Zombie papers: Why do papers by the most prolific fraudster in history keep getting cited?

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It’s a bit like a slugger crediting Barry Bonds for help with his homerun swing. An anesthesiology journal has retracted a 2018 paper that cited three retracted papers by Yoshitaka Fujii, the record-holder for most retractions by a single author. 

As we’ve written before, journals had a spotty record in reacting to the Fujii scandal, which peaked in 2012. And the latest case involves a bit of that indifference — but other negligence, as well.

The article in question, “Priming with different doses of Metoclopramide preceded by tourniquet alleviates propofol induced pain: a comparative study with lidocaine,” appeared in 2018 in the Egyptian Journal of Anaesthesia (EJA). Three of the citations were of papers by Fujii, although the article had other failings, too.  

Those citations caught the attention of a reader, who wrote letter to the editor in 2019. The author duly noted that one of the Fujii references — which we’ll call zombie papers — had been retracted in 2013, while the other two had been retracted in 2018, but after the authors had submitted their manuscript to the EJA.

That point is more forgiving than it need be. Why? Because 2018 was six years after the Fujii scandal broke. The laggard journal, Clinical Therapeutics, was inexcusably late to the party, which it (sort of) acknowledged when it finally pulled 17 papers Fujii had published in its pages in 2018: 

The Publisher apologizes that the implementation of this retraction was delayed due to an administrative oversight.

In other words, everyone involved in the publication of the EJA paper — the authors, the reviewers and the editors — should have not only caught the already-retracted Fujii reference but also should have had serious concerns about the veracity of the two other articles from Clinical Therapeutics

Somehow, that didn’t happen. Which is why the retraction notice states: 

We, the Editors and Publisher of Egyptian Journal of Anaesthesia, have retracted the following article:

Tamer Fayez Safan, Ahmed Abdalla Mohamed & Ahmed Shaker Ragab (2018). Priming with different doses of metoclopramide preceded by tourniquet alleviates propofol induced pain: A comparative study with lidocaine, Egyptian Journal of Anaesthesia, 34:3, 107–111, DOI: 10.1016/j.egja.2018.04.002

The above article has been retracted due to genuine mistakes made in the treatment of the data and in citing retracted articles which call the reliability of the presented results and the conclusions based thereupon into question. The authors have been informed of this decision.

We have been informed in our decision-making by our policy on publishing ethics and integrity and the COPE guidelines on retractions.

The corresponding author did not respond to multiple requests for comment. We did hear from a representative from the publisher, who said a statement would be forthcoming but then did not provide one. 

As with many retraction notices, this one ends with the following line:  

The retracted article will remain online to maintain the scholarly record, but it will be digitally watermarked on each page as “Retracted”.

Given how well that worked in this case for the paper that was marked that way, color us unreassured. 

M.S. Raghuraman, who wrote the comment that appears to have triggered the retraction, told us that the retraction was “very painful” but that he was:

very much satisfied with the approach of the “Editorial Board” of EJA and greatly appreciate the Editor-in-Chief of EJA for sincerely investigating the points raised by me. Please note that the primary reason for the retraction of the article by Safan TF et al. is due to mistakes in the data reported. The citation of retracted articles of Fujii et al. is secondary only according to me. As I have mentioned in my comment, Safan TF et al cannot be held responsible for citing some of the articles of Fuji et al (Except one retracted in 2013) as they were not issued retraction notice at the time of publication of their article in June 2018 following acceptance on 26 April 2018.

We asked him what he thought about the fact that the Editors and reviewers had accepted this paper for publication despite the fact that Fujii’s misconduct was well known years earlier.

My answer is: “To err is human.” At least, we must be satisfied with the follow-up measures taken by the “Editorial Board” of EJA after publishing my comments. Indeed, I once again greatly appreciate the Editor-in-Chief of EJA for sincerely investigating the points raised by me and taking steps to maintain the “Ethics of publication”. While some Editors take a serious note about the flaws (misquoting of references, citation of retracted articles, lack of critical analysis of the references, lack of discussion of controversial points or missing of other important aspects of the topic, etc.) in published articles in their journals and address them by publishing comments from readers with reply from concerned authors, issuing errata, retraction if necessary, etc., some others just don’t care. … Hence, I feel that we should be happy that there are some Editors who care for maintaining the standards as well as ethics of publication either pre or post-publication or both.

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One thought on “Zombie papers: Why do papers by the most prolific fraudster in history keep getting cited?”

  1. “As with many retraction notices, this one ends with the following line:
    The retracted article will remain online to maintain the scholarly record, but it will be digitally watermarked on each page as “Retracted”.
    Given how well that worked in this case for the paper that was marked that way, color us unreassured. ”

    Actually, I think this is a very good idea that probably should be implemented worldwide. It would allow us to see what a retracted paper looks like as well as the procedure that was followed that allowed it to get into print in the first place. Too many of these on an editor’s record would be a polite form of public shaming.

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