Scientists protest Cell retraction

Journal pulls paper against authors' wishes, with little explanation

By | September 29, 2005

Researchers are challenging Cell for retracting, without the authors' consent, a 2004 paper that suggested the Chagas parasite may integrate into host genomes, arguing the journal is not offering a sufficient explanation for what is wrong with the paper.

Last week (September 23), the journal printed a short retraction, stating there were "concerns" about integration site sequence analyses in the paper, and independent reviewers deemed that the data "do not provide strong enough evidence for the central hypothesis." They note that the retraction is proceeding against the authors' consent.

David Engman from Northwestern University, who commented on the paper for The Scientist when it was published, said he was "shocked" to see it had been retracted. He added that the news was followed by a flurry of correspondence among researchers, curious to find out more about why the editors forcibly retracted the paper. "This is the first time, to any of our knowledge, that this had been done this way," he said.

Cell President and CEO Lynne Herndon declined to comment to The Scientist.

How infection with the intracellular parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, results in the development of chronic Chagas disease has been a mystery. In the paper, the researchers propose that T. cruzi may cause disease by integrating its DNA into infected hosts' genomes. They provide data to suggest T. cruzi mitochondrial DNA, termed kinetoplast DNA (kDNA), had integrated into the genomes of infected humans, chickens, and rabbits.

One of the authors, Antonio Teixeira of the University of Brazilia, told The Scientist that he believed the only point "under discussion" about the paper was the sites of kDNA integration into the human genome. He noted that Cell editor Emilie Marcus sent him a series of additional questions about the data starting in the end of 2004. He responded by providing evidence suggesting kDNA integrates into transposable elements, LINE-1 and CR-1, in mammals and birds. On June 15, he said he received another letter from Marcus, saying she was "forced" to publish a retraction. "Certainly, I wrote her back and told her why I could not agree," he said in an Email. Teixeira added that the journal never provided additional experimental evidence to demonstrate that the data were not correct, and he still does not know the identity of the "third party" that is questioning the paper.

One of the article's original peer reviewers, Stephen Hajduk of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., told The Scientist he raised concerns that an early draft of the paper did not demonstrate where kDNA had integrated into the host genome. However, after revisions, he okayed the published version. "I was satisfied that they had shown there was integration," he said.

Hajduk added he was "disappointed" Cell did not contact the paper's original reviewers before choosing to retract the piece, and did not instead publish a third party's objections and subsequent responses from the authors. This would allow readers to make up their own minds, he said, and would give scientists the opportunity to provide additional data to support either side. "To me, scientifically, that would make a lot better sense," Hajduk said.

Northwestern's Engman added that it's almost irrelevant whether or not the paper is valid—he's more concerned with the fact that Cell chose to retract the paper without explaining itself. To make the bold move of retracting a paper without the authors' consent "I believe requires a detailed description to the readership of why this was done," not just conclusions without data, he told The Scientist. "Science needs to be open, and clear, and this isn't at the moment."

Engman and other scientists have written letters to Cell protesting the retraction. In a letter dated September 24, Yale University's Norma Andrews writes that the decision to retract without presenting new experimental data is "truly shocking," given that the paper was okayed by peer reviewers before being published. "This threatens the very core of the principles by which the scientific community operates," she writes.

Indeed, instead of removing the paper from scientific consciousness, the retraction may generate even more interest in the topic, Hajduk suggested, inspiring people to look more closely at the data and repeat the experiments. Engman, for one, said he plans to repeat the experiments, and has already seen data that suggest the report is valid. "The strengths of this work lead me to believe in it," he said.

Editor's note: Please see a letter on this story.

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