Retraction leads to review change at SAGE journal

A cancer journal has retracted a 2016 paper by a group in China after deciding – more than five years after publication – it couldn’t stand behind the work. 

The article, “The preoperative platelet–lymphocyte ratio versus neutrophil–lymphocyte ratio: which is better as a prognostic factor in oral squamous cell carcinoma?”, appeared in Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology, a SAGE title. The authors were led by Shan Chen, of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. 

The notice reads

The following article has been retracted at the request of the Editor and Publisher: Chen S, Guo J, Feng C, Ke Z, Chen L, Pan Y. The preoperative platelet–lymphocyte ratio versus neutrophil–lymphocyte ratio: which is better as a prognostic factor in oral squamous cell carcinoma? Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology. May 2016; 160-167 (doi:10.1177/1758834016638019).

The journal editor was notified about concerns regarding the validity and legitimacy of the article’s data and statistical methodology. The article was re-evaluated by a Senior Editor, two external biostatisticians, and one external head/neck medical oncologist who determined that the statistical analysis employed was fundamentally flawed. The authors did not supply the underlying raw data when requested.

As the conclusions of the article cannot be supported by the findings, the Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology editor has retracted the article.

In other words, post-publication reviewers were forced to clean up a mess made by (we assume) two or three pre-publication reviewers whose assessment of the article appears to have been at best cursory. 

Indeed, a spokesperson for SAGE told us that a post-mortem of the incident revealed that one of the reviewers had been recommended by the authors: 

The Therapeutic Advances series has since removed the recommended reviewer option.

The spokesperson added that SAGE doesn’t allow recommended reviewers for the “vast majority of our journals, including all proprietary SAGE journals.”

As to whether the case involved “fake” peer review – a phenomenon we’ve observed since 2011 – or simply biased review, the spokesperson was agnostic: 

I couldn’t say for sure one way or the other based on the info we have. But we do feel confident that removing the ‘Recommended Reviewer’ function across the board has significantly reduced the chance of biased or faked reviewer reports being submitted and taken into consideration during decision-making.

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