An Elsevier journal said it would retract 10 papers two years ago. It still hasn’t.

Andrew Grey

An Elsevier journal has sat for two years on its decision to retract 10 papers by researchers with known misconduct issues, according to emails seen by Retraction Watch. 

The Journal of the Neurological Sciences had decided by June 2020 to retract the articles by Yoshihiro Sato and Jun Iwamoto, who are currently in positions four and six on our leaderboard of retractions, according to the emails. But the papers still haven’t been retracted, to the disappointment of one of the data sleuths who raised concerns about the work – and in the meantime have been cited more than a dozen times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. 

As Andrew Grey, of the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, wrote to a staffer at the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) who became involved in the case: 

This delay is very clearly not in the best interests of publication integrity.

Grey and his colleagues Alison Avenell and Mark Bolland have scrutinized Sato and Iwamoto’s work and notified journals of issues, leading to over 100 retractions, as readers may know

The group contacted the Journal of the Neurological Sciences in 2017 about two clinical trials from Sato and Iwamoto, and raised concerns about eight other papers over the next two years. 

When the journal didn’t act, Grey turned to COPE in 2020. That May, a COPE staffer wrote to a director of publishing services at Elsevier “in the hope that we can facilitate a dialogue in relation to these matters.” According to a summary of Grey’s concerns that the staffer shared: 

These concerns included unethical study conduct, implausible research productivity, implausible participant recruitment, implausible study conduct, implausible data, impossible data, duplicate results reporting, text recycling, authorship misconduct and data errors.

Since May 2018 we have sent about 20 emails either raising concerns or asking for updates about these papers. The most recent of these was sent 2 April 2020. The editorial office at the journal simply defers to the Elsevier staff, who either don’t reply (mostly) or do so unhelpfully (occasionally). The email recipients have included senior Elsevier research integrity staff. In June 2018, one of us (AG) discussed the situation with an Elsevier research integrity officer, who reassured us that the problem would be addressed. Several Elsevier journals have been among those that have to date retracted some of more than 100 publications by Dr Sato and colleagues, so the publisher has extensive existing knowledge of the case. For example, it was an Elsevier employee who discovered that the ethics oversight claimed in several of these papers is false because the institutions in question did not have ethics committees at the time the work was reported to be conducted. 

Meanwhile, readers of the papers have no idea that any problems exist, 3 1/2 years after the journal learned of the problems with Dr Sato and colleagues’ work. This is a most unfortunate and unnecessary situation.

We ask that COPE investigate this situation and require its member journal to fully address the concerns about the integrity of these publications and take rapid action to protect readers from ongoing exposure to them, ie retract them.

These are the 10 papers: 

In June 2020, the Elsevier director of publishing services responded, saying that the papers would be retracted: 

The society and editor agree with Dr Grey’s concerns and have taken the decision to retract these ten articles.

Best practice would normally oblige the journal to contact all  (living) authors in advance of their article being retracted. Unfortunately that has proven to be very difficult to do consistently in this case, given the age of the papers. On the other hand, it is paramount that the literature be corrected, of course.

Given that we have made extensive efforts to find and contact all authors, we plan to now proceed with these retractions, unless COPE has serious concerns about this approach.

The papers have not yet been retracted or marked with expressions of concern. Grey followed up with the COPE staffer, who this month told him: 

We have pursued our contacts with the publisher and we understand that their follow up is active. We have asked the publisher to provide you with an update on the status of the publications.

The Elsevier director of publishing services has not responded to our request for comment. 

We asked Grey how his experience with the Journal of the Neurological Sciences compares with other journals he’s contacted with concerns. He told us: 

We’ve previously published on journal responsiveness in the Sato case. It is highly variable and inconsistent, both in timing and outcomes. The JNS situation is one of the worst examples. 

One of the very disappointing aspects of the JNS case is that Elsevier’s integrity team have been in the loop for several years and no action has been taken. Disappointingly, publishing staff have been unwilling to respond to enquires from concerned academics and, it seems, COPE.

Engaging COPE hasn’t been very helpful either, Grey told us: 

It is also slow, and focuses on process (the following of ambiguous guidelines) for assessing concerns, rather than how to assess publication integrity. We don’t think it serves the interests of journal readers very well.

The upshot is this, in Grey’s words: 

There are a great many papers by the Sato Iwamoto group that remain unretracted, despite very clear integrity concerns.

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4 thoughts on “An Elsevier journal said it would retract 10 papers two years ago. It still hasn’t.”

  1. “The papers have not yet been retracted or marked with expressions of concern.”

    I do sort of understand that there is some process to retract, but seriously, why no expression of concern?

    I’ve complained about the lack of EoCs in some other comments here, but perhaps if an editor of a journal reads this would they wouldn’t perhaps explaining what reason a journal might have to NOT issue an EoC under such circumstances, that would be great.

  2. ‘There are a great many papers by the Sato Iwamoto group that remain unretracted, despite very clear integrity concerns.’

    Just cannot understand why takes so long for retraction of so many papers. We may need to re-evaluate the whole review system and find a way to avoid those papers even been published rather than retracted later.

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