Over the summer, while searching for some studies and evidence for various treatments, my wife, a television writer and producer, noticed something she thought unusual enough to flag for me. The titles of a number of Cochrane Library reviews started with “WITHDRAWN.”
The Cochrane Library is the world’s leading publisher of systematic reviews, which gather all of the high-quality evidence on a given subject and offer a rigorous analysis of whether a given test or treatment works. It’s an invaluable resource. (Shameless plug: Join the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I’m treasurer, and access to the $285-per-year Cochrane subscription is included.)
Retraction Watch was curious about what “WITHDRAWN” meant, since “withdrawal” is often used synonymously with retraction. Cochrane updates its reviews regularly, as new evidence surfaces, of course. But these abstracts didn’t say anything about new reviews.
Last month, we wrote about the retraction of a 2005 paper suggesting that some adult stem cells might give rise to cancer. That, of course, would be a problem if researchers tried treating heart disease and other conditions with them. The paper’s authors retracted it, however, when it became clear that instead of being transformed — that’s the scientific word for “became cancerous” — the cells had simply become contaminated and overgrown with tumor cells used in research.
The authors of a 2005 Cancer Research paper that cast some doubt on the safety of a population of adult stem cells used frequently in research have retracted it. According to the retraction, in the August 15 issue of the journal:
Upon review of the data published in this article, the authors have been unable to reproduce some of the reported spontaneous transformation events and suspect the phenomenon is due to a cross-contamination artifact.
It takes decades, and even centuries, to overturn the Catholic canon of law, but medical journals move much more quickly: Just three weeks after the Virology Journal published a paper speculating that a woman described in the Bible as being “cured by our Lord Jesus Christ” had flu, the journal has apologized for ever posting it online.
Marc Hauser, a prominent Harvard psychology researcher and author, will be taking a leave of absence from the university following “a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory” that has led to the retraction of one of his papers, according to The Boston Globe.
The retraction, of a 2002 paper in Cognition, reads, in part: “An internal examination at Harvard University . . . found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article,” the Globe reports. It also includes the sentence “MH accepts responsibility for the error.”
The move comes after Bruce Alberts, Science‘s editor in chief, issued an Editorial Expression of Concern in December in response to concerns raised by other scientists
to alert our readers to thefact that serious questions have been raised about the methodsand data presented in this article. The questions focus in particularon the synthesis of the dye-labeled metabolites that are centralto the microarray technique. In addition, the spectroscopicdata the authors cite in support of their claim were not postedto the Bangor University School of Biological Sciences Web siteat the time of publication, despite the authors’ indicationin the Supporting Online Material that the data would be soposted. In response to inquiries from Science, the authors haveprovided new descriptions of the synthetic methods that differsubstantially from those in their published article. Based onour original concerns and the authors’ response, Science hasrequested evaluation of the original data and records by officialsat the authors’ institutions: These officials have agreed toundertake this task.
The unfolding drama of Anil Potti — a Duke researcher who posed as a Rhodes Scholar and appears to have invented key statistical analyses in a study of how breast cancer responds to chemotherapy — has sent ripples of angst through the cancer community. Potti’s antics prompted editors of The Lancet Oncology to issue an “expression of concern” — a Britishism that might be better expressed as “Holy Shit!” — about the validity of a 2007 paper in their journal by Potti and others.
Unlike newspapers, which strive for celerity as much as accuracy, science journals have the luxury of time. Thorough vetting, through editorial boards, peer reviewers and other filters, is the coin of the realm.
And yet mistakes happen. Sometimes these slips are merely technical, requiring nothing more than an erratum notice calling attention to a backwards figure or an incorrect address for reprints. Less often but far more important are the times when the blunders require that an entire article be pulled. For a glossary of the spectrum between erratum and retraction — including expression of concern — see this piece, commissioned by one of us, Ivan, while he was at The Scientist.
Retractions are born of many mothers. Fraud is the most titillating reason, and mercifully the most rare, but when it happens the results can be devastating. Consider the case of Scott Reuben, a prodigiously dishonest anesthesiologist whose fabrications led to the retraction of more than a score of papers and deeply rattled an entire medical specialty. (One of us, Adam, broke that story.)