Another year, another 1,433 (and counting) retractions. The tenth year of Retraction Watch’s existence included—as is often the case—a new record, some impressive numbers, and some bizarre stories. But it also included some exemplary behavior. Here are some of the year’s top retraction stories, in no particular order:
1.When researchers reported in September of 2018 that they’d found a way to open solid tumors to the enormous potential of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapies, the oncology world was abuzz. But not for long. Critics of the study, which appeared in Nature, soon began poking holes in the work, pointing to problems with some of the figures in the paper. Nature initially alerted readers that it was looking into the validity of the work, but in February the journal decided it had no choice but to retract the paper, citing “issues with figure presentation and underlying data.” The retraction claimed an innocent bystander when The New England Journal of Medicine pulled a January 2019 review of CAR T therapy that had included an overview of the Nature findings.
2.When Pediatric Research retracted a 2013 paper by Erin Potts-Kant and colleagues in September, the article became the 18th retraction for the former Duke University researcher. But officials at the institution likely had a bigger number on their minds this year: $112.5 million. That’s the amount Duke agreed to pay the US government after a whistleblower alleged that Potts-Kant had used phony data in scores of grant applications worth tens of millions of dollars to the school. That whistleblower earned nearly $34 million.
3.Speaking of numbers, an unlucky journal had to retract 434 papers—a record, as far as we know—in one go. The papers, which had appeared in the Journal of Fundamental and Applied Sciences, comprised the proceedings of a 2018 conference of the Universal Society for Applied Research. But in May, Clarivate Analytics delisted the journal from its Web of Science—a Good Housekeeping seal of sorts for scholarly publications—prompting the society to recall the papers and seek a new and more reputable home for them.
A pair of researchers was caught having stolen a paper during the review process and publishing it under their own names.
4.As the college bribery scandal unfolded in US courtrooms this year, South Korea had its own version of the tawdry affair. Caught in the controversy was Cho Kuk, who until recently was the country’s justice minister before stepping down amid outcry that he had helped his family members, and particularly his daughter, obtain unearned privileges at universities. Kuk resigned his post in October, shortly after the Journal of Pathology and Translational Medicine (then the Korean Journal of Pathology) retracted a 2009 paper on which his daughter, at the time a high-school student, had been first author. According to Reuters, Cho’s daughter went on to medical school at Pusan National University where she failed her examinations twice but managed to stay enrolled and receive nearly $10,000 in scholarships.
5.In October 2018, a group of climate scientists published a troubling report in Nature claiming that they’d found that the world’s oceans were warming far faster than previously believed. Not surprisingly, the research immediately became the target of skeptics, who claimed the analysis was incorrect. The authors quickly notified Nature of the potential problems, and in November 2018, the journal alerted readers in an expression of concern. But in September, Nature decided that the uncertainties in the work were too significant to let stand and retracted the paper. The authors said they planned to correct their analysis and resubmit the work to a different journal.
6.If having a paper retracted is traumatic, imagine how Steve Jackson feels. Jackson, of the University of Cambridge in England, lost articles in both Science and Nature on the same day after his coauthor was found to have committed research misconduct. Investigators at the school concluded that Jackson’s collaborator, Abderrahmane Kaidi, who resigned from his post at the University of Bristol in September 2018, had fabricated data in at least one of the papers, both of which were highly cited.
7.The journal Magnetochemistry found itself looking a bit, um, bipolar earlier this year after it retracted a paper by a controversial psychologist in New Zealand. The invited commentary, by Susan Pockett, claimed that government reports about the safety of radiofrequency emissions were tarnished by rampant conflicts of interest. To bolster the piece, Pockett said, the editors asked her to add some data, which she did—by buying an off-the-shelf RF meter and standing at a bus stop taking measurements of ambient radiation. Those tests didn’t impress at least one reader, whose complaints prompted the journal to remove the article, writing that the work “contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of ‘opinion’ publication.”
8.When Gesine Dreisbach, a psychologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, ran into a friend at a research conference earlier this year, she wasn’t expecting bad news. But the friend-cum-colleague, with whom Dreisbach had shared some of her group’s data, told her that a 2018 paper in Acta Psychologica based on the data had a coding error in the script used to assess the results—an error significant enough to scuttle the entire analysis. Dreisbach rushed back to her lab and checked: the friend was correct. Once she knew that the work was fatally flawed, Dreisbach contacted the journal and asked for a retraction. “We all understood immediately that clarity and transparency is the only way to deal with this mistake,” she said of the episode.
9.Call them peer review pirates. A pair of researchers in India was caught having stolen a paper during the review process and publishing it under their own names in a journal run by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry. The 2017 article, which appeared in CrystalEngComm, was ostensibly written by Priyadarshi Roy Chowdhury and Krishna G. Bhattacharyya, of Gauhati University in Jalukbari. But according to the journal, the work had “striking similarities” to a manuscript by two other scientists submitted to the journal Dalton Transactions that one of the authors had reviewed. CrystalEngComm retracted the offending article.
10.“And now, a study from our sponsors.” In April, PLOS ONE retracted a 2017 article about mindfulness after concluding that the authors—at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital—had ignored their commercial interests in the research and made other errors. The article, “Standardised mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare: An overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs,” initially listed no financial ties. But psychologist James Coyne complained that some of the researchers were employed by Benson-Henry—including Herbert Benson himself—and that the paper appeared to be a thinly disguised “experimercial” pushing the institute’s own products and services. He also noted that the academic editor on the paper was herself at Harvard, Mass Gen’s medical school partner, another conflict. A review by PLOS ONE agreed with Coyne, and also turned up several problems with the meta-analysis itself, and opted to retract.