Journal Apologizes for Retracting XMRV Paper Without Contacting Author

In another unusual twist in the tumultuous history of XMRV, the journal PLoS Pathogens has apologized to a corresponding author for retracting the first paper on the virus without contacting him beforehand. In a statement posted on PLoS Blogs on Friday, Editor-in-Chief Kasturi Haldar acknowledged that the 2006 paper should not have been pulled without consulting Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, one of two corresponding authors. But Haldar defended the editorial decision to retract the paper, which has been the subject of an intense online debate for the past week.

PLoS Pathogens retracted the paper, which reported the discovery of XMRV and its putative link to prostate cancer, on 18 September after a new study, co-authored by Silverman and published in PLoS ONE, had shown that the 2006 findings were the result of an accidental lab contamination. Silverman says he was "completely blindsided" by the retraction; he felt a correction would have been enough because the discovery of XMRV as a new virus still stands and other papers have corrected the erroneous link to prostate cancer.

PLoS Pathogens says it did notify the other corresponding author, Joseph DeRisi of the University of California, San Francisco—with whom editors had corresponded during the submission and review of the paper -- about the impending retraction in a 27 August e-mail; when DeRisi didn't reply, the editors retracted on their own. Since then, "We have apologized for not contacting the second corresponding author," Haldar's statement says. "Our expectation was that the first would discharge responsibilities to all remaining authors. We have since corresponded with all authors."

On Saturday, DeRisi posted a response to the retraction, in which he said he agreed with it. But whether he received the 27 August e-mail, and if so, why he failed to respond or to alert his co-authors, remains unclear. (DeRisi did not respond to multiple emails and voice messages from ScienceInsider.) Silverman says he cannot comment on DeRisi's inaction; "Suffice it to say we have not been in contact for a long time," he says. As to the journal's apology, "I accept it, and I really appreciate it," he says.

Retraction guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) say that editors should negotiate with authors on how to phrase a retraction, but not whether a journal should contact all of the authors, or what it should do when they don't respond to an e-mail. The XMRV paper may well lead to more specific guidelines in the future, says COPE Chair Virginia Barbour, who's also PLoS medicine editorial director.

Meanwhile, a vigorous debate has erupted on whether the paper by DeRisi and Silverman needed to be retracted in the first place. Readers of PLoS Blogs and the Web site Retraction Watch have argued that there is no need to retract papers with honest mistakes in them, and that the word retraction carries the connotation of scientific misconduct.

Haldar stands by the decision to retract, on which "six senior PLoS Pathogens editors unanimously agreed," given that its key findings were wrong. But in a post following her statement, Barbour acknowledges that there is "a clear need to have a discussion about how to annotate the literature post publication," and invites readers to chime in. "Specifically, it is clear that somehow 'retraction' implies 'malfeasance' and although we at PLOS don't share that view, we understand that it is others' perception," Barbour writes.