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 One day it is withdrawn, with only a brief paragraph or two on the page to alert us to its fate.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.
Sometimes, apparently, a retraction isn’t enough to put research findings to bed forever. Consider this obituary recently posted online at the Journal of Pediatrics, for a method of detecting gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in children:
We commonly recognize the contributions of distinguished members of the pediatric community and, with regret, their passing. It is appropriate, therefore, that we acknowledge the timely death of an old friend, the pH probe. Crushed to death under the weight of evidence against it, it was found abandoned in a trash can with a note that read, ‘‘Good riddance to a bad test.’’
To be fair, the pH probe has always been the standard bearer for mediocrity.
Biotechnology Advances has retracted a 2008 review by researchers in India who allegedly stole chunks of their manuscript from several sources including journal articles, Wikipedia, and StateMaster.com, a statistics clearinghouse.
A Cell paper reporting on genetic mutations responsible for a form of muscular dystrophy was retracted earlier this month. According to the retraction:
Our paper reported the identification of mutations in the gene VMA21 in patients with X-linked myopathy with excessive autophagy (XMEA) and characterized the molecular mechanisms underlying the disease phenotype. Many of the figure panels in the paper summarize data from multiple experiments. We have now detected a number of errors in these panels. Although we stand by the validity of our conclusions, we believe that the most responsible course of action is to retract our paper. We are preparing an expanded version of our work for future submission. We deeply regret this circumstance and apologize to the community.
One of the original authors, Dr. Aubourg, could not be reached regarding this Retraction.
The study has been cited 11 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Here’s a press release the researchers’ hospital, Sick Kid’s of Toronto, sent out when it was originally published.
For would-be plagiarists, now is both the best and worst of times. Thanks to Google and other search tools, never has it been easier to appropriate someone else’s thoughts or words. But the Internet taketh away, too—offering up scads of sleuthing software that promise the ability to sniff out cheats.
Well, it’s happened: The Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch worlds have collided. I had initially figured on two posts here, but it soon became clear that how journals were handling these retractions, using embargoes, was central to both. So this is being cross-posted on both blogs.
Linda Buck, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has retracted two papers published in 2005 and 2006. Both retractions — one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and one in Science — appear online today.
The papers describe how nerves that carry information about scents connect from the nose to the olfactory bulb, where they are processed. They were published after the 2004 Nobel, which was for discoveries “of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.”
Harvard Medical School has formed an ad hoc committee to review the retraction, and Buck has asked the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to review two later publications on which Zou was the lead author. “It’s disappointing of course,” says Buck. “The important thing is to correct the literature.”
The PNAS and Science retractions are of those two later publications. The PNAS study was cited 61 times, and the Science study was cited 73 times, according to the Thomson Scientific Web of Knowledge.
Although Retraction Watch might have been born just before yesterday, we find it instructive to look back in time for items we would have covered had we been around a bit longer. We’ll do this periodically to generate a “Best Of” collection of retractions that catch our eye both for what they might suggest about scientific publishing and for good old-fashioned interest. Here’s the first installment:
A furtive attempt to play politics with a galley proof led to the retraction of a paper on Middle East water policy a few months ago. The article, “Optimizing irrigation water use in the West Bank, Palestine,” appeared in the February 2010 issue of Agricultural Water Management, an Elsevier journal. Written by Palestinian and Dutch researchers, the article modeled various scenarios of water and crop policies in the West Bank in an effort to determine the most efficient use of resources.
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.
Two of Woo’s post-doctoral fellows at Mount Sinai School of Medicine were dismissed for “research misconduct,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the institution. According to Michaels:
When Dr. Savio L C Woo came to suspect that two post-doctoral fellows in his laboratory may have engaged in research misconduct he notified the Mount Sinai Research Integrity Office. Mount Sinai immediately initiated institutional reviews that resulted in both post-doctoral fellows being dismissed for research misconduct. At no time were there allegations that Dr. Woo had engaged in research misconduct. As part of its review, the investigation committee looked into this possibility and confirmed that no research misconduct could be attributed to Dr. Woo, who voluntarily retracted the papers regarding the research in question. Mount Sinai reported the results of its investigations to the appropriate government agencies and continues to cooperate with them as part of its commitment to adhere to the highest standards for research integrity.
We have plenty of other questions for Mount Sinai about the details of the investigation—including when the post-docs were let go, which Michaels declined to answer—and will update when we learn more.