The Top Retractions of 2020
The Retraction Watch team takes a look at the most important publishing mistakes this year.
Dec 15, 2020
As 2020 was the year of the pandemic, COVID-19 loomed large in the world of retractions, too. According to our tracker in early December, 39 articles about the novel coronavirus have been retracted from preprint servers or peer-reviewed journals so far—a number we’re confident will grow. (That number does not include the retraction of an article from a Johns Hopkins student newspaper claiming that COVID-19 has had “relatively no effect on deaths in the United States.”) That’s out of a total of more than 1,650 retractions catalogued to date in 2020. Here are our picks for the most significant pandemic-related retractions:
1 The most spectacular flameouts involved a pair of articles that appeared in two of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. Both The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine were forced to remove articles that relied on data from a questionable firm called Surgisphere, which refused to share its results with coauthors and the editors involved.
2 Although The Lancet article’s conclusions on hydroxychloroquine were ultimately disregarded, numerous studies to follow determined that the drug is ineffective against COVID-19. The dubious therapy, which President Donald Trump boasted of having taken, was also the subject of this preprint, which was withdrawn in May—but not before the Fox TV personality Laura Ingraham touted the study, as did Didier Raoult, the French scientist whose work with hydroxy early in the pandemic sparked widespread, if misguided, optimism about its use.
3 Hydroxychloroquine also was at the heart of a clever “sting” operation by a pair of researchers in Europe who were alarmed by what they believed to be predatory behavior by the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health (AJMH), which had published a roundly criticized paper heralding the drug. They published a sham paper in the AJMH purporting to find that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was “unexpectedly deadlier than push-scooters,” and that hydroxychloroquine might be the “unique solution.” The journal reacted indignantly to being called out, retracting the hoax article, but left the initial paper intact—which was fine with the jokesters, one of whom told us, “yes the article deserves to be withdrawn—but it should NEVER have been published in the first place, that’s the beauty of the story.”
4 The same week as the Lancet and NEJM Surgisphere retractions, the Annals of Internal Medicine backtracked on a highly-cited paper it published in April that purported to find that masks were ineffective at preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The article, which became a media—and social media—star, was woefully light on data, based in fact on just four subjects.
5 If lack of data was a problem for some papers, others suffered from a complete lack of common sense. Like this article, which claimed that COVID-19 resulted from 5G telecom energy. The quickly retracted paper earned the title of the “worst paper of 2020” from data-sleuth Elisabeth Bik.
6 In the category of “not retracted but should never have been published,” we’ll offer up this book chapter, which claims that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite.
7 Sticking with fantastical thinking, Science of the Total Environment must have been in that headspace when it published this paper claiming that wearing amulets could ward off COVID-19 (pro tip: they don’t). After an uproar on Twitter, the coauthors of the article called for its retraction, although the journal has yet to definitively remove—or replace—the work.
8 PLOS ONE issued an expression of concern for a paper it published in September suggesting that vitamin D might protect against severe COVID-19. The move came after criticism on Twitter by Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist in Sydney who pointed out, among other issues, that the study relied on a small number of patients and appeared to show a null result.
9 After a preprint they relied on for epidemiological data from China was withdrawn, researchers at Imperial College London corrected a paper that, in the words of The Washington Post, “helped upend U.S. and U.K. coronavirus strategies.” The study projected that COVID-19 would kill half a million people in the UK, and more than 2 million in the US, if restrictions were not put into place, which prompted the UK government to implement social distancing and isolation measures. The authors told us they were confident that data available later had affirmed their overall findings.
10 Cellular & Molecular Immunology took three days to accept a paper about how COVID-19 might infect white blood cells—similar to HIV’s strategy—and then took three months to retract it after a researcher sent them a letter critiquing the study. The critic, Leonardo Ferreira, tweeted that “no primary #human #Tcells were used & the #flowcytometry data for #viral #infection were egregiously misinterpreted.” In the time before it was retracted, according to Altmetric, it earned coverage in New York magazine and other mainstream outlets, and was the subject of thousands of tweets.