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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine

A transparent presentation of PLOS Pathogens retractions and PLOS policy

We are writing to clarify several issues that have been raised in blogs regarding the retraction of Urisman et al. 2006 [1] by PLOS Pathogens.

PLOS Pathogens is a community journal and all of the editors of PLOS Pathogens are active researchers who volunteer their time. Thus our editors are also part of the community of authors and held to the same standards.

Six senior PLOS Pathogens editors unanimously agreed to retract Urisman et al. 2006. As a group they were knowledgeable about the content of the study and took advice on the process of retractions. Over seven years and thousands of papers, PLOS Pathogens has published three retractions. One was due to fraud. This present retraction is a second case of retraction because the major findings were unreliable, because of inadvertent error and in both cases a very high level of proof was manifest.

In this case, the new paper in PLOS ONE from Lee et al. 2012 [2] provided compelling proof because it re-analyzed the same samples and many key authors of Urisman et al. 2006 were also participating authors on this paper. We have the highest regard for the authors. Moreover, our retraction statement is essentially the same as the conclusion of their paper “These findings reveal no association between XMRV and prostate cancer, and underscore the conclusion that XMRV is not a naturally acquired human infection” but the identification of the virus and methodology remain valid. To ensure that this statement is correctly associated with the Urisman et al. 2006 citation at non-PLOS sites (such as Pub Med and PubMed Central) we effected a clearly stated retraction rather than a correction.

PLOS Pathogens communicates with authors through the corresponding author. This is our standard practice. We invited commentary through the corresponding author with whom we communicated during manuscript submission and review. The email address was and is current: the individual is an advisory member of our editorial board. We have apologized for not contacting the second corresponding author. Our expectation was that the first would discharge responsibilities to all remaining authors. We have since corresponded with all authors.
Kasturi Haldar

 

PLOS is not making a new policy here. Retractions have been used for many years by all publishers. All PLOS journals have always followed the 2009 guidelines at COPE that we have referred to before. I (Virginia Barbour) was one of the people who wrote them, they were endorsed by COPE and are now widely used by editors and publishers. To reiterate, they state, that:

 

  • “ Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:
    they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)”

 

From all the comments on all the various posts here and on other sites and from emails there is, however, a clear need to have a discussion about how to annotate the literature post publication, especially as electronic publication becomes more sophisticated and options for post publication corrections expand. Specifically, it is clear that somehow “retraction” implies “malfeasance” and although we at PLOS don’t share that view, we understand that it is others’ perception and that a discussion of what useful terms and mechanisms we can use in this fast-moving electronic age is needed.

This complicated issue is one that is unlikely to be done justice in the short responses typical of social media commenting, and so we’d like to invite longer responses for a constructive discussion on these issues at this blog. If you would like to contribute a blog post please email us on plosmedicine@plos.org and we will publish a selection of opinions over the next few weeks. If you have specific questions on PLOS policy please also contact us on plospathogens@plos.org or plosmedicine@plos.org
Virginia Barbour

1] Urisman A, Molinaro RJ, Fischer N, Plummer SJ, Casey G, et al. (2006) Identification of a Novel Gammaretrovirus in Prostate Tumors of Patients Homozygous for R462Q RNASEL Variant. PLoS Pathog 2(3): e25. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.0020025
2] Lee D, Das Gupta J, Gaughan C, Steffen I, Tang N, et al. (2012) In-Depth Investigation of Archival and Prospectively Collected Samples Reveals No Evidence for XMRV Infection in Prostate Cancer. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44954. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044954

Discussion
  1. That’s all very well, but it doesn’t go one inch towards changing that fact that the world sees retractions as shameful. You have wrongly landed the authors of the original study with this stigma, and it will stick. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  2. It is clear that PLOS have overinterpreted the COPE guidelines, which state:
    “ Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:
    they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)”

    In no way is this compatible with the PLOS stand:
    “If a paper’s major conclusions are shown to be wrong we will retract the paper.”

    The major conclusions of a paper can be wrong even in the absence of fabrication, miscalculation or experimental error. Wrong conclusions can be reached by papers that report data that is fully reproducible.

    So, the six wise editors should unretract the PLOS Pathogens paper and take a step back. We don’t need to read a selection of comments on this topic that have been chosen by the editors. This should not be an exercise in saving face.

  3. You’ve posted your sweeping claim twice already (on this blog and on Retraction Watch) and received overwhelmingly negative responses. What are you trying to do, keep posting until no one bothers to repeat their points a seventh time and then claim victory?

    Your proposed plan is a terrible one. Every practicing scientist who has heard about it is vehemently opposed to it. It overreaches the guidelines you claim to be following and, in any case, the guidelines are your own, apparently introduced with minimal interaction with the scientific community.

    As well as being a terrible concept, you implemented the plan in a terrible, sloppy, arrogant, and disrespectful way, unilaterally imposing a highly-questionable retraction without bothering to discuss with the authors.

    Please, abandon this ill-thought-out plan and reverse your unilateral and unnecessary retraction.

  4. Since there are some peer-reviewed science journals which don’t accept comments on their articles, does this mean that the scientific process has been undermined?…

    It’s a glaring problem with science that we have no means of linking the literature with followups, beyond plain citations. It’s a glaring problem with academic publishing that publishers view their role as creating a repository of TRVTH and that the…

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