Authors file complaint with publisher as journal retracts vaping paper

A paper that found smoking rates in the United States fell faster than expected as more people started using e-cigarettes has been retracted over the objections of its authors, who have filed a complaint with the journal’s publisher. 

As we reported in July, BMC Public Health informed the authors of “Population-level counterfactual trend modelling to examine the relationship between smoking prevalence and e-cigarette use among US adults” that the editors had decided to retract the article after receiving a critical letter. We reported: 

The letter did not request retraction of the paper, but argued that its analyses “were flawed and therefore potentially produced misleading findings that would benefit tobacco industry profits and interests.” 

The authors of the retracted paper are employees of Pinney Associates, a consulting firm that they disclosed “provide[s] consulting services on tobacco harm reduction on an exclusive basis to Juul Labs Inc.” The article also disclosed that Juul Labs funded the research and reviewed and provided comments on a draft manuscript. 

After we published our story about the pending retraction, 23 researchers wrote a letter to the journal expressing concern about the decision. They wrote: 

The authors appear to have addressed the various concerns raised in their responses to the prepublication peer reviews and their sensitivity analysis, which shows that the findings are robust under a range of initial assumptions.

We are aware of the authors’ role as consultants for Juul Labs Inc., not least because it has been transparently disclosed by the authors throughout the editorial review process. The reported conflicts justify due skepticism and scrutiny. They do not justify unfair or unequal treatment. The proper way to respond is through the open science concept of replication to confirm, refute, or challenge the findings using the same publicly available datasets. 

The retraction notice does not refer to any conflict of interest, but stated: 

The Editors have retracted this article after readers raised concerns around the methodology. A post-publication review highlighted concerns about the assumption of ‘0’ prevalence of e-cigarette use in 2010 which contradicts available data; this assumption is not fully supported by the sensitivity analyses performed by the authors. Therefore, the Editors have lost confidence in the results reported by the article. None of the authors agree to this retraction.

The authors of the paper “believe that a retraction is not warranted, and we stand by our results,” they said in a statement shared by Floe Foxon, a data analyst at Pinney Associates and the corresponding author of the article. They continued: 

We believe the process was wrong, and their interpretation of the data and science is demonstrably wrong. Consistent with open science principles, we believe the journal should have published the Letter it received and our response. Since the journal has not done so, we invite readers and interested parties to read the article and subsequent correspondence with the journal, which we have made available in full on OSF at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/FZTNK 

The correspondence the authors posted contains their detailed refutations of the concerns mentioned in the retraction notice, and conviction that the decision “is based on fundamental misconceptions regarding basic elements of our article.” 

The authors also sent a formal complaint about the “process followed, and scientific judgment” of the journal’s editors to SpringerNature, its publisher, on September 22, and said they have not received a reply. 

The complaint, available here, argued the authors addressed the concerns raised about the paper during the peer review process and in post-publication correspondence with the journal editors, and that the retraction was “inappropriate.” 

Rather than a retraction, the authors said that the journal should publish the original complaint letter it received, as well as the subsequent assessment by an editorial board member and the authors’ reply, “so that interested readers can decide for themselves which conclusion best fits the available data.” They continued: 

By retracting the paper, the journal denies readers this opportunity, and credits one side of a discussion while suppressing the other in a way that is incongruous with the pursuit of scientific knowledge. 

A SpringerNature spokesperson confirmed receipt of the complaint and said the publisher was “currently in the process of providing a detailed response.” The spokesperson said: 

Although the journal followed COPE guidelines throughout the retraction and the editors were fully transparent with the authors during the investigation, we hope this response will provide further clarity on the process undertaken.

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5 thoughts on “Authors file complaint with publisher as journal retracts vaping paper”

  1. reading through the full email correspondence makes it seem like the authors are talking to a brick wall. The editors keep coming back to the assumption made about 2010, the authors explain why it is a reasonable assumption, then the editors bring it up again without addressing any of the author’s justifications for the assumption.

    1. It’s just another political retraction as both the anonymous reader of the article and the journal editor seem to have a major problem with the funder of the journal article, Juul Labs Inc., despite the fact that it was apparently openly and clearly declared in the paper while it was under review and then published in the journal.

      So again, the PTB gin up an excuse that the authors made the “wrong assumption” (that vape use was 0% in 2010) and did their analysis incorrectly and that justifies a retraction of the paper.

      Couldn’t be for the fact that Juul Labs Inc. funded the paper, right?

      1. I just find it so interesting that they published it in the first place if they had such an issue with juul labs. Either the reviewers/editors didn’t read until the end to see the CoI statement, or there were so many complaints from readers about juul labs’ involvement that the journal retracted the paper to prevent bad publicity. Maybe a funder of the journal had a bone to pick with juul?

  2. Welcome to the world of “junk” science which is to support the belief system of the believers working for the Journal. No results that counter the believers will be published.

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