“Yep, pretty slow”: Nutrition researchers lose six papers

Zatollah Asemi

Six months after we reported that journals had slapped expressions of concern on more than three dozen papers by a group of nutrition researchers in Iran, the retractions have started to trickle in. 

But clock started nearly two years ago, after data sleuths presented journals with questions about the findings in roughly 170 papers by the authors. So far we’ve seen only six retractions, from two journals, of the suspect papers. As one of the sleuths said, “yep, pretty slow.”

Central to the case is Zatollah Asemi, of the Department of Nutrition at Kashan University of Medical Sciences. As we wrote last November: 

Concerns about the findings from Asemi’s shop have been circulating for several years. The group came under scrutiny on PubPeer three years ago, when a commenter noticed apparent irregularities in the data in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology. That paper has yet to be flagged in any way.

But what should have been the biggest blow was struck in July 2019, when the data sleuths notified journals that they’d discovered suspicious findings in 172 papers on clinical trials from the Iranian researchers. Last June, the sleuths, working with Alison Avenell, of the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland — who helped illuminate the bogus data from the prolific fraudster Yoshihiro Sato, who sits at No. 3 on the Retraction Watch leaderboard, with 96 —  published a report in Anaesthesia which mentions their deep dive into the Irani group’s results, which appeared between 2012 and 2018 in 65 journals belonging to 20 publishers. 

According to the sleuths, the litany of issues with Asemi et al’s articles includes “Evidence that random allocation of participants could not have produced the treatment groups reported in this large body of trials,” “Evidence that the distribution of numbers of participants withdrawing from the trials is implausible,” and “Astonishingly and implausibly prolific research activity,” among other problems.

Of the six retractions (that we’ve seen to date), four appear in the Journal of Nutrition

The notice for all four reads: 

The Editor-in-Chief is retracting this article due to concerns about the validity of participant data in the study.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has pulled two of Asemi’s articles: “Effects of vitamin D supplementation on glucose metabolism, lipid concentrations, inflammation, and oxidative stress in gestational diabetes: a double-blind randomized controlled clinical trial,” and “Magnesium supplementation affects metabolic status and pregnancy outcomes in gestational diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.”

These carry the same notice as the other retractions:

The Editor-in-Chief is retracting this article due to concerns about the validity of participant data in the study.

Asemi’s group also has received yet another expression of concern, for a 2017 paper in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine titled “The effects of vitamin E supplementation on endometrial thickness, and gene expression of vascular endothelial growth factor and inflammatory cytokines among women with implantation failure.” 

According to the notice, which, to the journal’s discredit, is behind a paywall: 

Since publication of this article, serious concerns have been raised about the integrity of the reported methods, results and analysis. We have contacted the authors and the ethics committee of the institution to respond to the concerns raised and they are cooperating with the investigation. However, the authors have not been able to provide the original data associated with this article, and so as we continue to work through the issues raised, we advise readers to interpret the information presented in the article with due caution. We will provide an update following the conclusion of our investigation. The authors have been notified about this Expression of Concern.

Asemi has not responded to our request for comment. Andrew Grey, one of the sleuths who has been pursuing the case, told us: 

First retractions at about 22 months after concerns were raised – that is about the median time from raising concerns to correction for the Sato/Iwamoto papers. So yep, pretty slow.

We raised concerns about 172 papers. Only 24 EoCs to date, 6 of which have been followed by retraction (there are the Springer Nature journals’ “editor’s notes” which aren’t visible in any bibliographic database, so don’t serve any useful purpose).

6 months after receiving  clearly flawed raw data for its 3 Asemi group papers, J Am Coll Nutr has not acted beyond EoC.

The processes to date have included inconsistencies in responses to correspondence from those raising concerns, inconsistencies and tardiness in notifying readers (some editors notes, some EoCs, a few retractions, most no notification), editors taking umbrage with academics raising concerns about integrity of publications in their journals, secretive investigations and assessments, institutional conflicts of interest, conflation of researcher behaviour [‘misconduct’] with publication integrity, failure of clinical trial registry oversight, and opaque retraction notices. In other words, business as usual in the wacky world of publication integrity.

The Asemi group has published a large number of other papers, including lots of meta-analyses. All should be scrutinized, as should publications by his frequent co-authors.

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