Bad Medicine

Oh, Never Mind: Top 5 Retracted Science Studies of 2013

frozen test tube
Every year hundreds of science papers are retracted, most involving no blatant malfeasance, but others are due to cooked data. And 2013 was no different. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

In the publish-or-perish world of academia, the pressure can be intense for scientists to get their work out in front of peers and to secure more funding for further research — so much so that, well, let's just say mistakes can happen.

Some mistakes are innocent, such as an accidental mislabeling of data or images that leads the researchers to an erroneous conclusion. Other mistakes reflect a serious lapse in ethics or common sense.

Mistakes often result in a scientific retraction, a public removal of the flawed paper from publication. A private, U.S.-based blog called Retraction Watch keeps track of such retractions, which seem to be on the rise these days. Below are five of the more curious retractions from 2013, culled from more than 100 listed on the Retraction Watch blog.

5. Anesthesiologists forget paper was already published

General anesthesia pertains to a temporary, total loss of sensation and consciousness. Perhaps a group of Chinese scientists inhaled a little too much anesthetic when they published "Different anesthesia methods for laparoscopic cholecystectomy." [No Duh! The 10 Most Obvious Science Findings]

Their paper, published in 2011 in the German journal Der Anaesthesist, looked quite similar to an earlier paper, "General anesthesia versus spinal anesthesia for laparoscopic cholecystectomy," published by Brazilian scientists in the Brazilian journal Revista Brasileira de Anestesiologia.

How similar? Well, looking at the text of the papers, the Brazilians had "68 patients with symptoms of cholelithiasis," and the Chinese had "68 patients with symptoms of cholelithiasis." The Brazilians split this group to be "under general anesthesia (n = 33) or spinal anesthesia (n = 35)," and the Chinese split this group to be "under general anesthesia (n = 33) or spinal anesthesia (n = 35)." The Brazilians found that "pain was significantly lower at 2, 4, and 6 hours after the procedure under spinal anesthesia," and the Chinese found that "pain at 2, 4, and 6 h after the procedure under spinal anesthesia was significantly lower."

Yes, they get a B for effort for at least trying to shift the verb position on that last one.

As you might imagine, the Chinese reached the same conclusion as the Brazilians, having obtained the same result from the same procedure with the same numbers. Der Anaesthesist retracted the paper in November 2013 "because it is identical with the publication" by the aforementioned Brazilian team, according to the retraction notice.

And to think, scientists usually enjoy having their results replicated.

4. Are we not our own peers?

Bahram Mokhtari is highly fond of the work of Kobra Pourabdollah. And Kobra Pourabdollah is highly fond of the work of Bahram Mokhtari. Their mutual admiration is so great the two Iranian chemists decided to peer review the very same papers they co-authored. [Mad Genius: 10 Odd Tales About Famous Scientists]

As you might have guessed, they were quite supportive of their own work and wholeheartedly recommended their own work for publication with no changes. But now they've been caught … at least four times. Retraction notices from journal editors note a "lack of reviewer objectivity." That's scientific-journal-speak for "We was fooled."

To date, the duo has had 11 papers retracted. The other retracted papers can boast only of run-of-the-mill scientific naughtiness, such as publishing the same work in different journals, a form of self-plagiarism. But hey, when you do your own peer review, reusing your own work over and over again only seems natural.

As crazy as their scheme might sound, they are mere amateurs compared with Hyung-In Moon, a Korean scientist who holds the record at 28 papers retracted for self-peer-review, a story which came to light in 2012.

3. May I help you verify my falsified data?

The journal Nature retracted a paper in July 2013, because the results presented couldn't be reproduced. That wouldn't have made a blip on the retraction radar if it weren't for two unusual elements: The paper dates way back to 1994; and the lead author, Karel Bezouška, went as far as breaking into another lab to, uh, help that group reproduce his data. [Beauty and Brains: Award-Winning Medical Images]

The paper in question was titled "Oligosaccharide ligands for NKR-P1 protein activate NK cells and cytotoxicity." Although the title might sound esoteric, the paper was cited more than 250 times. Several authors on the report, including the senior author, had wanted to retract the paper for years after they couldn't reproduce the results. But Nature's policy at the time required that all the authors agree to a formal retraction. Bezouška wouldn't sign.

The journal Nature changed its stance, though, after a negative ruling earlier this year from the Institute of Microbiology and from Charles University, both in Prague, where Bezouška was employed. It seems that Bezouška was caught on camera at night breaking into a lab where scientists were trying to reproduce his results. He proceeded to manipulate samples in the refrigerator with the likelihood of making sure the lab finally got the "right" results.

An English translation of a press release written in Czech concerning the investigation states that Bezouška "most likely repeatedly committed scientific misconduct." He has since been dismissed from both institutions.

2. I'm not a doctor, but I play one in the journals

The Journal of Patient Safety retracted a paper this year even though, upon careful review, the work seemed correct, if not stellar. The paper was titled "Understanding Interdisciplinary Healthcare Teams: Using Simulation Design Processes From the Air Carrier Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) to Identify and Train Critical Teamwork Skills," with lead author William Hamman, M.D., Ph.D.

The only problem was that Hamman doesn't have an M.D. or Ph.D. An expert in "using simulation" indeed, Hamman dropped out of medical school years ago and had been faking his degrees for at least 15 years.

Until his ruse was uncovered, Hamman had shared millions of dollars of grants and had appointments at hospitals and universities. He very well may be brilliant. But rules are rules, and misrepresentation can be dangerous.

Expect many more retractions to come in 2014.

1. Didn't make sense the first, second, third or fourth time it was published, either

One has to wonder how this one slipped past the goalie, at least four times. The journal DNA and Cell Biology retracted a paper titled "DNA and Cell Resonance: Magnetic Waves Enable Cell Communication" by independent German scientist Konstantin Meyl.

Why? Apparently it didn't make any sense. The gist is that cells talk to each other through some rather strange telepathic physics known only to Meyl. Here's a sampling, from the now-retracted abstract:

"DNA generates a longitudinal wave that propagates in the direction of the magnetic field vector. Computed frequencies from the structure of DNA agree with those of the predicted biophoton radiation. …The vortex model of the magnetic scalar wave not only covers many observed structures within the nucleus perfectly, but also explains the hyperboloid channels in the matrix when two cells communicate with each other."

Still with me? According to an expert critical of the work, quoted on Retraction Watch, the same physics applies to telepathy, telekinesis and the human aura.

Meyl reportedly has published nearly identical work in three other journals, a clear violation of publication rules. Retraction Watch stated that yet another paper by Meyl, in the Journal of Cell Communication and Signaling, would be retracted soon, primarily for duplication.

Sadly, the publication of such work under the auspices of peer review only provides ammunition to charlatans who evoke words such as "vibrational energy" and "quantum healing," and who claim to heal through touch, thought, or other methods of fringe physics.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

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Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.