Bartleby the author: Did you know you could abstain from a retraction notice?

The Journal of Clinical Investigation has retracted a 2011 paper involving researchers at the National Institutes of Health after the NIH concluded that some of the data were wonky.

But the retraction notice reads like a Congressional roll call, with ayes, nays and even — in something we don’t believe we’ve seen before  — an abstention.

The article, “An N-terminal truncated carboxypeptidase E splice isoform induces tumor growth and is a biomarker for predicting future metastasis in human cancers,” came from a group led by Yoke Peng Loh, a senior investigator in the section on cellular neurobiology in the NIH’s Division of Intramural Research. Loh was joined on the paper — which has been cited 45 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — by 13 other authors from NIH and institutions in the United States and abroad.

Support for the research came from NIH, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the University of Hong Kong. According to the retraction notice, NIH investigators found a problem with a particular table in the article:

The Editorial Board has recently been informed that the NIH examined the primary data from pheochromocytoma patients used to construct Table 4. Evidence shows that the data on the pheochromocytoma patients in Table 4 are not reliable. Due to this finding, the JCI is retracting this article.

What came next seemed curious. We’ve seen authors agree with retractions, disagree with them, or not respond to communications about them. But an abstention?

Niamh X. Cawley, Stephen M. Hewitt, Hong Lou, Thanh Huynh, and Karel Pacak have agreed with the Journal’s decision to retract the paper. Terence K. Lee, Saravana R.K. Murthy, Savita Dhanvantari, Tracy Lau, Stephanie Ma, and Irene O. Ng dissent from the retraction. Ronnie T. Poon and Robert A. Wesley could not be reached, and Y. Peng Loh abstained from commenting.

We asked Loh about her abstention — which, we hope, doesn’t set a precedent for researchers who’d rather not see their work retracted. She hasn’t responded, nor has the editor of the JCI, whom we asked to comment on the unusual notice.

Update, 2100 UTC, 4/3/19: Co-author Cawley tells us:

I agreed fully with the NIH assessment of the original data from the paper. I cannot speculate as to why others may have a different opinion.

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6 thoughts on “Bartleby the author: Did you know you could abstain from a retraction notice?”

  1. The senior author couldn’t commit to agreeing or objecting after a lengthy NIH investigation? That’s called abstaining from leadership .

  2. I don’t see the point in telling the readers whom among the authors agrees, disagrees or doesn’t know what to think of the retraction. If the editors find retraction necessary, the author’s opinions should not count.
    Many times we can see that those responsible for wrongdoing in particular disagree with retraction of their forged work. What is the benefit for anyone to know that cheaters are unhappy with retraction of their work?

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