The February 2010 retraction of the original Wakefield paper in the Lancet was, of course, a huge deal. If there were a Canon of Scientific Retractions, it would be in it. It happened before we launched Retraction Watch, however, so we haven’t commented much on it.
We plan on writing about major retractions in history, but the frequency of fascinating timely ones hasn’t abated enough yet to let us do that. (One exception: Our Best of Retractions series.) And in any case, there have been a lot of pixels spilled on this one already, so we’re not sure we have much to add. That’s the nice thing about the web: It leaves us free to curate as well as create.
We have an update on the case of Olav and Axel Gressner, a father-son (or, in this case, son-father) pair of German liver researchers caught up in a fraud investigation. The inquiry focused on Olav, who left the University of Aachen under a cloud of suspicion. A 2008 research letter on which he was a co-author (his father was senior author) was retracted earlier this year by the Journal of Hepatology.
The Office of Research Integrity has thrown a heavy book at Bengu Sezen, a former chemist at Columbia University, alleging that school and agency investigators turned up 21 instances of research misconduct by the disgraced scientist.
A few weeks ago, we reported on the case of Emily Horvath, a promising scientist at Indiana University who admitted to falsifying data to make her results look better. Some of that data went into her PhD thesis. That prompted a Retraction Watch reader to ask whether scientists who commit such fraud should be stripped of their PhDs. We figured that was a good poll question, so let us know what you think.
Last week, we noted a Nature editorial in which the journal came clean about its higher-than-average number of retractions this year — four. What we missed was the fact that the fourth retraction of the year also appeared in last week’s issue.
Most retractions happen in the dark: An article appears in print. One day it is withdrawn, with only a brief paragraph or two on the page to alert us to its fate.
On rare occasions, however, the process is more transparent, and when that happens it’s like the publishing equivalent of a supernova, a chance to glimpse in (here’s where the cosmic analogy stalls) almost real-time the retraction as it unfolds.
Here’s one of those unusual events.
The Journal of Clinical Rheumatology this week has retracted a March 2010 paper by Ni and colleagues in China, in which the authors reported that elderly women with osteoarthritis of the knee gained significant improvement in physical function and pain from a six-week course of tai chi. That claim is hardly controversial—other researchers have produced similar results and published studies of tai chi’s benefits for arthritis patients date back nearly a decade on Medline.
In the world of scientific misconduct, it’s often worth keeping track of what happens to scientists whose papers were retracted because of falsified or otherwise fraudulent results.
Take the case of Hung-Shu Chang. Last week, the the federal Office of Research Integrity announced that it had closed its investigation into the scientist’s misdeeds. Chang was a visiting postdoctoral researcher from Taiwan who in 2005 had come to the renowned Skinner Laboratory at Washington State University to study the effects of endocrine disruptors — a class of compounds that includes BPA and which have been shown to disrupt the action of hormones — on sex cells.
Chang was accused of falsifying data in a 2006 paper in Endocrinology — later retracted — reporting the damaging effects of vinclozolin, a fungicide used to protect vineyards, on the genetic integrity of sperm cells.
Work from a prolific father-son team of liver researchers in Germany has come under scrutiny after accusations that they falsified data in a 2009 letter to the editor that appeared in the Journal of Hepatology.
The letter, retracted in the September issue (after an online notice in June), referred to a 2008 article in the journal by Axel Gressner, his son Olav, and their colleagues at University Hospital in Aachen in which the authors reported that doses of caffeine might be an effective treatment for liver fibrosis, scarring of the organ that results from chronic ailments such as cirrhosis or hepatitis.
Epidemiologic evidence has suggested that people who drink coffee are somewhat protected from liver fibrosis—although some experts dispute the purported connection—and the German group claimed to have been among the first to find a plausible molecular mechanism for the link. Their November 2008 paper on the subject has been cited 16 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Science, a hefty number for just 22 months.
In their follow-up letter, they went a step further, stating that injecting rats with caffeine blocked the expression of a key protein associated with growth of connective tissue necessary for the formation of liver scars.