“Permeable to bad science:” Journal retracts paper hailed by proponents of homeopathy

Poison oak

Eight months after publishing a paper claiming that homeopathy can treat pain in rats, a Springer Nature journal is retracting the work.

The move follows swift criticism of the paper in Scientific Reports, which was written by researchers from India and the United Arab Emirates about the use of Toxicodendron pubescens, “popularly known as Rhus Tox (RT),” which “is recommended in alternative medicines as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic remedy.” The species is also commonly known as poison oak.

Here’s the retraction notice:

Following publication, the journal received criticisms regarding the rationale of this study and the plausibility of its central conclusions. Expert advice was obtained, and the following issues were determined to undermine confidence in the reliability of the study.

The in vitro model does not support the main conclusion of the paper that Rhus Tox reduces pain. The qualitative and quantitative composition of the Rhus Tox extract is unknown. Figures 1G and 1H are duplicates; and figures 1I and 1J are duplicates. The majority of experimental points reported in figure 3 panel A are duplicated in figure 3 panel B. The collection, description, analysis and presentation of the behavioural data in Figure 3 is inadequate and cannot be relied upon.

As a result the editors are retracting the Article. The authors do not agree with the retraction.

The three corresponding authors have not responded to a request for comment from Retraction Watch about why they objected to the retraction. [See update at end of post.]

‘Permeable to bad science’

The original paper — which proponents of homeopathy claimed as evidence that their method works — was published on September 10, 2018, and earned an editor’s note on October 1:

Readers are alerted that the conclusions of this paper are subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.

As Nature reported on October 9,

On social media and in the press, scientists in Italy have voiced concerns about the study, including that only eight animals were used, that the experimental design was not blinded (a process designed to stop researchers’ expectations from affecting the interpretation of the results) and that pain was measured indirectly by observing the withdrawal of the animals’ paws in response to heat or cold meaning that the results cannot yet be generalized to people.

Enrico Bucci, one of the people who criticized the study, first learned of it in a cartoon in La Repubblica. Bucci, the co-founder of Resis Integrity Solutions in Turin, Italy, “dedicated to commercializing tools and services for the improvement of data-research integrity in scientific publishing,” posted an analysis on October 3, pointing out incorrect labeling, apparent duplication of panels, and other issues.

In October, one of the paper’s corresponding authors, Chandragouda Patil, told Nature that “his team had made some unintentional mistakes while preparing the manuscript, resulting in the duplicated images and the repeated data,” and chalked the discrepancies up to typos. He said the team would request a correction.

Bucci flagged two other other papers by Patil, one in the journal Homeopathy, and one also in Scientific Reports. A spokesperson for the latter journal told Retraction Watch:

Our investigation into this paper is still ongoing. Once this has been completed, we will take action where appropriate.

We asked Bucci what he thought of the process:

Overall, I think the process was fair and quick enough (less than 1 year) – although one would always prefer to have [papers] retracted in an even shorter time.

As Bucci put it in his October 3, 2018 post:

Ultimately, this work proves only one thing: that even qualified [journals], from time to time, are permeable to bad science.

Update, 10:25 UTC, June 11, 2019: Chandragouda Patil, one of the corresponding authors of the paper, responded with this comment:

1. Our study drug, Toxicodendron pubescens (Rhus Tox) and its dilutions that we investigated exert reproducible biological activity in experimental animal models. We have been publishing the data on the efficacy of this drug and its ultra-dilutions for almost a decade. The links to these articles are:

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26827997

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22818234

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21784329

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19358961

Other reports from independent researchers on our study drug:

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17437936

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22500721

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26827996

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24050770

2. Regarding the article published in Scientific Reports, we submitted the unprocessed data related to the experimental results and informed the Editor that the biological efficacy of this study drug is well reproducible in our repeated study and we are open to investigate this in another experimental models by our-self or by any other researchers. We also executed a separate study using Rhus Tox and shared the link to this new data with evidences to the editor. We can share this link with others who so-over have interest. 

3. We did not agree with retraction. We accept that the unintentional errors were there in presenting the data, a big carelessness in presentation and apologize to the scientific fraternity for this lousiness. But, we noticed that this typographical and unintentional error was well used by bloggers and anti-homeopath lobby to develop pressure on the editors/editorial board and journal to retract and did not consider our rights to publish a corrigendum, which could have sufficiently corrected this article. We do mention that there is no question of integrity in conduct of the study and it should not have been retracted. From our side, we have requested the Director General of Central Council for Research in Homeopathy (CCRH), Government of India to help us in testing the reproducibility of our results. The CCRH has arranged to repeat this study at an independent research laboratory in a blinded manner. These details have been communicated to the Editor of Scientific Reports from time to time. Now, repeating a research study sure takes longer time than blogging or retracting an article. Hence, we must be given time to repeat the study at an independent center by blinded researchers. If the data is reproducible, the journal must keep the article for wider circulation and if the results are not reproducible, the journal can retract the manuscript.

4. When this clear stand has been communicated to the editor, we wonder why we have not been given opportunity to correct the typos/errors by submitting a corrigendum. We also believe that few months’ time till the proposed repetition of study could justify our stand. We do feel that the  bloggers and critics prejudiced about homeopathy have created an undue pressure on the publisher/editor to retract the article. We can see much scientific deliberations on practice of homeopathy by scientifically untrained people. We do feel that our selection of a study drug from homeopathic medicines and overt criticism against homeopathy might has influenced the editorial board to retract.

For all above reasons, we disagree with the decision of retraction. We are sure that the scientific facts will prevail rather than biased decisions taken under peer pressure. 

Update, 2000 UTC, 6/16/19: Bucci sent a response to Patil’s comments, available here. Highlights:

We can thus safely conclude that only one of the four studies authored by Patil et al. could in principle be used to support their claim on the efficacy of the homeopathic treatment with Rhus toxicodendron, the other being unrelated. Disappointingly, this study is flawed, containing multiple duplications in the single experimental image, which should show the actual effects of the treatment.

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3 thoughts on ““Permeable to bad science:” Journal retracts paper hailed by proponents of homeopathy”

  1. Seriously… people who study homeopathy should publish in a homeopathy based journal if they wish to avoid these kind of problems.

    I really wish to see replication of this study… just for kicks!

  2. The rats have lodged a formal protest. It was supported by the mice, who actually commissioned the study. That occurred about the same time the mice commissioned the construction of the Earth, in order to find the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything.

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