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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 18, 2011

Retractions: Why The Secrecy?

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Posted by Derek

Ben Goldacre has an excellent point here at Bad Science: when a paper gets retracted from a journal, shouldn't everyone know why it's been retracted?

He highlights the experience of the blog Retraction Watch (which I hadn't heard of until now), when they tried to find out why a paper had been pulled from the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. The journal's editor responded to their query by informing them that "it's none of your damn business".

Gotta disagree there, chief. I think that this is actually important information, and that it should be disclosed as much as possible. There are all sorts of reasons for papers to be retracted, ranging from benign to evil, and it's in the interest of readers to know what category things have fallen into. I understand that in some cases papers are the subject of ongoing investigations, so these details aren't always available, but in that case, why not say something like: "The data in Table II have not been reliably reproduced by other workers. While some of the co-authors of the original work have stated that they stand by the results as published, an investigation has begun into the methods and data of this paper, and the lead authors have asked that it be retracted until this matter is concluded".

But that's not the sort of thing we get. Goldacre cites another example from Retraction Watch, concerning this paper from JACS. When the bloggers contacted the lead author, he gave them more details than you could get from the journal about what was wrong with the paper. So why doesn't JACS tell us these things?

Thanks to the Retraction Watch people for taking the time and effort to do this sort of thing. I just wish that it weren't necessary for anyone to do it at all.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. LegalEagle on January 18, 2011 12:15 PM writes...

Thats an interesting topic Derek. In general, I think it is the Authors who retract most papers if I'm not mistaken. Typically they do so because they have come to believe there are issues with one or more aspects of their work. In that instance, it would be the Authors who would provide the reason for their retraction because it is their decision. I see no issue with letting the Authors provide the reason for the retraction except their explanation is likely to be largely self-serving and may obfuscate the underlying issues even more. I don't believe the journal could attempt to explain the authors reasons and to do so would be problematic from practical to legal standpoints. In the case where a journal sua sponte retracts an article based on publically available information (such as the autism/vaccine/mercury inmboglio), I believe they can explain their reasoning but of course, they must be very careful in what they allege for legal reasons (ie libel).

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2. Hasufin on January 18, 2011 12:15 PM writes...

My first guess is that the journal is afraid of liability. They don't want to be held accountable for an inaccurate explanation fo why a paper was retracted; sometimes those could be very damning to professional reputations.

However, they could probably request a brief explanation from the author to explain the reasoning behind the retraction.

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3. sam on January 18, 2011 1:25 PM writes...

If journals and authors reap the benefits of getting an article published, they should have to face the public when retracting wrong science. The point of publishing is to spread knowledge; not explaining why a paper is retracted fails to convey information. Information is currency in science.

Retractions should be explained in detail. In fact, in the many cases where a retraction is caused by a mistake instead of fraud, a clarification will put the author in a *better* light!

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4. Carl Bussjaeger on January 18, 2011 2:13 PM writes...

When other outlets distribute defective products -- cadmium in the jewelry, lead in the bowl glaze, killer baby cribs and carriages, for example -- they're expected to issue recall notices, often even when the "investigation" as what caused the defect is ongoing. If the Annals of Thoracic Surgery produes a defective product but wants to conceal or downplay the fact, perhaps... Well, do't call it a boycott. Just think of it as changing your [information product] supllier to a more reliable source. Like say...

The National Enquirer.

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5. Pete on January 18, 2011 2:14 PM writes...

Do h-indices and journal impact factors get updated when a publication is retracted?

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6. Carl Bussjaeger on January 18, 2011 2:15 PM writes...

Darn. I've got to remember to proofread before hitting the post button.

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7. gyges on January 18, 2011 3:38 PM writes...

Respect to Jicun Ren.

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8. Laura on January 18, 2011 3:50 PM writes...

This paper was over SIX years old. The journal felt that it could say 'oh, it's retracted, and we won't tell you why' when it's surely possible that other research has drawn on that paper in the meantime, and without ANY elaboration would likely want to scrap a great deal of work? That perhaps that paper was the basis of someone else's funding? I don't know how likely any of that is, and haven't read the paper in question, but this sort of attitude is unscientific. This isn't about 'saving face', and acting like it is hurts all of us.

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9. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on January 18, 2011 4:40 PM writes...

It is hard to underestimate the sleaze of people in positions of power.

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10. Anonymous on January 18, 2011 4:42 PM writes...

"The supression of uncomfortable information may be common in religion and politics, but there is no place for it in science."

-Carl Sagan

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11. Frank Adrian on January 18, 2011 4:55 PM writes...

Why do journals not track information on retractions? Because that would require them to actually track information on retractions. For each retracted paper, they would need to record why and who was contacted. They'd have to keep a list of retractions. Right now their business is very much "set and forget". Asking them to actually track status for published papers would add to their overhead, cut profitability, and make extra work - all of which are things to be avoided as far as the publishers are concerned.

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12. cynical1 on January 18, 2011 7:02 PM writes...

Actually, I can sort of guess why it was retracted.

Almost all the information in the paper was published earlier that the exact same journal (Ann Thorac Surg 2004; 78: 1433-7 vs. 2004; 77: 238-42) by the same author(s). The author didn't even bother to reformat the table and all the data is the same except for a few data points, which appear to be typos. All they did was add the data from a comparitor molecule in at the bottom.

I imagine someone notified the editors of Ann Thorac Surg which in turn made them look really incompetent in the review process. They probably got pissed and contacted the university and forced him to retract the second paper. I bet the guy was called in by his dept. head and scolded for not being clever enough to at least publish it in a different journal and then they went out for a round of golf.

To me this looks like a classic case of milking a single set of experiments into multiple papers. Ya know, sort of like that guy who publishes all that benzotriazole stuff.

See, no great conspiracy. Besides, everyone on the author list on the two papers, save one, is an MD. What did you expect? I mean you guys really don't think MDs are scientists do you? The one author with the BA probably did all the work. Can't see a MD getting in the lab and working with 24 domestic swine, too much like experimenting on your colleagues.

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13. leftscienceawhileago on January 18, 2011 10:40 PM writes...

I never saw the follow up to the Hellinga case here.

FWIW Duke felt that no further explanations are due. Hellinga's errors that led to the retractions can not be explained by simple mistakes alone, and the manner in which the graduate student was implicated indicated something very sinister about the entire affair.

After a profoundly slow internal investigation the result is....nothing at all.

Disappointing to say the least, and Hellinga will probably do just fine.

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14. Jose on January 19, 2011 7:02 AM writes...

I can understand the journal having reservations about mis-representing the details of the matter. BUT there should be an official "Statement of Retraction" that outlines the issues, and signed by the authors. However, it many cases, the retraction is due to piss-poor reviewing, and journals are loathe to admit they dropped the ball by publishing at all.

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15. anon retraction on January 19, 2011 11:54 AM writes...

And sometimes the retraction doesn't happen.

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16. Anonymous (not that one) on January 19, 2011 1:16 PM writes...

1) Why isn't it my business that you retracted a paper? Since someone pays through the yingyang to get your journal, and since "we did this" is not considered sufficiently useful for publication, why is "my bad" a sufficient explanation for retraction?

2) The short answer to retractions in secret are that the people at the journals didn't do their jobs and don't want to admit it - either the paper wasn't reviewed properly (or sent to people who could review it properly) or was published anyway (despite being deemed not good enough) for some reason. Occasionally, the publisher got snookered, but in most of the recent snookering incidents, there should have been indications that something was seriously wrong (no SI? SI changing from minute to minute? really bad chemistry and biology?) before it was published.

I think the Annals of Thoracic Surgery figures that no one can afford to stop getting their journal (because there isn't a reasonable competitor, or not enough of them), and so they can tell their readers which orifice they should insert their complaints into. Even if their incompetence and intransigence is noted, none of the notees are likely to be able to do anything about it, so it doesn't matter. This also mixes with "I don't want to hose my friend's career" from editors, the unwillingness of schools to remove people generating money or to admit error, and the presence of plenty of expendable graduate students and postdocs to yield an environment where few mistakes are likely to be corrected, and few evils punished except against powerless pepetrators.

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17. Anonymous on January 20, 2011 8:13 AM writes...

As I recall from my grad school days, academia is pretty secretive about anything potentially embarrassing - things like this were always hushed up and never dealt with openly.

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18. Anonymous on January 20, 2011 12:00 PM writes...

We will never live in a world where the truth is presented all the time.

Covering our asses is part of human nature.

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19. Hap on January 20, 2011 12:53 PM writes...

Yeah, but unlike in politics or PR, you can't run from all the truths you'd like to avoid, such as the patent cliff. Eventually they catch you, and you'd like to be alive after they do. Setting up an order predicated on avoiding them to the benefit of upper managers is a strategy doomed to catastrophic failure. Good management is making sure the people responsible are on board when it happens, so that they might try to change the order instead. If it can't be altered, we're screwed anyway.

Avoiding truth can't be the only reason pharma isn't doing so well, because everyone isn't have as bad a time, but it can't be helping.

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20. Hap on January 20, 2011 1:31 PM writes...

My original point stands, but it would help if I knew what thread I was commenting on. Sorry.

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