Article Retraction Protest

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Article Retraction Protest

Researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences Protest Article Retraction by Editors of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

October 18, 2016

As of October 2016, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (FHN) was rated the most-cited journal in psychology, the most-cited open-access neuroscience journal, and the 10th most-cited journal in all of neuroscience, giving it one of the highest impact factors within academic psychology and neuroscience.

Researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) submitted a manuscript in November 2015 to FHN entitled “Prediction of Mortality Based on Facial Characteristics.” It was peer-reviewed, accepted, and published on May 17, 2016. 

The article reported the results of an experiment in which people were asked to guess if individuals depicted in photographs were presently alive or deceased. Participants were people who claimed to be able to use intuition or clairvoyance to sense this type of information through photographs alone. Half of the photographs were of deceased individuals, and the other half were of living individuals. All photos used in the experiment were transformed into a uniform gray scale and then counterbalanced across eight categories: gender, age, gaze direction, glasses, head position, smile, hair color, and image resolution. Overall mean accuracy on this task was significantly higher than expected by chance (p<0.005, two-tailed). The researchers also collected 32-channel electrophysiological recordings and observed a robust difference between images of deceased individuals correctly vs. incorrectly classified in the early event related potential (ERP) at 100 ms post-stimulus onset.

The authors concluded that the results of the experiment supported claims of certain individuals who report that some as-yet unknown features of the face predict mortality. The discussion in the article stated conservatively that “The most straightforward interpretation of our results is that the participants were sensitive to facial features that indicated impending health problems. This is plausible given that other research has shown it is possible to predict cardiovascular problems or mortality based on facial features alone, sometimes decades in advance. Similarly, facial changes caused by smoking are well known.” The conclusion also stated that “Regarding alleged claims of clairvoyance by the tested subjects, our data does not allow for a rigorous test of that hypothesis, but it is certainly compatible with it. Our data does warrant further investigation of that hypothesis.”

Not only was the article peer-reviewed and published, but on May 26, 2016 it was featured by the Frontiers Press Office on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. From May through October 6, 2016, this article was viewed over 7,500 times, making it one of the most-viewed articles in the journal’s history and placing it in the top 5% of the more than 6 million articles tracked by Altmetric, an organization that specializes in measuring scientific impact.

On August 11, 2016, Dr. Gearóid Ó Faoleán, the Ethics and Integrity Manager of FHN, sent IONS an email stating that the article was going to be retracted. He wrote:

We have become aware of serious issues concerning the scientific soundness and methodology of your published article. Following an internal investigation by the journal Chief Editors and senior Frontiers editorial staff, it was determined that the paper does not meet the scientific standards of the journal and will shortly be retracted….The investigation concluded that the methods, results and assertions contained within the article did not meet the standards of academic scientific research.  The retraction of the article was approved by the Chief Editors of Human Neuroscience and the Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers.

In this email, the lead author of the article (a neuroscientist, one of the world’s leading experts in EEG analysis, and a frequent reviewer for Frontiers) was asked if the authors would like to submit a statement concurring with this decision. He was informed that the retraction would take place whether or not they agreed.

IONS researchers responded immediately stating that they could not make an informed decision about whether or not to concur with the decision without asking about the specific nature of the concerns. What scientific standards were not met? What problems were there with the methods, results, or assertions? Dr. Faoleán refused to reveal the content of these concerns, stating that the retraction would occur with no further discussion and that “as a publisher, Frontiers alone must take responsibility for and assert its prerogative over content published within its journals.”

Declining to reveal the reasons that a peer-reviewed and published paper is being retracted and not allowing the authors to respond to those reasons is unethical. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Retraction Guidelines (2009) state: "If serious concerns are raised by readers, reviewers, or others, about the conduct, validity, or reporting of academic work, editors should initially contact the authors (ideally all authors) and ​​allow them to respond to the concerns." Additionally, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (2010) states that when an article is being considered for correction, retraction, or an expression of concern: “If substantial doubts arise about the honesty or integrity of work, either submitted or published, it is the editor's responsibility to ensure that the question is appropriately pursued, usually by the authors’ sponsoring institution.” As an exemplar, Nature Publishing Group recommends the following guidelines for retractions: “Readers wishing to draw the editors' attention to published work requiring retraction should first contact the authors of the original paper and then write to the journal, including copies of the correspondence with the authors (whether or not the correspondence has been answered).”

The COPE guidelines list four typical reasons an article is retracted: 1) clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, whether due to fraud or methodological errors, 2) the findings were previously published, 3) plagiarism, or 4) use of unethical research methods. Further, they state that “retraction should usually be reserved for publications that are so seriously flawed (for whatever reason) that their findings or conclusions should not be relied upon.”

When queried about whether any of these were involved in the decision to retract the paper, Dr. Faoleán wrote to the lead author, stating, “There is no accusation of fraud contained within the retraction.” In addition, no methodological mistakes were cited, the paper was not previously published, it was not plagiarized, and the protocol followed by the researchers was approved by the institutional review board in charge of human subjects protections.

The October 5, 2016 retraction announcement on the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience website reads:

The journal retracts the 17 May 2016 article cited above. Following publication, concerns were raised regarding the scientific validity of the article. The Chief Editors subsequently concluded that aspects of the paper's findings and assertions were not sufficiently matched by the level of verifiable evidence presented. The retraction of the article was approved by the Chief Editors of Human Neuroscience and the Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers. The authors do not agree to the retraction.

Despite numerous queries, to date no methodological or interpretive concerns have been revealed to the authors. A letter to Dr. Faoleán by the chief executive of IONS received no reply. Given that none of the ordinary criteria for retraction were met, and repeated requests for an opportunity to respond to specific criticisms were ignored, the reasons for the retraction remain unknown.

Our own scouring of the article for any potential mistakes or concerns that were retraction-worthy revealed a rounding error in the percentage of correctly identified photographs, from 53.8% to 53.6% which changed the p value from p < .004 to p < .005. This error has been corrected in our current manuscript, but it was not an error that would result in retraction. Rather, it would require an “erratum” to be published.

Science thrives on healthy debate, not on censorship. Good researchers welcome serious scientific critiques and constructive dialogue, and are motivated to correct any confirmed errors to preserve the integrity of their work.

The Institute of Noetic Sciences and the authors of this article protest this retraction. We call upon the senior editors of Frontiers to provide an opportunity for the authors to respond to specific concerns raised by their investigation, or to reinstate the article. In the meantime, we are seeking an alternative publication outlet.

Whether or not our colleagues in the scientific community are inclined to entertain the subject matter of the article in question, all academic scholars should object to unethical retractions of peer-reviewed published research. We encourage you to comment below and send an email protesting this action to editorial.office@frontiersin.org


References
International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (2010). Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: Writing and editing for biomedical publication.  Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics; 1(1):42-58.

Wager, E; Barbour, V; Yentis, S; Kleinert, S on behalf of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)  (2009) Retraction guidelines. Open-Access http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines.pdf