26 September 2012

Why not retract the rat cancer / GM corn paper?

Those who have looked at mMy mini-crusade to get the conflict of interest statement changed on the forthcoming paper by Séralini and colleagues might well ask: “Why change the conflict of interest statement alone? Why not just retract the paper?”

Henry Miller makes the case for retraction in Forbes this morning. In short, he argues that Séralini and colleagues are con men:

There is no question that the publication of Séralini’s latest attack on genetically engineered foods was a well-planned and cleverly orchestrated media event. The study was designed to produce exactly the false result that was observed and was deliberately allowed to continue until large, grotesque tumors developed.

I think retraction is a bad idea. First,those opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods seem to be prone to conspiracy theories (the trailer for Tous Cobayes? makes this clear). The anti-GM would revel in the retraction, and see it as proof of a cover-up by the establishment. I don’t see any way for the retraction to come out as a win for scientific integrity.

I think updating the conflict of interest statement is a win, because it invokes something that the anti-GM people in Tous Cobayes? bring up as something they want:


The anti-GM crowd say there is a cover-up and information being suppressed? Fine. Now be held to that standard. There should be no objection to disclosing funding sources. There should be no objection to noting that the lead author has a book. There should be no objection to pointing out that documentary film crews were in the lab filming the results of this project.

There is also a broader issue of when a journal should retract a paper, and what retraction indicates. The editors of PLOS Pathogens have recently announced they will retract papers unilaterally if a paper’s main conclusions are shown to be wrong. I weighed in on this in the comments about this on Retraction Watch, and my comments there are relevant here. If I may be allowed to quote myself:

The situation now is that “retraction” is a cryptic, inconsistently applied marker for “a bad problem.” Why not just make it explicit and descriptive?

“Contains fabricated data.”

“Experiment not supported by replication.”

“Incorrect statistical analyses.”

“Correct data sharing agreements not signed as required by law.”

People sometimes talk about “the scientific record” as though is should be some sort of pristine, distilled essence of very important knowledge. (For instance, you hear people talking about results they don’t think are important “cluttering up the record”.) It isn’t, and never has been, so trying to purify the “scientific record” is a fool’s errand. Leave it all it, but work on better follow-up, tracking, and commentary.

Retracting the paper by Séralini now would be a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horses have gone. It’s too late.

No comments: