Leading anesthesiologist retracts paper after reader “noticed that the statistical approach was sub-optimal”

An anesthesia journal has retracted a 2020 paper by a group from China, Turkey and the United States after a post-publication review discovered issues with the analysis. 

According to the notice, in the European Journal of Anaesthesiology:  

Following a statistical review, the Publish Ahead of Print version of the article, ‘Acute pain after serratus anterior plane or thoracic paravertebral blocks for video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery: A randomised trial’, was found to contain statistical and methodological flaws.

This article is now retracted.

The first author of the paper is Yuwei Qiu, of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The last author is Daniel Sessler, of Cleveland Clinic, and one of the more prolific authors in anesthesiology or any other field, for that matter. 

Sessler, who was Qiu’s supervisor for a research fellowship at Cleveland Clinic, told us that the paper marks the first retraction for him out of more than 800 published articles:

Fortunately, the explanation is benign. The original analysis was done by a professional statistician at the Shanghai Chest Hospital where the trial was done. After the ePub was released, an alert reader noticed that the statistical approach was sub-optimal. We agree with that assessment, and thus retracted the paper while my team in Cleveland re-does the analysis. Re-analysis will not substantively change the paper’s results or conclusions, but is the right thing to do, and will assure that the print version of the paper will be exactly correct. I thus consider this retraction to be “technical,” rather than indicating any serious problem with the research. There were no “methodology flaws,” and that isn’t language I wrote or approved. 

Sessler added that: 

The EJA editor suggested that we retract the ePub while we redo the statistics, and I agreed. I’m not aware of any problems with conduct of the trial, although I suppose “methodology” technically includes statistical analysis.

He also added that he has “complete confidence” in Qiu, who “did an outstanding job” during her fellowship at his institution: 

I’ve collaborated with this group on several trials, but none published so far. For example, they are a major site for my PROTECT trial (n=5,000) that is still in progress. [That study is looking at whether aggressive warming of patients during non-cardiac surgery can reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications, such as heart attacks and strokes, after the procedure.] I’ve visited the site twice.

The journal’s interaction with the authors appears somewhat scrambled. 

Martin Tramèr, the editor of the EJA, told us that Sessler and his colleagues have been

completely silent on this issue. We have not heard from him at all during this process, nor have we received any information from him via the corresponding author or one of the other co-authors.

Until Dan Sessler or one of the authors contacts us directly, we are not going to take any action. 

That puzzled Sessler, who forwarded us a June 26 email from Qiu stating that she had tried twice to notify the journal about the retraction: 

Is there anything wrong with the editor[ial] office system? We feel so confused. We all want to make it finished …

Sessler too said he had emailed Tramèr

when I first heard about the issue and told him that we’d redo the analysis. I’ll write to him again.

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