Mea Culpa Retractions

Researchers earn applause after recalling two papers containing misinterpreted findings.

By | August 30, 2013

FLICKR, JEAN-ETIENNE MINH-DUY POIRRIERTypically, retractions signal research misconduct more often than they highlight good science. But a pair of retractions by Jeffrey Kelly's group at The Scripps Research Institute received praise for correcting the record after the researchers discovered their initial conclusions were incorrect. Ivan Oransky wrote at Retraction Watch that “Kelly and his colleagues deserve kudos for their efforts, at their own professional expense, to correct the scientific literature.”

It was while examining amyloid disaggregase activities recently that the researchers realized their years-old mistake. Back in 2009, Kelly’s team was examining disaggregation of cross-β-sheet amyloid (Aβ) fibrils in vitro. What the group had interpreted as disaggregation of the Aβ fibrils at the time actually turned out to be Aβ fibrils sticking to the surfaces of multi-well plates and centrifuge tubes. Kelly told Retraction Watch that it took the team “almost a year of effort to figure this out and convince my trainees who actually did the initial experiments that we misinterpreted our data.”

He and his colleagues published their corrected findings this month in Protein Science. Their now-invalidated findings were published in the same journal a few years ago. In their latest report they wrote, “we retract the two prior publications reporting that worm or mammalian cell extracts disaggregate Aβ amyloid fibrils in vitro at 37°C. We apologize for misinterpreting our previous data and for any confounding experimental efforts this may have caused.”

As Oransky wrote, “some scientists might just shrug and sweep those errors—and their previous papers—under the rug.” But in this case, he said, they did “the right thing.”

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Avatar of: blumberg


Posts: 32

August 31, 2013

What an awful retraction.  The data are the data and could be valuable to other researchers independent of the flawed interpretation.  Assuming the experiments were performed properly, the interpretation is completely irrelevant.  This is definitely not a situation that is deserving of applause.

Avatar of: Eric J. Murphy

Eric J. Murphy

Posts: 20

September 2, 2013

I am not sure why Dr. Oransky is making this such an issue.  Without knowing the details, I would agree with Dr. Blumberg that these data are these data.  Interpretation are done at the time of the experiments and supported by the results presented at that time.  This original work went through a peer-review process and as such, if there were significant issue with interpretation, those issues should have been tempered during peer-review. 

Unless the experiments were fundametally flawed and incorrectly done, there is no need for retraction. The authors could just as easily refuted their previous interpretation in light of their new findings in their new publication. However, retraction?   I think this action may actually end up being quite negative in its impact as we move forward in each of our respective field. 

Why is this potentially very negative?  It suggests that we will be constantly second guessing interpretation made at the time of the original publication as we learn more about a particular topic.  If this trend occurs, there will be a constant line of retractions for work that is not fundementally flawed, but rather because it was viewed through a lens based upon the state of the field when published.  As more knowledge comes into a field, interpretations are indeed changed as the field evolves a more refined interpretation of any particular process.  That my friends is why we work in our respective areas. 

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