Retrospective correction: how far back do we go?

Case number:
00-21

Case text (Anonymised)

In 1990 a case report was published in which it was alleged that the use of a particular endotracheal tube had led to tracheal damage, requiring the child to have a tracheostomy and a tracheal reconstruction. This paper was from a specialist surgical unit, and a letter was subsequently received from the paediatricians who had cared for the baby at the referring hospital before and after the transfer to the surgical unit. They pointed out that the baby had never needed a tracheostomy, and that in fact the child had had dysmorphic features with an abnormal upper airway, which may have accounted for the problems that occurred subsequently. This letter was shown to the authors of the case report, who replied; both letters were published in the journal. The reply was an extraordinary brush-off, which said that misuse of this particular tube could lead to tracheal stenosis, and that whether the child was dysmorphic or whether he did not eventually require a tracheostomy was irrelevant, adding “we believe that the child was fortunate not to need tracheostomy. ” This issue was resurrected because over nine years after the original publication one of the authors of the critical letter offered the journal a filler article, using this story as a lesson about the possible unreliability of conclusions from single case reports. The writer of the filler article did not give a reference to the paper or the journal, but since he seemed to be suggesting misleading and inaccurate publication, he was asked for the reference and it turned out that the journal was responsible. It is clear that the case report published was grossly inaccurate and misleading, and it is very surprising that the journal allowed the authors of it to get away with such an offhand reply. At the very least the journal would now have made the authors of the original paper publish a correction, with an apology from them, or that perhaps more probably the journal would have made them withdraw the paper, saying that the report was inaccurate and the conclusions could not be relied on. Is it worth doing anything about this now? The main conclusion is that the journal’s standards about what is acceptable in publications and in errors in publications have markedly changed over the past nine years. But should the journal now acknowledge errors made long ago, and if so how long ago?

Advice: 

_ There are three main issues: the continuing possibility of harm, pollution of the scientific literature, and results that had been obtained through scientific fraud. _ There should be no time limit on retractions, but editors cannot be expected to retract all obsolete work. _ An editorial on “lessons in retraction” could be written, airing concerns that had come to light recently, to which the authors could be invited to respond, and asking the question “how far back do we go?”

Follow up: 

The journal decided not to retract the article, and the editorial is still pending.

Year: