Co-author of controversial paper denies ghostwriting, demands paper be republished
By Melissa Lee Phillips | December 22, 2006
Six months after the retraction of a controversial paper denying a link between chromium-6 exposure and cancer incidence, the paper's co-author is stepping forward to say that it was withdrawn unfairly.
In June, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) retracted a 1997 paper by Chinese physicians JianDong Zhang and Shukun Li, which found no connection between chromium-6 ingestion and cancer incidence in a Chinese village. The journal's investigation originated with documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, which suggested that scientists from the consulting company ChemRisk had actually compiled and written most of the paper. The ChemRisk scientists were hired by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Corporation, which was at the time defending itself against allegations of chromium pollution. According to the journal, failing to disclose ChemRisk's contributions violated editorial policy.
However, in a November 26 letter to JOEM editor Paul Brandt-Rauf of Columbia University in New York, Li asserts that the paper was written entirely by Zhang, who is now deceased, and herself, and that ChemRisk scientists merely "provided minor editorial consulting and input."
When the paper was submitted, JOEM's "standards were vague for disclosure of support," according to David Lundy of Aileron Communications in Chicago, a media representative for Li. Lundy also said it was Zhang's decision not to mention ChemRisk's involvement.
In the letter, Li disputes reports that she had agreed to the paper's retraction when contacted by JOEM representatives.
According to Brandt-Rauf, "We did talk to Dr. Li through a translator to inform her of the impending retraction, and she agreed at that time. She apparently later changed her mind, and when we were informed of that, we removed that part from the retraction statement."
In a June 2 article in The Wall Street Journal, Li was quoted as telling a Chinese reporter that she did not object to the retraction. But in her letter to JOEM -- as well as in a letter she sent to the Journal this month -- she said she never agreed to the withdrawal.
"Under no circumstances did she agree to the retraction," Lundy told The Scientist. When Li was contacted by the JOEM, "it was presented as a fait accompli," he said.
According to Renee Sharp, an analyst at EWG, it was a surprise to learn that Li is contesting the paper's retraction. "If she was so upset about what they decided to do, why did she wait six months to do anything about it?" Sharp asked. ChemRisk scientists likely "twisted her arm into doing something," Sharp told The Scientist. "There's nothing else that really comes close to explaining the turn of events. I don't have any evidence for that, but I would be shocked if that wasn't the case."
Lundy, however, said that Li initially wrote to the JOEM in June to contest the retraction, but received no response. In her letter to The Wall Street Journal, Li also cited a "strong desire for privacy" as one reason she had been relatively quiet about the matter. However, because of damage to her reputation and to Zhang's legacy, Li said that she now feels "compelled to set the record straight and to dispel the fabrications and false impressions" she believes were created by the two Journal articles. Li requested that those articles be retracted and that the paper be republished in the JOEM.
Robert Christie, a spokesman for The Wall Street Journal, told The Scientist, "We have reviewed Dr. Li's letter, and believe that there is nothing in our articles that needs to be corrected or clarified."
In another letter written to the JOEM on December 21 -- after receiving no response to her earlier letters, Lundy said -- Li's US attorney Danning Jiang in San Jose, Calif., asked that the journal release the copyright on the paper so that she can republish it elsewhere.
"We are currently discussing possible responses to these new items," journal editor Brandt-Rauf told The Scientist in an email.
Melissa Lee Phillips
Links within this article:
M.L. Phillips, "Journal retracts chromium study," The Scientist, June 7, 2006.
JD Zhang, S Li, "Cancer mortality in a Chinese population exposed to hexavalent chromium in water," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, April 1997.
M.L. Phillips, "Toxicologist should be censured, says group," The Scientist, August 2, 2006.
N. Munro, "Academics' ties to business muddy disclosure decisions," The Scientist, April 21, 2003.
P. Waldman, "Publication to Retract An Influential Water Study," The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2006.