There's often a really interesting story behind a retraction. That's what Ivan Oransky told us. He's a doctor and journalist and founder, along with Adam Marcus, of a blog called Retraction Watch. They monitor scientific journals and investigate why articles were retracted. They uncovered serious ethical breaches at a variety of journals. Oransky tells Brooke about some of the stories he's covered this year.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ivan Oransky is a doctor, the executive editor of Reuters Health, and founder, along with Adam Marcus, of Retraction Watch, a blog that scours scientific journals for retractions and investigates the stories behind them. When we spoke to Oransky last fall on the event of Retraction Watch’s first birthday, we asked him to share some of the year’s most noteworthy or outrageous retractions. He began with the story his co-founder broke, that of Joachim Boldt, an anesthesiologist who had dozens of his papers retracted all at once.
IVAN ORANSKY: There's a guy named Steve Shafer. He’s actually a Columbia anesthesiologist. If there are heroes in Retraction Watch, Steve Shafer is one of the heroes. And he has really led the charge to retract up to about 90 of JoachimBoldt’s papers. It may even be more. The reason why is that Boldt had not obtained the proper ethical approval to do his studies. There’s something called institutional review boards. They look at the protocol and say this is safe, it is reasonable, it is likely to produce a result. And Boldt had not obtained that approval.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was he directing these studies to prove a point or just make some money or sell a product? I mean, what was his motivation?
IVAN ORANSKY: Sometimes it's as simple as glory. If you have grant funding, it is determined by how many times you publish. You get tenure, based on how often you publish. Sometimes companies are sponsoring your work and they will sponsor more of your work, if you publish more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the case of Boldt, what was the direct impact on patients?
IVAN ORANSKY: There was a direct impact on patients who were having anesthetics delivered to them that they didn't know about, who were in trials that they didn't know about. Even if you sign up for trial, you are supposed to know what the risks are. If someone hasn't obtained ethical approval, there's no way to know whether they have actually delivered that information to patients. And it’s pretty clear he, he more than likely didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s this issue of opacity that you guys cover a lot on Retraction Watch. You'll call up somebody who retracted a paper and ask why, and they won’t tell you?
IVAN ORANSKY: That’s been our experience far too often. We had a sort of classic post with a, a cardiac surgeon in Philadelphia who edits a journal that had retracted a paper. And when Adam called him and said, we'd like to know more information about this retraction because the notice really doesn't say very much, what he chose to say instead of “I don't want to tell you” is “It’s none of your damn business.”
We think it is our damn business. Taxpayers, more than likely, pay for the research. We think it's patients’ business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's move on to a journal called Applied Mathematics Letters, which published a paper by a professor named Granville Sewell, who suggested that the theory of evolution actually violates the second law of thermodynamics, which says the quality of energy deteriorates over time in a closed system, or something like that.
IVAN ORANSKY: More or less.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Entropy.
IVAN ORANSKY: Exactly. It, it involves entropy, and I will tell you that no matter how I describe it now someone will write in and say that we've gotten it wrong.
In the somewhat oversimplified sense, it is that in a closed system entropy increases. So he's saying that if you have evolution, that it’s violating that because you're having sort of more order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was roundly condemned.
IVAN ORANSKY: What happened with that [LAUGHS] paper was quite remarkable. It was published and then very quickly, almost the moment it was published, the editor ended up retracting this, but then Sewell sued. That’s someone unusual. Elsevier, a major publisher who publishes this journal, settled with Sewell for $10,000.
They also really lawyered the retraction notice which appeared. And what the retraction notice says is, “It wasn't about the quality, that’s not why we retracted this paper. We retracted this because it was inappropriate for our journal.” So they really gave the intelligent design community – it’s a pitch down the middle, because they could now say, “No, no one’s questioning the result. They’re just saying it was inappropriate for our journal.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This seems to be extremely worrisome for the scientific community. If you can defeat what you’re implying are facts by legal fiat, then we’re in big trouble.
IVAN ORANSKY: I would completely agree. One of the things to note here is that Applied Mathematics Letters was - you know, in law enforcement they talk about someone who is “known to law enforcement.” That’s a sort of polite way of saying that he’s probably been picked up for something before.
So [LAUGHS] Applied Mathematics Letters was known to Retraction Watch. They had published another bizarre paper that claimed that science and spirituality both came from space. We’re still not sure what that means.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]We’re made of stardust, Ivan.
IVAN ORANSKY: You know, we're not even sure what he meant by “space.” [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Having covered the medical research business so closely and all of these retractions, what do you think about the state of scientific journals and the way that scientists communicate with each other, before all of that stuff gets communicated to the rest of us?
IVAN ORANSKY: When you look at a paper, there's a kind of finality to it. It’s - look, here it is. It's something you can almost frame and put on your wall or, in this case, on your CV. If you were to say, look, here's what we found so far and let us open up the data for you, let us show it to you, which would have probably prevented some really high profile cases from going as far as they did, if you treat that as a process and say this is how science works, nothing is final, we’re just getting there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So papers are artificial endings to a process that doesn’t end.
IVAN ORANSKY: Absolutely. When you actually look at the process of how science works, there aren't that many eureka moments. And when you learn the most is when you’ve actually made a mistake or tried something that didn't work. And if we start using that narrative and don't have to end it –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stop gearing yourself towards the eureka moment?
IVAN ORANSKY: Stop gearing yourself toward the eureka moment. Stop gearing yourselves toward the study of the week.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Annals of Thoracic Surgery, Applied Mathematics Letters, it’s a world apart from the rest of us. It’s hard to understand the stakes for the rest of us.
IVAN ORANSKY: But some of these have really high stakes. Quite frankly, science almost always starts in some of these low register journals. And, in fact, a lot of the negative studies, it turns out, in other words, studies showing a lack of effect, are published in those journals. So we still need to pay attention to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the ground floor of the process of sharing and developing scientific information.
IVAN ORANSKY: Absolutely. Some of these ideas will make it to the big time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ivan, thank you very much.
IVAN ORANSKY: Thanks very much for having me, Brooke. It was a great conversation.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ivan Oransky is the founder, along with Adam Marcus, of Retraction Watch, which you can link to at onthemedia.org.
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