Journal investigating follow-up study that didn’t mention patients had died 

Peter Campbell

While presenting a paper in journal club, neurology resident at Baylor College of Medicine, Peter Campbell, noticed a potential problem. Two infants in a 2018 paper were reported to have died, but their data also appeared in a follow-up study published two years later with no mention of them being deceased. 

“It is unclear how a patient who reportedly died could be available for follow-up at 2 years,” he wrote in an email reporting his concerns to Frontiers, the publisher of the articles. The email, sent in April, went unanswered. 

Raised Plasma Neurofilament Light Protein Levels Are Associated with Abnormal MRI Outcomes in Newborns Undergoing Therapeutic Hypothermia,” and its 2020 follow-up, “Raised Plasma Neurofilament Light Protein Levels After Rewarming Are Associated With Adverse Neurodevelopmental Outcomes in Newborns After Therapeutic Hypothermia,” have four of the same authors, including lead author Divyen Shah, researcher at Queen Mary University of London. Both appeared in Frontiers in Neurology. 

The 2018 paper has been cited 22 times and the 2020 paper eight times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science.

The data in question concerns patients 1 and 3 from table 2 of the 2018 paper, who are labeled as having died. Yet their data matches those of participants 4 and 2 in table 3 of the 2020 paper as “babies with cerebral palsy,” without any indication of death.  The data from the second study were purportedly collected after the children were 18 months old. 

Irene Litvan, editor-in-chief of the journal, told Retraction Watch she was “not made aware of this matter” but that the research integrity team at Frontiers is investigating the issue after receiving Campbell’s email. 

A representative from the publisher confirmed “we are actively checking the discrepancy brought to our attention by Dr Campbell.”

Shah defended the data.  The two children died “later after developing cerebral palsy” and were therefore represented in both studies, he told us in an email. “We have neurodevelopment outcomes for them although they later died,” he said. 

Campbell was unsatisfied with that explanation: “Is it reasonable to say in a first paper that the children died and then in the next simply say they had poor developmental outcomes? That seems strange.” 

The authors should have included more information about the deaths of the patients, and “been more clear,” he added.  

In a second email to Retraction Watch, Shah clarified that patient 1 died “after 2 years of age with severe global cerebral palsy” and patient 3 died “at 19 months of age with again the most sever [sic] global impairment and cerebral palsy.” The patients were recruited “between January 2014 and January 2016,” he said, so when the 2018 paper was written, “we already had information about later outcomes for some of these children.”

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