Authorship issues, sloppy science, deception — more often than not, at least one of these is at the heart of a retracted paper. But it’s rare when all three are involved. Which, of course, means that such a case is precisely what we’re about to deliver.
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.
Blaming “data coding errors,” the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health has pulled an article linking shift work, age and sleeping problems.
The study was published four months ago, but managed in its brief lifespan to garner significant attention in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, although it has not been cited by any other papers. It comes alongside growing interest in the potential lnks between shift work and various health conditions including irritable bowel syndrome and breast cancer. Denmark even awards damages to shift workers who have developed the latter.
It might not be a first – although we can’t find another example — but a mental health journal has reinstated an article it retracted four years ago.
The retracted retraction notice appears in the August issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, a BMJ title, and refers to a 2005 article describing an alarming case of treatment-related emotional problems in a patient with cluster headaches.
These headaches, which often strike behind the eyes, are akin to migraines and have been dubbed “suicide headaches” because they are so intensely painful that many sufferers have said that death would be a preferable fate. (Think: “It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”)
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.)