How many ducks do you need to line up to get a publication retracted?

Mark Bolland

In July 2017, we notified the Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism (JBMM) of concerns about a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in rats which featured, among other problems, extensive duplication of data in a separate publication, large numbers of discrepancies in the methods and results between the publications, and serious concerns about the governance and conduct of the research.

The journal sought an explanation from the authors, Jun Iwamoto and Yoshihiro Sato, who currently have 119 retractions between them. The response avoided addressing most of the concerns and attributed all the discrepancies to minor errors, and was accepted by JBMM. 

In the intervening years, however, evidence about problems in the group’s work has mounted. And yet the paper remains neither retracted nor corrected. It has become just another in a long list of studies, along with ten others in the journal,  that we have beaten our heads against the wall to have journals fix.

The journal and its predecessor, the Journal of the Japanese Society for Bone Morphology, have published 15 papers by Jun Iwamoto, in 13 of which he is first or lead author. Iwamoto – who has by now had 85 papers on which he is an author retracted –  has published nearly 300 papers with Yoshihiro Sato, who has had 110 papers with his name retracted. The research purportedly conducted by these authors is mainly in the area of osteoporosis and includes RCTs and observational research studies in humans and RCTs in animals including rats and monkeys. 

They have also published case reports, meta-analyses and many narrative reviews, often covering their own publications. The ripples from just a small subset of their retracted papers are considerable

Publications from this group have been retracted after notification of a wide variety of integrity concerns. These include lack of ethical approval, authorship misconduct, fabricated data, impossible data, implausible data, duplication of data, and self-plagiarism. None of the publications we have assessed have been without multiple integrity concerns. 

Despite these multiple problems, the reason provided in the retraction notice was often simply “scientific misconduct.” Although 119 publications by the group have been retracted, nearly twice that number still remain in the literature, usually without any indication of the widespread concerns we have raised with all the journals involved. 

Over the next few months, we also notified JBMM of similar issues in 4 different suites of publications in different journals which included JBMM. In one instance the journal did not investigate, and for the remainder we received no response.

Two and a half years went by.

In February 2020, we notified all the journals and publishers with publications by Sato and Iwamoto, informing them of the concerns about individual publications, the broad concerns about the entire group of publications, the institutional investigations that had occurred, the retractions at that stage, and that there were about 4000 citations to unretracted publications.  We asked them to take action and keep us informed. We had very few responses, including none at all from any publisher, and only a couple of expressions of concern resulted. 

Then, in March 2020, a breakthrough seemed to occur. We were notified by Keio University that they had requested that Iwamoto make corrections to 4 papers in JBMM and where that was not possible, to retract the papers. 

Still nothing resulted, so we asked JBMM what was happening. We also informed them about specific concerns regarding research conducted by the group at Keiyu Orthopedic Hospital, including 3 other publications in JBMM. JBMM requested a response from Iwamoto, indicating that they would retract the publications if none was forthcoming. 

In June 2020, JBMM let us know that as no response had been received from Iwamoto, they had decided to retract 11 publications. However, the publisher, Springer Nature, was unwilling to do that and preferred an announcement saying that “those papers are under investigation.” 

JBMM disagreed and requested that the retraction process be initiated. They told us they thought the retraction notices would appear shortly. Instead, Springer Nature responded to JBMM that their publication ethics department was conducting an investigation and more time was required for that process. 

Alison Avenell

In August 2020, a Springer Nature representative informed us that 13 JBMM publications were being reviewed but input from institutions was needed. In December 2020, JBMM told us that Springer had approved one retraction (which occurred in February 2021, with the only reason cited being lack of ethical approval) but that they did not know what the delay was for the other publications.

While the publisher and journal couldn’t agree on what should occur, there was no public notification of any issues with any publication.

We asked Springer Nature representatives on several occasions for updates, but they did not reply. In September 2022, JBMM let us know that:

Springer asked their Ethics Committee about those papers. The Committee answered that, based upon the current COPE guidelines, it is difficult to further pursue retraction of those papers. This is because the university where Dr. Iwamoto worked at that time has not performed further investigation about this matter and no additional investigation has been reported. Thus, Springer concluded that they will not and cannot retract those papers because of the above reasons.

JBMM expressed disappointment at the outcome but stated that they have no way to retract the papers unless Springer agrees to do so.

Andrew Grey

So, to summarise, researchers with a track record of widespread, consistently unreliable publications, 119 of which have been retracted, have a large number of unretracted publications, for which there are also concerns about their reliability, and for which no public notification of the concerns exists. An institution directed the author to correct or retract some publications. He didn’t. 

The journal has wanted to retract papers for at least 2 years, but the publisher says that they can only retract one of them and won’t retract the rest. Readers of the journal are unaware of the extensive, unresolved concerns and the publisher has no plan to resolve them other than wait hopefully for more institutional assessment.  

When something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is very likely a duck. Here, the ducks of compromised publication integrity are all aligned, duck-shaped, feathery, waddling and quacking, but the publication integrity assessment and resolution processes are misaligned. The journal wants to retract but the publisher won’t permit that. 

The publisher has extensive knowledge of the case, which is rife with examples in which the authors and their institutions failed to respond to requests to address concerns, or did so inadequately. It also knows that Iwamoto has left the institution in question, Keio University. Yet the publisher stipulates that no action is possible in the absence of another or a further institutional assessment. 

As is often the case when publication integrity concerns are raised, the publisher and/or journal claim to be following the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines, no matter what the outcome (or lack of outcome). In this case, the publisher has cited COPE guidelines as their justification in preventing the journal from making multiple retractions. The ambiguous process-focused COPE guidelines are apparently inviolable.

Who is harmed by this? Not the publisher, not the institution, not the authors, but the people who actually matter, those who read the unreliable papers and make decisions and take actions based upon them. Ultimately, patients are harmed by receiving treatments based upon unreliable evidence.

Recently, we argued that publishers don’t actually care about publication integrity. It’s increasingly hard to suggest otherwise.

Mark Bolland and Andrew Grey are associate professors at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Alison Avenell is a professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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14 thoughts on “How many ducks do you need to line up to get a publication retracted?”

  1. Maddening state of affairs. Perhaps in addition to writing blog pieces here and in SK, the Grey, Avenell, and Bolland trio will seek to publish this sordid affair in a journal. Consider Springer Nature’s “Science and Engineering Ethics”?
    Be interesting to get hold of contract wording between Societies and the big publishers. Societies seem to control the review and acceptance of articles but not the correction/retraction side. My own experience publishing a correction took about 2 weeks through the society editorial office and almost a year with the publisher (Wiley). And the publisher added canned text that the corrections did not affect the conclusions of the article, following my text explaining how the conclusions were affected.

    1. > Consider Springer Nature’s “Science and Engineering Ethics”?

      I advise against this journal in the strongest possible terms.

      This is the journal that offered pages to Mohammad Hemmat Esfe, Arash Karimipour or Omid Mahian for their empty integrity-looking fiddle-faddle. It alone is enough to assume negative credibility.

      Why these persons are toxic is beyond the capacity of a single post, but everyone is welcome to check their track record on their own.

      Please, please, never ever again promote this strange journal!

      1. I happen to like SEE, but I totally understand your point. And those individuals you mention are not the only toxic types SEE has given space to.

      2. I have read the two articles you listed. Could you explain briefly what you find so terrible about them that you wish to condemn the journal completely?

        1. > Could you explain briefly what you find so terrible about them
          Not a lot is terrible about the articles themselves, but I’ll get back to it later.
          Everything is terrible with the authors, however. I am leaving a few links at the end of this post. Please have a look at them and tell me how advocating for ethical citations and against “fake journals” is not a hypocrisy?
          Now back to your original question. The articles are fact-free essays. Of those, millions are written each year as a part of various ethics curricula in various institutions. No one thinks of publishing such essays as journal articles.
          This highlights quite a problem: there is no entry filter in SEE (otherwise how they accept trivial essays?), the crooks are taking advantage of lax editorial standards. It is very possible that other crooks are publishing there, just likewise.
          If you want to share pages of ECC with crooks – yes please, go ahead. But be ready that someone will be pointing fingers at you, exactly for this reason.
 (Arash Karimipour, who vowed for ethical citations);
 (same Karimipour);
 (same Karimipour);
 (same Karimipour);
 (Amin Asadi, another advocate for ethical citations);
 (my presentation from early 2021 about one Springer journal, at which Mahian and another many-time SEE author, Somchai Wongwises, are in important editorial positions).

        2. I read the articles too. They are just some elementary musing of seemingly uninformed people. There is little content in them. They seem like CV-padding works to me. At best they could’ve been a LinkedIn self-promotional, or equivalent blog, post. In my expert opinion, there’s nothing of scientific depth in the articles that would’ve warranted their peer review or publication.

      3. I stand corrected. I was simply thinking of of the irony of publishing a saga of ethical indifference by SN in a SN title on research ethics. I do think there’s a value to documenting these affairs in the published literature just for better permanence and cross referencing. Old blog posts can effectively vanish if common search engines don’t index them. Not that that changes the root problem of publishers’ irresponsible inaction.
        Thanks for all you do, Alexander Magazinov.

        1. Completely agree with your initial point!
          But even with SN a few better options may be available. (Or not, after Vít Macháček’s story nothing about SN will come as a surprise.)
          Otherwise, preprint servers offer more-or-less the same functionality as old-school journals with respect to permanent record-keeping.

  2. It ìs grotesque hat a journal of the Nature family would engage in ethics. The current pervasive rot in the so-called “mainstream” scientific community had been actually upheld and encouraged by enterprises like Springer Nature in order to maintain order and maximize their profits. The basic tenets of scientific endeavor , such as transparency and openness to public scrutiny, have been systematically ignored and actually sabotaged . The result is a breed of “scientists” that has learned from its masters. See for an example among many..

  3. Let’s be real here. Those people publish easy articles to satisfy their annual performance review. They don’t care a bit if their paper got retracted next year. Those crappy articles are like single-use plastic bags. They served a purpose at first use and nobody cares after that, except maybe some ‘environmentalists’ on RW. I think this is why they have accumulated so many retractions over the years.
    When you shoot down one crappy journal, a bunch of others will pop up like a plague. If institutions don’t change the way they evaluate performance, nothing much would change for the better.

  4. COPE might have been a good idea in theory, but in reality COPE guidelines have become an easy excuse for journals, publishers, institutions etc. to not do anything by hiding behind bureaucratic technicalities.

  5. Very well written guest post. With regards to “Who is harmed by this? Not the publisher, not the institution”, I would also suggest asking “What does the publisher gain from this?” Well, the post answers this question: they gain a portion of the “4000 citations to unretracted publications”. Follow the money, as they say.

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