As 2020 was the year of the pandemic, COVID-19 loomed large in the world of retractions, too. According to our tracker in early December, 39 articles about the novel coronavirus have been retracted from preprint servers or peer-reviewed journals so far—a number we’re confident will grow. (That number does not include the retraction of an article from a Johns Hopkins student newspaper claiming that COVID-19 has had “relatively no effect on deaths in the United States.”) That’s out of a total of more than 1,650 retractions catalogued to date in 2020. Here are our picks for the most significant pandemic-related retractions:
1The most spectacular flameouts involved a pair of articles that appeared in two of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. Both The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine were forced to remove articles that relied on data from a questionable firm called Surgisphere, which refused to share its results with coauthors and the editors involved. (The Lancet also retracted and replaced an editorial it had published that had cited the ill-fated paper.) Before it was discredited, the paper in The Lancet had tremendous influence, leading to the suspension of clinical trials on hydroxychloroquine. A third, influential Surgisphere study was taken down from the SSRN server at the request of a coauthor. The withdrawal of the preprint, which was about potential benefits of the antiparasitic drug ivermection, received little fanfare, let alone a retraction notice.
2 Although The Lancet article’s conclusions on hydroxychloroquine were ultimately disregarded, numerous studies to follow determined that the drug is ineffective against COVID-19. The dubious therapy, which President Donald Trump boasted of having taken, was also the subject of this preprint, which was withdrawn in May—but not before the Fox TV personality Laura Ingraham touted the study, as did Didier Raoult, the French scientist whose work with hydroxy early in the pandemic sparked widespread, if misguided, optimism about its use. A version of the paper that relied much less heavily on hydroxychloroquine in its conclusions was published in October in a special issue of a journal that Raoult edited. (So far, none of Raoult’s papers on the drug have been retracted, although an Elsevier-commissioned review of one of them found it to have “major methodological shortcomings” and be “fully irresponsible.” He did have an obviously unrelated 2013 paper retracted this year from PLOS ONE for suspicious images.)
3Hydroxychloroquine also was at the heart of a clever “sting” operation by a pair of researchers in Europe who were alarmed by what they believed to be predatory behavior by the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health (AJMH), which had published a roundly criticized paper heralding the drug. They published a sham paper in the AJMH purporting to find that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was “unexpectedly deadlier than push-scooters,” and that hydroxychloroquine might be the “unique solution.” The journal reacted indignantly to being called out, retracting the hoax article, but left the initial paper intact—which was fine with the jokesters, one of whom told us, “yes the article deserves to be withdrawn—but it should NEVER have been published in the first place, that’s the beauty of the story.”
4The same week as the Lancet and NEJM Surgisphere retractions, the Annals of Internal Medicine backtracked on a highly-cited paper it published in April that purported to find that masks were ineffective at preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The article, which became a media—and social media—star, was woefully light on data, based in fact on just four subjects.
5If lack of data was a problem for some papers, others suffered from a complete lack of common sense. Like this article, which claimed that COVID-19 resulted from 5G telecom energy. The quickly retracted paper earned the title of the “worst paper of 2020” from data-sleuth Elisabeth Bik.
6In the category of “not retracted but should never have been published,” we’ll offer up this book chapter, which claims that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite.
7Sticking with fantastical thinking, Science of the Total Environment must have been in that headspace when it published this paper claiming that wearing amulets could ward off COVID-19 (pro tip: they don’t). After an uproar on Twitter, the coauthors of the article called for its retraction, although the journal has yet to definitively remove—or replace—the work.
8PLOS ONE issued an expression of concern for a paper it published in September suggesting that vitamin D might protect against severe COVID-19. The move came after criticism on Twitter by Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist in Sydney who pointed out, among other issues, that the study relied on a small number of patients and appeared to show a null result.
9After a preprint they relied on for epidemiological data from China was withdrawn, researchers at Imperial College London corrected a paper that, in the words of The Washington Post, “helped upend U.S. and U.K. coronavirus strategies.” The study projected that COVID-19 would kill half a million people in the UK, and more than 2 million in the US, if restrictions were not put into place, which prompted the UK government to implement social distancing and isolation measures. The authors told us they were confident that data available later had affirmed their overall findings.
10Cellular & Molecular Immunology took three days to accept a paper about how COVID-19 might infect white blood cells—similar to HIV’s strategy—and then took three months to retract it after a researcher sent them a letter critiquing the study. The critic, Leonardo Ferreira, tweeted that “no primary #human #Tcells were used & the #flowcytometry data for #viral #infection were egregiously misinterpreted.” In the time before it was retracted, according to Altmetric, it earned coverage in New York magazine and other mainstream outlets, and was the subject of thousands of tweets.
It wasn’t all COVID-19
1Some journals used 2020 to purge what readers perceived to be offensive articles. In June, the venerable German title Angewandte Chemie retracted (without saying as much, until later) an essay by Brock University researcher Tomáš Hudlický, which lamented efforts to diversify his field. Sixteen members of the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest, and two were suspended.
2The Journal of Vascular Surgery found itself in hot water after publishing an article arguing that physicians who posted pictures of themselves in casual clothes or bathing suits were acting in a “potentially unprofessional” manner. The essay, panned as out of touch and misogynistic, triggered the #medbikini movement on Twitter—and, eventually, an apology from the journal.
3Among the authors of the 5G–COVID-19 paper was Massimo Fioranelli, whose name also appeared on five other now-retracted articles in a special issue of the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences devoted to global dermatology. One of those asserted that “A black hole at the center of earth plays the role of the biggest system of telecommunication for connecting DNAs, dark DNAs and molecules of water on 4+N- dimensional manifold.”
4One notable case was that of Jonathan Pruitt, a scientist in Canada who studies the sociology of spiders. Earlier this year, one of Pruitt’s coauthors became concerned about the veracity of his data, setting off an investigation that has led to eight retractions and counting.
5 The Pruitt case was one of at least a few examples in which affected scientists publicized their retractions widely, in a refreshing move. “I’m starting the year off with something I didn’t expect to ever do: I’m retracting a paper,” Kate Laskowski, a Pruitt coauthor, announced on her blog. And Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold of Caltech announced a retraction from Science before the retraction notice was even published.