“Highly unusual and unfortunate error” delays retraction two years in high-profile Duke case

As we’ve noted before, “the wheels of scientific publishing turn slowly … but they do (sometimes) turn.” 

More than six years after the first retraction for Erin Potts-Kant, who was part of a group at Duke whose work would unravel amid misconduct allegations and lead to a $112.5 million settlement earlier this year with the U.S. government — and two years after a journal says it first became aware of the issues — a retraction by the group has appeared in Pediatric Research, a Springer Nature title.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Intra-amniotic LPS amplifies hyperoxia-induced airway hyperreactivity in neonatal rats”:

The authors have retracted this article because they have discovered that the FlexiVent data (pulmonary mechanics) reported in Fig. 2 are not reliable. This has been confirmed by an investigation by the Duke University Office of Scientific Integrity. As the FlexiVent data reported in Fig. 2 represent the main finding of the article, the authors concluded that it is appropriate to retract this article. Authors Chang Won Choi, Beyong Il Kim, Mulugu V. Brahmajothi, and Richard L. Auten agree with this retraction. Stanley N. Mason and Erin N. Potts-Kant could not be reached for comment. The authors regret any inconvenience caused to the journal and the research community.

The retraction is the 18th for Potts-Kant.

“Rare human error”

Springer Nature is hardly alone in such delays. We’ve reported on similar cases from PLOS, Elsevier, and … Elsevier.

So what took so long in this case? A Springer Nature spokesperson told Retraction Watch that the delay was due to 

a rare human error of the retraction process not being completed as it should have been.

In a statement, the spokesperson said:

We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously. These issues are often complex and as a result, it can take time for editors and authors to fully unravel them.

When the journal editorial office first became aware of the issue in November 2017, the case was investigated as per our established processes and in line with COPE guidelines. Unfortunately, due to staff transitions and a highly unusual and unfortunate error, the matter was not fully resolved at that time. Once we became aware of the issue again in March 2019, we followed our usual processes to resolve this case, in consultation with the authors, and the paper was retracted on 3 September 2019.

We regret this delay and we at Springer Nature have since taken steps to further improve our research integrity processes, including streamlining our reporting procedures, to prevent situations like this from happening again in the future.

March 2019 was, of course, when Duke settled the case for $112.5 million

Of note: The paper has been cited 13 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — including once in November 2017, and once this past March. Those last two citations were both in journals published by BioMedCentral, which Springer Nature owns.

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