actually retracted. We are drowning in junk science and I am deeply concerned about the credibility of science and how the society perceives it. The Macchiarini pharse is a good example of how bad it is.

  3. Let’s cut to the chase. Can we independent researchers have access to the original data of the published research at issue? If so, we can verify if the paper’s claims are credible. If not, the paper should be summarily rejected as prima facie bogus.

    A lot of these retraction issues will disappear if anonymized data access transparency were adopted by medical and other discipline journals.

    Indeed, medical and other discipline journals could accelerate needed reform by placing priority on publishing critical reports of independent researchers who have been able to access and verify (or not) the claims of the research findings published by others.

    I fear this is much too rational and on target to happen. There is too much money (literally billions of dollars per year) at stake for publishers to allow reforms that allow questioning of the published claims of researchers.

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