Publish or perish: That’s the mantra among academics. The pressure on researchers to publish new studies, however, may have turned this saying into “publish and perish,” as more than 650 scientific papers were retracted in 2016, jeopardizing the integrity of scientists, and threatening the public’s trust in their work.
Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications, according to a study published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, well, “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications.” The authors sure didn’t mince words. They found that only about 20 percent of retractions were due to honest error, whereas nearly 70 percent were due to scientific misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud, a tenfold increase since 1975.
And those fraud-related retractions were more likely to be in the most prominent journals, the study found, suggesting that the pressure to publish in so-called high-impact journals is tempting some scientists to cheat.
So, it’s time now for our annual countdown of the more interesting journal article retractions of 2016, culled from Retraction Watch, a blog that has been reporting on scientific retractions since 2010.
The man who coughed pee
It was one from the annals of medicine: A 24-year-old man from the East Indies died after coughing up a liter of something that looked and smelled a lot like urine. The 1923 case report in the Dutch Journal of Medicine (Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde) stated that the man, inexplicably, had a kidney located in his chest cavity. He had gone to the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. The pneumonia then caused an abscess that ruptured the errant kidney, causing it to leak urine into the membrane surrounding the lung.
But alas, such a patient never existed. Keen on the fact that kidneys don’t reside in chest cavities, the modern editors of the Dutch Journal of Medicine decided to investigate the case study’s authenticity as they were preparing it for digital accessibility. After much probing, they found that the case study was a hoax perpetrated by some naughty medical students having fun after studying for a medical exam. The story was revealed in the autobiography of one of the medical students, named Arie Querido, who died in 1983.
Querido wrote that he and his fellow students were just goofing off, creating imaginary diseases. The “kidney in the chest cavity” concept took off, and they were so amused with themselves that they decided to submit the case study for publication. They never thought it would be published, Querido wrote. But it was. And now it has been retracted.
Can’t say he’s not passionate about recycling
With data this good, it seems a pity not to use them over and over and over again. Unfortunately for Shyi-Min Lu, a renewable-energy researcher from Taiwan, he got caught republishing the same research. This is different from self-plagiarism. When scientists submit a paper for publication, they must declare that the paper isn’t under consideration for publication elsewhere and that any reuse of data must be cited explicitly. Lu failed to do so and submitted “recycled” papers about, ironically enough, energy recycling to various journals, often without his co-authors knowing.
Lu admitted to committing offenses in 10 papers, including reusing figures and plagiarizing others’ work, according to Retraction Watch. Several of these papers have been retracted. Lu has since been fired from National Taiwan University, where he was a research assistant.
Maybe they should have cited Genesis
The editors of the respected journal PLOS ONE got an earful from their readers after publishing a paper about hand coordination that made several references to “the Creator.” For example, in the paper’s abstract, the researchers wrote, “The biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.” And, in the body of the paper, they wrote, “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.”
Intelligent design creeping into peer review? Or, was it a bad translation? (Three of the paper’s four authors were affiliated with research institutions in China.) One of the authors, Cai-Hua Xiong, whose native tongue is not English, claimed that he didn’t understand the meaning of the word “Creator” and had something more like “Nature” in mind. PLOS ONE editors retracted the paper nevertheless, writing that their evaluation revealed “concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review.”
Hey, thanks for the paper. Can I publish it?
In the process of peer review, scientist A submits an article to a journal, and the journal sends it to scientists B, C, and D to review it for scientific merit. Well, scientist B apparently was so impressed with one submission that she decided to publish it herself.
It all started in 2012 when a group of Indian researchers submitted an article to the International Journal of Pediatric Dentistry about remineralization of white spots. It was rejected. So it goes. In 2013, an entirely different set of Indian researchers submitted an article to the Journal of Conservative Dentistry about…you guessed it…remineralization of white spots. This was accepted, and was published in 2014. It took some time, but the editors at that first journal thought the published article looked awfully familiar. Indeed, they claimed it was a “verbatim copy” of the rejected article.
And here’s the kicker: The first author of the accepted article was a reviewer of the rejected article. After a thorough investigation, the Journal of Conservative Dentistry concluded the claims of misconduct were true and retracted that article. Hmm, I wonder if that first group or researchers could publish it now?
Runners Up: pot and fat, corrected
A. Place this one in the category of “what were they smoking?” A widely reported news story about marijuana not being that harmful was based on erroneous interpretation of the data. The study was published in 2015 in the journal of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. The accompanying press release stated: “Chronic marijuana use by teenage boys does not appear to be linked to later physical or mental health issues such as depression, psychotic symptoms, or asthma.” Well, news reporters inhaled deeply on that one and reported it widely. But a reanalysis of the data — and maybe a conversation with a neighborhood stoner — found that there was such a link between marijuana use and mental health problems. The study has since been corrected, but not retracted.
B. Place this one in the category of “What, bacon grease isn’t healthy?” The British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article in 2015 by Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, a book about how saturated fats aren’t unhealthy. Teicholz’s BMJ article questioned the U.S. dietary guidelines. (Hint: She didn’t like the “cut back on saturated fat” part of the guidelines.) As it turns out, peer-reviewed journal articles need to be a wee bit more accurate than popular-level diet books. More than 100 researchers requested that BMJ retract the article, writing in a letter that the article was “riddled with errors” with “incorrect or biased interpretations of research.” The researchers, from places such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Tufts, summarized 11 such errors. The BMJ corrected the majority of the errors but stopped short of retracting this piece, which to many of these researchers was a big fat surprise.
Vaccines still don’t cause behavioral problems
It all started back in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published the now infamously fabricated study in the journal Lancet linking vaccines to autism. That paper was fully retracted in 2010. But you can’t keep a bad idea down for long.
Earlier this year, researchers based in Israel published a study in the journal Vaccine that claimed to find a link between the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and behavioral issues, in mice. The paper was placed online in January in advance of print publication in an issue of the journal. The anti-vaccine crowd promptly jumped on it as more proof of the dangers of vaccines. [5 Dangerous Vaccine Myths]
But the editors of Vaccine retracted the article within a month, saying in the retraction notice that “the methodology is seriously flawed, and the claims that the article makes are unjustified.” Makes you wonder why they accepted the paper in the first place?
Meanwhile, in November 2016, the journal Frontiers in Public Health provisionally accepted a paper linking vaccines to autism and other neurological problems. The study included online questionnaires to 415 mothers of home-schooled children, a group that tends to have strong (negative) feelings about vaccines. The journal has since removed the abstract from its site. The news website Motherboard determined that the study was funded mostly by actress Jenny McCarthy’s autism awareness nonprofit, Generation Rescue, which has strong (negative) feelings about vaccines.
Although you can no longer find these two studies, you can still find people commenting on them as if they are real. Maybe that’s all that matters in a post-truth world.