Thursday, February 29, 2024

Exposing Defective Research, But Denied Credit: Case 3


Over the years, I have documented cases in which my colleague and I exposed fatal errors in published articles about smoke-free products, but neither authors nor editors acknowledged our efforts.

The first case involved researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Minnesota, whose Journal of the National Cancer Institute Cancer Spectrum article (here) reported on overall and cause-specific mortality among users of various tobacco products. The second instance involved an article about e-cigarettes and respiratory diseases in which the authors, including a former member of an FDA Tobacco advisory panel, had deleted data on over 27,000 ever e-cigarette users with no mention or explanation, among other problems (here.

In both cases, our criticism was accepted as legitimate by the authors and editors, but the parties defied medical publishing ethics when they failed to publicly acknowledge our work and, instead, made it appear that the errors were discovered by the authors.

That same sequence is now playing out again.

Dayawa Agoons and coauthors published a study on November 22, 2021, in the American Journal of Medicine Open claiming, “There was a graded increase in the prevalence of fragility fractures among sole conventional cigarette smokers and dual users of traditional and e-cigarettes [among 5,569 men and women in their sample].  Electronic cigarette use may be detrimental to bone health.”  They used data from the 2017-18 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). 

Working with the same data, my colleague Nantaporn Plurphanswat and I discovered that Agoons had overcounted the eligible sample.  There were only 3,069 participants, not the reported 5,569.  On December 22, we submitted a letter to the editor calling for retraction, since none of the study results could survive a sample change of this magnitude.

Six months later, on June 8, I was informed by the editor-in-chief that our letter was accepted.  On June 29, I reviewed and proofed our letter in the Elsevier system, but then it disappeared. 

I wrote to Elsevier on October 18, saying, “I made these [copy editing] changes almost 4 months ago.  Please let me know why this article has not been published.”  I received the following reply on October 19:

“Dear Dr. Rodu,

“Many thanks for your email. Your article has not yet been finalised as we are still waiting for the Editor in Chief to submit their proof of your article. I have sent them a reminder that this needs to be done and will let you know of any updates.

“Best wishes,

Poppy Biggs

Journal Manager

ELSEVIER | Operations | Research Content Operations”

Today I learned that Agoons and colleagues published a corrigendum that includes completely revised tables and figure.  It was “Available online 16 June 2022,” which was eight days after the editor accepted our letter. 

The corrigendum states, “it has been discovered that the study included subjects that should have been excluded.”  Our letter forced the authors to delete nearly 45% of their original study sample, yet they wrote, “the magnitude/significance of [the original] results remains unchanged.”

Authors and editors who behave this way undermine the quality of their work.  We don’t have the resources to conduct a full re-analysis of Agoons’s corrigendum, but one glaring item suggests its poor quality: Their new figure is labeled with the NHANES years analyzed “2107-2018.” 

When editors and authors collaborate to cover up egregious mistakes, they undermine the integrity and scientific value of their work.



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