Friday Foolery #49: The Shortest Abstract Ever! [2]

30 03 2012

In a previous Friday Foolery post I mentioned what I thought was the shortest abstract ever.

 “Probably not”.

But a reader (Trollface”pointed out in a comment that there was an even shorter (and much older) abstract of a paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. It was published in 1974.

The abstract simply says: Yes.

It could only be beaten by an abstract saying: “No”, “!”, “?” or a blank one.


Friday Foolery #44. The Shortest Abstract Ever?

2 12 2011

This is the shortest abstract I’ve ever seen:

“probably not”

With many thanks to Michelynn McKnight, PhD, AHIP, Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Science, Louisiana State University, who put it on the MEDLIB-L listserv, saying :  “Not exactly structured …. but a great laugh!”

According to Zemanta (articles related to this post) Future Twit also blogged about it.

Related articles

To Retract or Not to Retract… That’s the Question

7 06 2011

In the previous post I discussed [1] that editors of Science asked for the retraction of a paper linking XMRV retrovirus to ME/CFS.

The decision of the editors was based on the failure of at least 10 other studies to confirm these findings and on growing support that the results were caused by contamination. When the authors refused to retract their paper, Science issued an Expression of Concern [2].

In my opinion retraction is premature. Science should at least await the results of two multi-center studies, that were designed to confirm or disprove the results. These studies will continue anyway… The budget is already allocated.

Furthermore, I can’t suppress the idea that Science asked for a retraction to exonerate themselves for the bad peer review (the paper had serious flaws) and their eagerness to swiftly publish the possibly groundbreaking study.

And what about the other studies linking the XMRV to ME/CFS or other diseases: will these also be retracted?
And what happens in the improbable case that the multi-center studies confirm the 2009 paper? Would Science republish the retracted paper?

Thus in my opinion, it is up to other scientists to confirm or disprove findings published. Remember that falsifiability was Karl Popper’s basic scientific principle. My conclusion was that “fraud is a reason to retract a paper and doubt is not”. 

This is my opinion, but is this opinion shared by others?

When should editors retract a paper? Is fraud the only reason? When should editors issue a letter of concern? Are there guidelines?

Let first say that even editors don’t agree. Schekman, the editor-in chief of PNAS, has no direct plans to retract another paper reporting XMRV-like viruses in CFS [3].

Schekman considers it “an unusual situation to retract a paper even if the original findings in a paper don’t hold up: it’s part of the scientific process for different groups to publish findings, for other groups to try to replicate them, and for researchers to debate conflicting results.”

Back at the Virology Blog [4] there was also a vivid discussion about the matter. Prof. Vincent Ranciello gave the following answer in response to a question of a reader:

I don’t have any hard numbers on how often journals ask scientists to retract a paper, only my sense that it is very rare. Author retractions are more frequent, but I’m only aware of a handful of those in a year. I can recall a few other cases in which the authors were asked to retract a paper, but in those cases scientific fraud was involved. That’s not the case here. I don’t believe there is a standard policy that enumerates how such decisions are made; if they exist they are not public.

However, there is a Guideline for editors, the Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (PDF) [5]

Ivanoranski, of the great blog Retraction Watch, linked to it when we discussed reasons for retraction.

With regard to retraction the COPE-guidelines state that journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  1. they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  2. the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  3. it constitutes plagiarism
  4. it reports unethical research

According to the same guidelines journal editors should consider issuing an expression of concern if:

  1. they receive inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors 
  2. there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case 
  3. they believe that an investigation into alleged misconduct related to the publication either has not been, or would not be, fair and impartial or conclusive 
  4. an investigation is underway but a judgement will not be available for a considerable time

Thus in the case of the Science XMRV/CSF paper an expression of concern certainly applies (all 4 points) and one might even consider a retraction, because the results seem unreliable (point 1). But it is not 100%  established that the findings are false. There is only serious doubt……

The guidelines seem to leave room for separate decisions. To retract a paper in case of plain fraud is not under discussion. But when is an error sufficiently established ànd important to warrant retraction?

Apparently retractions are on the rise. Although still rare (0.02% of all publications by the late 2000s) there has been a tenfold increase in retractions compared to the early 1980s (see review at Scholarly Kitchen [6] about two papers: [7] and [8]). However it is unclear whether increasing rates of retraction reflect more fraudulent or erroneous papers or a better diligence. The  first paper [7] also highlights that, out of fear of litigation, editors are generally hesitant to retract an article without the author’s permission.

At the blog Nerd Alert they give a nice overview [9] (based on Retraction Watch, but then summarized in one post 😉 ) . They clarify that papers are retracted for “less dastardly reasons then those cases that hit the national headlines and involve purposeful falsification of data”, such as the fraudulent papers of Andrew Wakefield (autism caused by vaccination). Besides the mistaken publication of the same paper twice, data over-interpretation, plagiarism and the like, the reason can also be more trivial: ordering the wrong mice or using an incorrectly labeled bottle.

Still, scientist don’t unanimously agree that such errors should lead to retraction.

Drug Monkey blogs about his discussion [10] with @ivanoransky over a recent post at Retraction Watch, which asks whether a failure to replicate a result justifies a retraction [11]”. Ivanoransky presents a case, where a researcher (B) couldn’t reproduce the findings of another lab (A) and demonstrated mutations in the published protein sequence that excluded the mechanism proposed in A’s paper. This wasn’t retracted, possibly because B didn’t follow the published experimental protocols of A in all details. (reminds me of the XMRV controversy). 

Drugmonkey says (quote):  (cross-posted at Scientopia here — hmmpf isn’t that an example of redundant publication?)

“I don’t give a fig what any journals might wish to enact as a policy to overcompensate for their failures of the past.
In my view, a correction suffices” (provided that search engines like Google and PubMed make clear that the paper was in fact corrected).

Drug Monkey has a point there. A clear watermark should suffice.

However, we should note that most papers are retracted by authors, not the editors/journals, and that the majority of “retracted papers” remain available. Just 13.2% are deleted from the journal’s website. And 31% are not clearly labelled as such.

Summary of how the naïve reader is alerted to paper retraction (from Table 2 in [7], see: Scholarly Kitchen [6])

  • Watermark on PDF (41.1%)
  • Journal website (33.4%)
  • Not noted anywhere (31.8%)
  • Note appended to PDF (17.3%)
  • PDF deleted from website (13.2%)

My conclusion?

Of course fraudulent papers should be retracted. Also papers with obvious errors that invalidate the conclusions.

However, we should be extremely hesitant to retract papers that can’t be reproduced, if there is no undisputed evidence of error.

Otherwise we should retract almost all published papers at one point or another. Because if Professor Ioannides is right (and he probably is) “Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong”. ( see previous post [12],  “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” [13])  and Ioannides’ crushing article “Why most published research findings are false [14]”)

All retracted papers (and papers with major deficiencies and shortcomings) should be clearly labeled as such (as Drugmonkey proposed, not only at the PDF and at the Journal website, but also by search engines and biomedical databases).

Or lets hope, with Biochembelle [15], that the future of scientific publishing will make retractions for technical issues obsolete (whether in the form of nano-publications [16] or otherwise):

One day the scientific community will trade the static print-type approach of publishing for a dynamic, adaptive model of communication. Imagine a manuscript as a living document, one perhaps where all raw data would be available, others could post their attempts to reproduce data, authors could integrate corrections or addenda….

NOTE: Retraction Watch (@ivanoransky) and @laikas have voted in @drugmonkeyblog‘s poll about what a retracted paper means [here]. Have you?


  1. Science Asks to Retract the XMRV-CFS Paper, it Should Never Have Accepted in the First Place. ( 2011-06-02)
  2. Alberts B. Editorial Expression of Concern. Science. 2011-05-31.
  3. Given Doubt Cast on CFS-XMRV Link, What About Related Research? (
  4. XMRV is a recombinant virus from mice  (Virology Blog : 2011/05/31)
  5. Retractions: Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Elizabeth Wager, Virginia Barbour, Steven Yentis, Sabine Kleinert on behalf of COPE Council:
  6. Retract This Paper! Trends in Retractions Don’t Reveal Clear Causes for Retractions (
  7. Wager E, Williams P. Why and how do journals retract articles? An analysis of Medline retractions 1988-2008. J Med Ethics. 2011 Apr 12. [Epub ahead of print] 
  8. Steen RG. Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing? J Med Ethics. 2011 Apr;37(4):249-53. Epub 2010 Dec 24.
  9. Don’t touch that blot. ( : 2011/02/25)
  10. What_does_a_retracted_paper_mean? ( 2011/06/03)
  11. So when is a retraction warranted? The long and winding road to publishing a failure to replicate ( : 2011/06/03/)
  12. Much Ado About ADHD-Research: Is there a Misrepresentation of ADHD in Scientific Journals? ( 2011-06-02)
  13. “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” ( :2010/11/)
  14. Ioannidis, J. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Medicine, 2 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
  15. Retractions: What are they good for? ( : 2011/06/04/)
  16. Will Nano-Publications & Triplets Replace The Classic Journal Articles? ( 2011-06-02)

NEW* (Added 2011-06-08):


Merck’s Ghostwriters, Haunted Papers and Fake Elsevier Journals

8 05 2009

What is the purpose of publications? (…) The purpose of data is to support, directly or indirectly, the marketing of our product.” [1, 2]

pmed0020138g001It is well known that studies with significant positive results are easier to find than those with ‘negative’ results. This so called publication bias can arise from the tendency to submit or accept manuscripts that have a positive rather than a negative or neutral result. It can also be the consequence of deliberately overemphasizing positive results or even worse: the results can be “embellished”, (partly) faked or negative results can be “hidden

In fact, pharma-sponsored trials rarely produce results that are unfavorable to the companies’ products [3, 4, 5]. For instance, none of the published 56 trials of  NSAIDs in arthritis identified by Rochon et al in 1994 [3] had outcomes that were unfavorable to the company that sponsored the trials. Another study showed that studies funded by a company were four times more likely to have results favorable to the company than studies funded from other sources [1, 4]

Ghostwriters, who write articles that are officially credited to another person, are part of the tactics. Ghostwriters may be hired by companies to write articles for medical journals that appear under the names of scientists who didn’t substantially contribute to the paper. In extreme cases pharmaceutical companies and their agents control or shape multiple steps in the research, analysis, writing, and publication of articles. This so called ghost management can be outsourced to MECC’s, medical education and communication companies.

All the above approaches, -and more- are said to have been used by Merck to sell their Vioxx (rofecoxib) pills, the blockbusting painkiller, that could cause heart attacks and strokes [6]. Merck knew, but didn’t disclose (all) these adverse effects*. Later it appeared that many Vioxx- manuscripts were prepared by sponsor employees (ghost writers), but attributed to academic investigators who did not always disclose industry financial support. Distancing himself from one such article, first author Jeffrey Lisse said in an interview that:

“Merck designed the trial, paid for the trial, ran the trial…Merck came to me after the study was completed and said, ‘We want your help to work on the paper.’ The initial paper was written at Merck, and then it was sent to me for editing” [NY-times -[2005].

And although Merck has “voluntarily” withdrawn Vioxx from the market in 2004 and has agreed to pay billions to settle lawsuits in the US, the Vioxx-ghost keeps hunting Merck (and us).

In a few weeks 3 news-items have crossed my eyes.

A. The Guardian ( May 4) mentioned that Merck refused to compensate hundreds of Britons who have suffered serious cardiovascular  problems while on Vioxx.  Ministers apparently backed down from supporting these people after lobbying by the company.

B. May 1st NewsInferno com reported that Merck was accused of hiring a ghostwriter for a Circulation paper (2001) to minimize issues linked to Vioxx’s safety, while the well known cardiologist Dr. Marvin Konstam agreed to act as lead author. This was revealed by Prof. Jelinek during an Australian lawsuit against Merck.

C. The above news story was covered by Australian Newspapers including “the Australian“. In its article on the lawsuit, the Australian also devotes one sentence to a fake Elsevier/Merck journal. It says:

“The drug company also allegedly produced an entire journal — called The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine — and passed it off as an independent peer review publication.”

It is this sentence that has caused a tsunami, starting with the Scientist, via to  many other blogs of researchers, publishers, librarians and to newspapers. “Everybody” was alarmed.

What were the allegations? Are they all true? Who is to blame? Merck or Elsevier? Most importantly: is it an isolated incidence, something completely new and what is its impact?

Points addressed by the Scientist (mainly based on interviews, i.e. with George Jelinek)

  1. Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, is published by Exerpta Medica, a division of Elsevier
  2. This Journal is not indexed in the MEDLINE database and has no website.
  3. It had the looks of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles
  4. Most of the articles presented data favorable to the Merck products Fosamax (for osteoporosis) and Vioxx.
  5. So called “review” articles only cited one or two references. Even a meta-analysis contained 2 references, one of which referring to a real meta-analysis.
  6. The articles are “simply a summary of already published articles”
  7. There are several ads for Fosamax and Vioxx.
  8. It is unclear who wrote the editorials
  9. One member of the editorial board, Peter Brooks said that he didn’t ever get manuscripts to review while on the board. Neither was he paid for his role.
  10. There is no disclosure of company sponsorship.
  11. Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes (confirmed by Elsevier).

According to a statement of Merck (see pdf on their website):

“The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine (..) was published by the medical publishing company Elsevier. Merck Sharp & Dohme Australia understood that Elsevier envisaged the complimentary publication would draw on the vast resources of Elsevier, publishers of many leading peer-reviewed journals including Lancet, Bone, Joint Bone Spine and others, to deliver novel and timely full-text articles and abstracts to physicians.”

In the same PDF Merck states that “ghostwriting” allegations concerning the 2001 Circulation paper about VIOXX [item B] are false and that professor Jelinek has witdrawn his accusation under cross examination. According to Merck, the lead author Dr. Marvin Konstam, was in fact very much involved in the study. Indeed, according to the Heartwire, Konstam maintained he acted properly. He  takes full responsibility for everything he has published.

Elsevier acknowledged the concern that the journal didn’t have the appropriate disclosures,” and although they said they had no plans in looking further into the matter, Elsevier disclosed today that in total 6 such fake Australasian Journals were produced (see Scientist).

Now what? An isolated blunder by staff of the Australian Branche of Elsevier who published a fake peer review while Elsevier headquartes and Merck were totally unaware?

First, although I don’t want to triviliaze the affair, obviously this Journal does not pretend to be a peer reviewed paper (i.e. see this pdf, obtained by the Scientist). Any doctor who even considers it to be a peer reviewed paper must have very little experience with critically reading of peer reviewed papers. It is clear from the start that all articles are just copied from other (Elsevier) Journals, the citations are given, articles are classed to type (in black boxes at the tope) and the so called meta-analyses just describes another meta-analysis, which is cited.

The editorial board is called “Honorary”. The advertorials and the repeated mentioning of Merck drugs makes it immediately clear that this Journal is just a so-called throwaway. True, it should have been disclosed at the front page and the Journal’s name and lay-out might suggest otherwise at first glance. And to me as a librarian it is particularly strange that there was an annual subscription for institutions of $250. Throw-aways are usually for free. Furthermore it is not included in Science Direct nor the usual bibliographic databases.

As a matter of fact, this Journal is what you would expect from an “Excerpta Medica Journal”: an excerpt of various articles. At least that’s what the name suggests and that’s what I remember from the old fashioned Excerpta Medica abstract journals I browsed as a post-doc.

But it is remarkable that “the reliable and authorative” Elsevier, publisher of journals like the Lancet, lends itself to a biased publication of articles that only serve as promotional material? Surely this is an exception?

Well, whereas Elsevier itself has dismayed the Lancet by sponsoring one of the largest military exhibitions in the world (CMAJ 2007), its medical and health sciences division Excerpta medica is clearly a separate business. On the Elsevier website 41 titles of Excerpta Medica are listed, but none of the Australian Excerpta clones. Here it says that:

Every journal contains bibliographic references and abstracts summarizing original articles from primary research and clinical journals. The records are carefully selected from 4,000 journals from 70 countries around the world, which makes the Excerpta Medica Abstract Journals very comprehensive.

The home page of Excerpta Medica states that it is an “Elsevier Business”, a strategical medical communications agency, partnering with their clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to educate the global health care community to enable them to make well informed decisions (copied from EBM definition of Sackett, hé?)


Under the heading “strategic planning” it is written that “Our relationship with Elsevier allows us access to editors and editorial boards who provide professional advice and deep opinion leader networks” ….(!!)

I’m not the first one noticing this.

In 2007 the same link was given by the PLOS-paper about ghost management[1], discussed above..

Here Excerpta is mentioned as an example of a MECC.

And not only in this paper. Both a Medscape[7] and a Perspectives in Biology and Medicine article[2] mention the role of Excerpta as a MECC. A citation from the latter:

Recovered documents show that the pharmaceutical company Wyeth hired the MECC Excerpta/Medica to produce several scientific papers on the dangers of obesity and on obesity treatment as part of their marketing strategy for Fen-Phen. Mundy documents that Wyeth paid between $15,000 to $20,000 for Excerpta to prepare each article, of which $1,500 would go to the “named author” as an honorarium. Some completed papers, simply listed as “author to be determined,” lacked a “named author,” while others had made their way in to print or were under review. One doctor, Dr. Richard Atkinson, was so pleased with the arrangement for “Therapeutic Effects of Dexfenfluramine: A Review” that he wrote a thank you note to Excerpta/Medica saying,“Let me congratulate you and your writer. . . . Perhaps I can get you to write all of my papers for me” (Mundy 2002, p. 164).

And Medscape:

What made Excerpta Medica such an inspired choice is that it is a branch of the academic publisher, Reed Elsevier Plc., which publishes many of the world’s most prestigious science journals. Excerpta Medica manages two journals itself: Clinical Therapeutics and Current Therapeutic Research. According to court documents, Excerpta Medica planned to submit most of the articles it produced to Elsevier journals. In the actual event, Excerpta managed to publish only two articles before Fen-Phen was withdrawn from the market in 1997. One appeared in Clinical Therapeutics, the other in the American Journal of Medicine (another Elsevier journal). In neither case did the authors of the articles disclose that they were paid by Excerpta Medica. So clean was the laundering operation, in fact, that many of the authors did not even realize that Wyeth was involved.

By the way Fen_Phen was not particularly effective, and was linked to valvular heart disease, leading to the death of hunderds of people. Even after withdrawal Wyeth spent $100 million on public relations to convince the public that the response had been overblown.

Hereby I do not want to suggest that Excerpta has played a similar role in the Vioxx case, but it does illustrate that Excerpta is a MECC with dangerous principles as it organized the ghostwriting for Wyatt elaborately, using its connections with Elsevier in a very nontransparent way.

I also don’t want to suggest that the followed procedure is unique for Excerpta. Several other MECC’s follow the same approach. For many other examples see the references below, especially [1, 2, 7]. It is really tarnishing. And worth a reading.

However, In my opinion we have to fear more from the strategic publication planning of the MECCs in authentic journals then the fake Australian Excerpta series. Firstly, because the known Journals are far more trustworthy and have far more impact than the throwaways. Secondly because the phenomenon of ghostwriting is widespread, also among “first class Journals”. A conservative benchmark for ghostwriting of papers published in biomedical journals is roughly 10%[2], but in particular cases the percentage may be much higher [1]. This has caused Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ to sigh that “Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies.”

Anyway, I bet that my doctor did not describe Vioxx for my backache 10 years ago because he read “The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine”. Rather he must directly or indirectly have learned from the results of the VIGOR trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

With respect to the citation I began with, it is not from Merck, but from Pfizer as an answer to the question: “What is the purpose of publications?” on the header on a Pfizer sales document (2000)


  1. Sismondo, S. (2007). Ghost Management: How Much of the Medical Literature Is Shaped Behind the Scenes by the Pharmaceutical Industry? PLoS Medicine, 4 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040286
  2. Moffatt, B., & Elliott, C. (2007). Ghost Marketing: Pharmaceutical Companies and Ghostwritten Journal Articles Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 50 (1), 18-31 DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2007.0009
    The whole issue is dedicated to this topic: Perspectives_in_biology_and_medicine.
  3. Rochon PA, Gurwitz JH, Simms RW, Fortin PR, Felson DT, et al. A study of manufacturer-supported trials of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the treatment of arthritis. Arch Intern Med. 1994;154:157–163. [PubMed]
  4. Lexchin J, Bero LA, Djulbegovic B, Clark O. Pharmaceutical industry sponsorship and research outcome and quality. BMJ. 2003;326:1167–1170. [PubMed]
  5. Smith R. Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies. PLoS Med. 2005 May; 2(5): e138. Published online 2005 May 17. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020138.
  6. Ross JS, Hill KP, Egilman DS, Krumholz HM. Guest Authorship and Ghostwriting in Publications Related to Rofecoxib: A Case Study of Industry Documents From Rofecoxib Litigation JAMA. 2008;299(15):1800-1812.

Photo Credits

Margaret Shear, Public Library of Science, see [6]

*Merck has never admitted that Vioxx could cause a cardiovascular risk, but the general idea is they just covered it up.