Biblical flu paper going bye-bye

Well, that was quick. Yesterday's post highlighting a really terrible paper in BMC's Virology Journal drew a lot of comments here and at Pharyngula, and attention at the journal (where it currently stands as the 5th most-accessed article in the last 30 days). The journal's Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert F. Garry, this in the comments section to my post:

As Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal I wish to apologize for the publication of the article entitled ''Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time", which clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and does not meet the high standards expected of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Virology Journal has always operated an exceptionally high standard of thorough peer review; this article has clearly not met these thresholds for balance and supporting data and as such, the article will be retracted. I should like to apologize for any confusion or concern that this article may have caused among our readership, or more widely.

Whilst only ever intended as an opinion piece and also a bit of relief from the 'normal' business of the journal, the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal. Biomed Central does not support any views outlined in this article.

He also noted that the retraction will appear shortly. (This comment also appears in the comments section of the paper itself).

While saying it's "only opinion" and removing the paper is a good first step, it's still unclear to me how this passed peer review in the first place. I have a ton of opinions that have way more scientific support than that manuscript did, but I'm sensible enough to realize that they still won't be able to pass any rigorous peer-review muster--that's one reason I have a blog, after all, is to air these random musings. Articles that are a bit more amusing and a departure from the norm of the journal are all well and good (check out this article, for example), but for the "Biblical flu" one, either the reviewers/editor got conned or really let something slip through the cracks.

Either way, the retraction is a deserved result and a quick response by the journal and Dr. Garry, but something that really shouldn't have been fodder for me to mock in the first place.

More like this

In Manufacturing or Service companies, this would be called a defect and would trigger, if the organization was reasonably accountable, a process called Root Cause / Corrective (or Preventive) Action. The appropriate people would identify the Root Cause and take action to eliminate the cause(s).

Unfortunately, people accept a high degree of mediocrity in modern life and data about product failure often does not make it back to the point where it is actionable.

It would be interesting if Dr. Garry were to publish the results of an investigation here, along with steps taken to remove the causes (I like to think that if I were the Editor-In-Chief, I would do so, even at the risk of my position - think of Jayson Blair at the NYT), but I'm not expecting it.

By ralphgentile3 (not verified) on 11 Aug 2010 #permalink


I implied above that the management at NYT investigated their culpability in Mr. Blair's misadventures and published the same. I don't know whether they did this, but they seem to have put on a credible show of humility in the wake of the scandal.

By ralphgentile3 (not verified) on 11 Aug 2010 #permalink

Now it has become number 1 most visited articles. This is not the only problem though.. I think we should examine what else the authors have written.

If the author did not have prior publications, I would have said it's a journalist who's trying to trick the journal...

It is also possible it was meant to be an April 1st article that got in the wrong pipeline.

Yeah! And Yay! I love it when a plan works out.

If it was "meant as an opinion piece" did it go through peer review at all? If not what are the criteria for an "opinion piece"?
If this passed peer review then obviously whoever did the reviewing should not be used again. That would be a good start.
If it never hit peer review, the process and/or criteria for "opinion pieces" needs to be seriously examined.

Retracting the mistake is not enough. Action needs to be taken to prevent the same kind of thing from happening again. And it may be appropriate to re-examine recent published content to see if any other material is questionable.

Ridicule -- gotta love it!

By Nattering Nabo… (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink

I almost have to suspect that some creationist group managed to get one (or more) of their members into positions of influence at the Virology Journal for this thing to get published. That is certainly a better alternative to truly gross incompetence that it would otherwise indicate exists there.

I would really hate to be a scientist with any articles published in THAT journal (at least within the last couple years). There's an ugly smell coming from that journal's direction that a quick retraction cannot clear so quickly (at least not as quickly as Jesus can cure a woman of influenza!)

Much as I want to be nice and all that, I don't buy the "we were only kidding!" defense. I've heard that too many times to give it much weight. I think this was either incompetence, or some of the editors knew exactly what they were doing.

Note: 2 days later and still there is no indication on the original publication that it is anything other than 'highly accessed'. Anyone getting the paper from the original URL would be led to believe that the paper is still vouched for by the journal's editors.

It might be a good idea to put the "Retracted" label somewhere in proximity to the paper itself.

(I know that journal editors and reviewers are rarely paid. But does that mean they can allow themselves to act like amateurs?)

They could have tried Journal of Irreproducible Results, maybe?

Retracting the mistake is not enough. Action needs to be taken to prevent the same kind of thing from happening again. And it may be appropriate to re-examine recent published content to see if any other material is questionable.