Authors yank ketamine study, hoping it will go away without attention, and journal obliges

The authors of a paper on the antidepressant effects of ketamine have retracted their article for a lack of reproducibility — but readers have no way of knowing that because the journal declined to say as much in the retraction notice.

If that sounds like a tale from the pages of the Journal of Neuroscience, that’s because it is. We’ve taken the journal to task over the years for its pitiful retraction notices, which seem to take the default position of saying absolutely nothing — even in cases where readers have good cause to be skeptical of the findings. 

This time, however, the top editor told us that the notice should have said more but it “slipped through the cracks.”

As we have reported, the journal has a policy of allowing author-initiated retractions for pretty much any reason short of suspected misconduct (literally: “unless it is under review for a possible violation of SfN’s Guidelines for Responsible Conduct Regarding Scientific Communication”). That’s a slight improvement from its previous policy of allowing author-initiated retractions for any reason and which then-editor John Maunsell explained to us, rather unsatisfyingly in a 2011 interview

The Journal will retract an article at the authors’ request at any time without requiring explanation. At the authors’ option, the retraction notice may simply state that the article has been retracted at the authors’ request. Alternatively, the authors may provide a brief explanation of the error(s) prompting the retraction. However, statements of retraction may not assign blame to specific authors or laboratories.

However, allowing researchers to say “nothing to see here” is a surefire way to quash publicity of many misconduct inquiries before they start.  

And the policy is, well, gappy to say the least. We’ve recorded 18 retractions in the journal since December 2012, not including the most recent paper. At least three of those involved actions by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. For all three of those articles — this one, this one and this one — the retraction notices say … nothing.

The latest retraction is of an article titled “The Sustained Antidepressant Effects of Ketamine Are Independent of the Lateral Habenula,” which was written by a group of anesthesiologists at The First Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing Medical University and Zhejiang University School of Medicine, in China.

According to the notice — which appears in the same issue in which the article appeared in print: 

At the request of the authors, The Journal of Neuroscience is retracting “The Sustained Antidepressant Effects of Ketamine are Independent of the Lateral Habenula,” by Xuelong Zhou, Chenjing Zhang, Jiamin Miao, Ziyang Chen, Hongquan Dong, and Cunming Liu, which appears on pages 4131–4140 of this issue.

Marina Picciotto, the editor-in-chief of the journal, told us that the paper had initially appeared online — where, we’ll note, the article still costs $35 to access and does not yet say it has been retracted: 

The corresponding author contacted us after the article had been posted online and said that he could not reproduce a key finding and asked to retract. In cases of that kind, we honor the authors’ request. Unfortunately, the article had to be assigned to an issue before it could be retracted. 

Fair enough, we asked Picciotto, but why not state that the authors couldn’t reproduce their work? Wouldn’t that be useful information for other researchers if the authors were to publish a similar paper in a different journal? 

To her credit, Picciotto said, the fault here was hers: 

I have to own this one – I thought we were going to include this information and did not follow through. Given the unprecedented nature of the publication and immediate retraction, this slipped through the cracks as we were working through the process. 

Xuelong Zhou, one of two corresponding authors on the paper, told us that:

One result of the paper was uncertain due to a misuse of an experimental reagent, therefore, we ask the journal to withdraw our paper. Because the paper was already accepted, the retraction was therefore came in the same issue as the publication of the article itself. 

Zhou also said he hoped that we would not write about the retraction, and that he hoped we can understand.

Not really. What we understand is that such requests for silence about public retractions are precisely why journals should be less concerned about protecting authors from scrutiny and more dedicated to transparency in the interest of their readers.

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2 thoughts on “Authors yank ketamine study, hoping it will go away without attention, and journal obliges”

  1. “However, allowing researchers to say “nothing to see here” is a surefire way to quash publicity of many misconduct inquiries before they start. ” More like another iteration of the Streisand effect. To me at least, any “Retraction” suggests misconduct, unless there is clear exculpatory information as part of the retraction notice. The policy of allowing authors to pull a paper without explanation is certainly odd, but in the end, it’s really in the authors’ best interest to document where things went wrong.

  2. “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” ― Oscar Wilde.

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