Dear editor: Your retraction notice stinks

When you think a retraction notice doesn’t tell the whole story, what should you do?

For one group of researchers who’ve been closely following how journals handle the work associated with a bone researcher found guilty of misconduct, the actions of one publication were too problematic to let go.

So the researchers wrote to the journal about their concerns, stating a recent retraction notice for a meta-analysis “oversimplifies a complex situation and might be misinterpreted by readers.” And the journal recently published their concerns in a letter to the editor.

The retracted paper is co-authored by researchers who used to collaborate with Yoshihiro Sato, a now-deceased bone researcher who has accrued dozens of retractions. The retraction, issued earlier this year by Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, notes that the meta-analysis cited research by Sato that was “extensively duplicated,” and includes a statement from the first author of the retracted paper, Jun Iwamoto, stating that he was an “honorary author of Sato’s papers,” and played no role in Sato’s scientific misconduct.

That’s not good enough, according to Andrew Grey of the University of Auckland, who co-authored the recent letter in Acta Neurologica Scandinavica. Grey tells Retraction Watch the letter was prompted by:

Frustration at the inaccurate content of the notice, both in regard to the reasons for retraction of the publications of the trials that were included in the meta-analysis and the assertion that the late Dr Sato was solely responsible for scientific misconduct.

This isn’t the first time Grey and his team have had encounters with journals over their handling of research associated with Sato. In a recently published paper, Grey and his team reported that after they contacted a dozen journals that had published nearly two dozen clinical trials co-authored by Sato that had been flagged as potentially problematic, they didn’t receive a single useful response. (You can read more about our thoughts on how journals shy away from discussing misconduct here.)

Regarding the Acta Neurologica Scandinavica notice, Grey adds:

[The retraction notice] is inaccurate in that the reasons for retraction of the reports of the trials that were included in the meta-analysis were much more wide-ranging than duplication of previously published material.

We also thought it unusual that the retraction notice included a statement from the lead author of the meta-analysis, who was a co-author on each of the retracted trial reports. It seemed to us disingenuous that Dr Iwamoto should state that Dr Sato was solely responsible for the misconduct in the retracted trial reports, while also admitting that he (Dr Iwamoto) did not contribute to Dr Sato’s studies and was only an honorary author.

Specifically, as Grey and his colleagues note in their letter, Wiley (the publisher) and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have guidelines about who deserves to be listed as an author on a paper; as a result, they write:

Dr Iwamoto acknowledges authorship misconduct by stating that he “did not actually participate in Dr Sato’s studies” and was an “honorary author of Dr Sato’s papers.”

Grey says he is pleased Acta Neurologica Scandinavica published their letter:

It would be great if the journal also corrected the notice, but we think that is extremely unlikely to happen.

We haven’t seen many letters to the editor critiquing a retraction notice; we contacted the journal and a representative of the publisher, and will update the post if they provide a response about why they chose to handle the dispute this way, and whether they plan to amend the retraction notice.

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