Race to be first to report first case of COVID-19 death during pregnancy leads to a retraction

A group of researchers in Iran has retracted their case report on what they claimed was the first known case of a pregnant woman who died of Covid-19. 

The reason: According to the corresponding author, another group of researchers in Iran, who had first seen the patient at their hospital, had beaten them to the submission punch without their knowledge. (This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a case like this.)

The paper appeared in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, an Elsevier title, on April 11. Sometime in early May, it seems (the dates are unclear on the journal website) the group, led by a team at Zanjan University of Medical Sciences, retracted the article. 

Elsevier allows authors to withdraw papers without explanation if they have appeared online but not yet in print, which is the case here. So the retraction notice says, well, nothing: 

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s). The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause.

Patricia Schlagenhauf, the editor in chief of the journal, told us: 

The paper was “withdrawn” not “retracted”. This was requested by the authors as apparently another group at the same hospital independently also submitted the case for publication to another journal.

Although the difference between withdrawn and retracted might be obvious to Elsevier, it’s far from clear to anyone else. So here’s a modest suggestion for the publisher and its journals: If they insist on the semantics of the matter, give readers information about the removal in the notice to eliminate any suspicions about the reason.

Amir Hossein Norooznezhad, the corresponding author of the paper and the Head of International Affairs at the Medical Biology Research Center of Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences, told us: 

had no problem at all from any aspect and was an accidental issue. As we have mentioned in the article, the patient was referred from a maternal hospital which she was there for her first 24 hour of admission (the hospitalized period in our center was 3 days until she passed away). We have used approval from Medical Ethics Committee of Zanjan University of Medical Sciences. After a while, we have been informed that another team from the first maternal hospital have presented the case in a case series with an another ethical approval code from Tehran University of Medical Sciences (none of the authors were aware of other manuscript). 

Norooznezhad said he and his colleagues submitted their manuscript on March 31. Unknown to them, the other group had already submitted a write-up of their case series to the New England Journal of Medicine, which rejected the paper. They then turned to the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, which said yes [this appears to be the paper]: 

Norooznezhad said: 

In order to respect their efforts and also professionalism rules as well as [the validity of statistics] in pregnant mortality in COVID-19 patients we have requested withdrawal. However, our data was more complete with treatments, imaging findings, and histopathological results. Altogether, there was nothing wrong with the article at all and we are proud to respect the ethics of publication especially when it’s an important issue.

Meanwhile, the paper has been mentioned nearly 3,000 times on Twitter, compared to just 140-odd times for the paper that was submitted first.

Hat tip: Amélie Daoust-Boisvert

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6 thoughts on “Race to be first to report first case of COVID-19 death during pregnancy leads to a retraction”

  1. From the information in this post it appears there was no “race to be first”, since the authors of each paper were unaware of submission of each other’s manuscript. Perhaps the title of this post should be edited to remove the implication that retraction was the result of (and somehow a punishment for) competition between the two groups. People can be quick to criticize authors for resorting to questionable publication strategies, but in this case it appears nobody did anything inappropriate. The authors who requested withdrawal showed good faith and respect for the journal publication process.

  2. This is kind of a ghoulish blog title (and language within the blog, if I’m being honest) to talk about two papers that are essentially about a series of pregnant women and their babies dying of COVID-19. Could we not talk about it as a “race” and getting “beaten to the submission punch”?

  3. Thank you for your comments. We always welcome constructive criticism; it helps us to improve our coverage.

    Although the authors of the various papers may or may not have been racing against each other (with knowledge), the corresponding author of the retracted article told us: “the only race here was to publish it faster before anyone from other country/city publish such a case.” So, we feel that “race” is an appropriate word to use in this situation.

    1. Dear Adam
      You have mentioned that “So, we feel that “race” is an appropriate word to use in this situation.” in a comment. If you use any of my emails please please use it fully and also consider the time. The “Race” I have used was after that you chose this title. Here is my email to you which was sent after publishing this post:
      “Dear Adam

      I have read your post in the blog. It was very interesting, however, as I told you before none of the authors in each study was aware of the other manuscript. Thus, it was not a race. This is the reason why I explained about the differences between Medical Ethics Committees. If they have used local Ethical Center, both groups might be aware of each other’s manuscript and it would be possible to decide about this issue before submission. The only race here was to publish it faster before anyone from other country/city publish such a case. Again, I would like to thank you for doing what Elsevier refused to do: state our explanation.”

    2. Thanks for the additional context.
      I guess a racy title (apologies for the pun) attracts more clicks than a title that could have taken this opportunity to put the emphasis on the corresponding author’s decision to do the right thing.
      “…retracted article…”. Er, it’s withdrawn, not retracted. Yes Elsevier is using their own terminology, and yes it is potentially confusing. But why insist on associating the “retraction” label with this particular corresponding author? His behavior, based on the info provided in the initial post, was ultimately praiseworthy.
      C’mon, RW. You know you’re better than that.

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