Yesterday, John Bohannon reported on his deeply (and intentionally) flawed study claiming chocolate accelerates weight loss. Today, we have a new twist: The editor of the journal that published his paper claims they never really published it in the first place, despite emails to Bohannon to the contrary.
One of the most popular questions about Bohannon’s long con on the weaknesses of peer review in successfully filtering for quality scientific research and on the dangers of press-release science journalism is whether the paper would be retracted now that it’s been publicly acknowledged by its lead author as inherently flawed science.
Retraction Watch covers in detail why a retraction was always going to be unlikely since Bohannon technically followed the rules — but then things took a strange turn. Carlos Vázquez, CEO and editor for iMed.pub, the umbrella organization of the International Archives of Medicine, made a public statement on the journal’s Facebook group, claiming they never really meant to publish the controversial study in the first place:
Disclaimer: Weeks ago a manuscript that was being reviewed in the journal “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” appeared as published by mistake. Indeed that manuscript was finally rejected, although it went online for some hours.
We are sorry for the inconvenience. We are taking measures to avoid this kind of mistakes happens again.
Yet, Bohannon provided Retraction Watch with copies of his emails with Vázquez in which the paper was explicitly accepted:
I’m contacting to let you know your manuscript “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator” has been pointed by our editors as an outstanding manuscript and could be accepted directly in our premier journal *International Archives of Medicine.*
The email thread continues into details on the publishing timeline and reviewing proofs before publication, with Vázquez writing, “[Y]ou will receive the proofs in few days, so your article will be probably published next week.” They collected publication fees and the paper was online: we’re left wondering what exactly “publishing” means if this was a rejection. But now, the paper has been pulled from the International Archives of Medicine website.
While the debate about whether science journalism should cross over advocacy through this kind of disruption continues, now we have a new wrinkle: How should a journal respond to a problem like this? Flawed research happens all the time — peer review is notoriously uncertain and even accused of being no better than random chance, while entertaining fake papers make the news every month. Is pulling a paper with the retroactive claim that it had always been rejected more or less trustworthy than simply issuing a retraction?
Update: You can read the whole paper here.
Image credit: weegeebored