Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Retractions as references

A reader pointed out an interesting article to me that was published in October 2012 on PLoS:
Investigation of CD28 Gene Polymorphisms in Patients with Sporadic Breast Cancer in a Chinese Han Population in Northeast China by
Shuang Chen equal contributor, Qing Zhang equal contributor, Liming Shen, Yanhong Liu, Fengyan Xu, Dalin Li, Zhenkun Fu, Weiguang Yuan, Da Pang, Dianjun Li
Down in the article there is a statement that is referenced like this:
Compared with rs35593994 ‘G’, rs35593994 ‘A’ may promote transcription of the CD28 gene by the presence of a binding site available for the CCAAT enhancer-binding protein, but not GFI1 (which functions as a transcriptional repressor) [36]. 
Okay, I don't understand a word of this, but I can follow the reference:
36. Rathinam C, Klein C (2012) Retraction: transcriptional repressor gfi1 integrates cytokine-receptor signals controlling B-cell differentiation. PLoS One 7.
Retraction? Are they citing the retraction of the article as a reference for what had been stated in the article retracted? The retraction notice from July 2012 is pretty clear:
The authors wish to retract the article "Transcriptional repressor Gfi1 integrates cytokine-receptor signals controlling B-cell differentiation" by Chozhavendan Rathinam and Christoph Klein. PLoS ONE 2007, 2(3):e306.

After publication of the article, concerns were raised regarding the control bands in Figure 5A, and in particular, whether the bands represent total STAT5. Examination of the original Western blot data revealed that primary Western blot documents were not archived with due diligence. As a consequence, the doubts about the proper representation of the control bands in Figure 5A could not be unambiguously resolved. This course of action is in line with the recommendation issued by Hannover Medical School.
Retraction Watch noted in September 2012 that this was the second retraction for these authors, who often publish together. The retracted paper is listed on a CV of Rathinam's (that may, however, be automatically gathered from the web), but the retraction notice is not there. Klein has neither the retracted paper nor the retraction listed on his CV.

The question asked by my correspondent is: Does anyone actually READ the papers that are submitted to PLoS? It is supposedly a peer-reviewed online journal. Or is there a reason for quoting the retraction notice in this manner that escapes me?


  1. There are legitimate reasons to cite retractions, here, I would assume that the authors wanted to express (a more polite version of) this: "Just in case any of our readers have not noticed it, we'd like to point out that this result that was published about GFI1 is not, in fact, likely to be true. Consequently, we do not have to talk about it in any detail here."

  2. But just because the paper that purported to prove something had to be retracted doesn't mean that it is thus false. It means we have to start over, it could be true, could not be true.