The waiting game: A university requests a retraction. Then it waits three years.

On June 25, 2015, following an investigation into the work of a then-graduate student at University College Cork in Ireland, the senior author of a 2014 paper in PLOS ONE requested its retraction. The paper, said senior author Zubair Kabir in an email to Iratxe Puebla, the journal’s managing editor, was “fundamentally flawed.”

Puebla responded on July 1, saying she would contact the graduate student — Olurotimi Bankole Ajagbe, corresponding author of the paper — and get back to Kabir. A few more emails, including one on Aug. 26, 2015, in which Ajagbe also requested the retraction, resulted. On August 31, Puebla wrote to Ivan Perry, head of Cork’s department of public health, where Ajagbe had been working on his PhD, to say she would discuss the case with colleagues and follow up.

And then Cork waited.

And waited.

And waited three years for the journal to act. We know this because we obtained the email exchange through a public records request. You can read it all here. And in the time between August 2015 and the eventual retraction of the paper in September 2018, it was cited four times by other papers, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

It’s a tale of a tale of delayed gratification, with perhaps a little nudging and frustration along the way.

Kabir wrote Puebla a polite follow-up note on Feb. 12, 2016. “As a matter of urgency, we would greatly appreciate if the paper in question is retracted at the earliest opportunity,” he said. On March 21, 2017, he wrote another note. “Greetings from Ireland! I hope you are keeping well,” he began. This time, he said it was “a matter of serious serious urgency from the ‘Research Integrity’ perspective at our university.”

A similar note from Kabir followed on June 6, 2018. That note was also sent to Declan Whelan-Curtin, who on June 7 responded to Kabir, Puebla and others to introduce himself as the School Manager of Cork’s School of Public Health. “The below email thread gives details on an issue which has been ongoing since August 2015 without resolve and with little communication from Plos One,” Whelan-Curtin wrote.

Puebla responded to Kabir’s June 6 email on June 8, apologizing for the delay but not providing any reason for it, and saying that the journal would indeed be moving forward with a retraction. The next day, Puebla followed up with a draft retraction notice for Kabir’s review. “I would be grateful if you could get back me by the next June 14 with any comments,” she wrote.

Kabir circulated the notice, which was approved. “This is great. I am relieved and delighted!” wrote Perry on June 11. The wait, however, was not yet over.

The retraction for “Survival Analysis of Adult Tuberculosis Disease” appeared three months later, on Sept. 20, 2018:

Following publication of this article, concerns were raised about the survival analysis: there are inaccuracies in the number of bacteriologically confirmed tuberculosis patients, patients assessed multiple times were overrepresented in the dataset, and the statistical analysis to handle risk factors with more than two categories is incorrect. In addition, there are concerns that the corresponding author completed the submission of the manuscript without approval by the listed co-authors.

The University College Cork has completed an investigation and confirmed the concerns raised.

In light of the concerns about the methodology and conclusions reported in the article and in line with the recommendation by the University College Cork, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this publication.

Zubair Kabair agreed with the retraction. Olurotimi Bankole Ajagbe and Terry O’Connor did not respond to the notification for retraction.

We asked PLOS ONE to explain the delay, which we’ve seen before at the journal:

The University College Cork notified PLOS ONE of concerns about this article in 2015. There was a delay internally following up on those concerns owing to issues tracking the case, which we sincerely regret. We pursued follow up on the case this year which led to the publication of the retraction last September. We have since strengthened our reporting mechanisms and our oversight for ongoing publication ethics cases and are confident that these measures will prevent this type of delay arising in the future.

In February of this year, PLOS ONE announced that it had created an in-house publication ethics team, joining a number of other journals making similar moves.

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