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Why Proximal Origins Must be Retracted
Can the public trust the scientific community?
Scientific journals exist for one reason. In the words of Nature, one of the preeminent journals, that reason is “curating, enhancing and disseminating research that is rigorous, reproducible and impactful.”
One of the distinguishing features of scientific research is that it is self-correcting, allowing us to collectively approach what we believe to be true. As Carl Sagan said in 1980:
There are many hypotheses in science that are wrong. That's perfectly all right; it's the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.
There are some instances when published research risks defeating the process of self-correction. In such cases, the retraction of a publication may be warranted. The independent Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) explains the purpose of retraction in scientific publishing:
Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to articles that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous content or data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon.
Retraction is not, on its own, a statement about researcher malfeasance or wrongdoing. COPE explains:
Unreliable content or data may result from honest error, naïve mistakes, or research misconduct. The main purpose of retraction is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity rather than to punish the authors.
Retraction requires a judgment call by editors of scientific journals, and COPE offers guidelines for when retraction may be appropriate — in situations such as plagiarism, research misconduct, unethical research, manipulated peer review and failure to disclose a major conflict of interest. Any publication by a scientific journal is subject to retraction (including correspondence, articles, letters, etc), and this is explicit in the guidelines and practices of the Nature family of journals.
Obviously there can be conflicts involved when a publisher is deciding to retract a particular paper, as the decision may result in the journal looking bad (for publishing flawed research in the first place) or associated interests may be impacted. So the politics of retraction can be tricky, even in minor cases.
A primary justification for retraction, according to COPE, is that a publication should be retracted if it is seriously flawed or misleading:
Publications should be retracted as soon as possible after the editor is convinced that the publication is seriously flawed, misleading, or falls into any of the categories described above. Prompt retraction should minimise the number of researchers who cite the erroneous work, act on its findings, or draw incorrect conclusions . . .
The case for retracting Proximal Origins is overwhelming because we now know, undeniably, that it was seriously flawed and misleading. The circumstances surrounding our knowledge of exactly how the publication is flawed and misleading are certainly unique — thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, investigative journalism and a Congressional investigation we have a detailed window into the authors’ discussions during the drafting and publication of the paper.
To be absolutely clear, the basis for retracting Proximal Origins is not because the authors published strong opinions that turned out to have been wrong or even that they may have cherry-picked evidence to support those opinions.
There are two reasons why retraction of Proximal Origins is justified, each is sufficient — unreliable content and a compromised editorial process.
First, the authors misrepresented what they believed and what they knew to be true, when they wrote:
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus. . . we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
As has been well-documented and won’t be repeated here, at every point in time during the drafting of Proximal Origins, during the publication process and following its publication its authors believed that SARS-CoV-2 could in fact be the result of a research-related incident. The figure below provides a useful summary of these views.
As an analogy, imagine if a publication by a number of prominent medical experts stated that the evidence suggests that smoking does not cause cancer, and backed that opinion up with reasoning and evidence. Later, we discover that the authors actually believed that with evidence and reasoning that smoking causes cancer, but failed to share that belief, reasoning and evidence in their paper.
Would retraction be warranted? Yes, obviously.
There is a second reason why retraction of Proximal Origins is necessary — troubling irregularities in the editorial process, including ghost authorship and external pressures placed upon the publisher.
As has been well documented, Jeremy Farrar played a central role in coordinating the paper and in altering its text in the direction of being stronger in the authors’ misdirection over the plausibility of a research-related origin.
One author said of Farrar that he “should be author,” as you can see below.
Such “ghost authorship” is unethical and is itself a basis for a publication’s retraction.
Again, imagine that a publication is published by a university scientist claiming that drug XYZ is safe and effective. Later, we discover that the publication was actually co-written by an employee of the company that sells drug XYZ, but the drug company scientist was not listed as a co-author.
Would there be a basis for retraction? Hell ya.
The editorial process that resulted in the publication of Proximal Origins was also highly irregular. The exact details here are less clear, but we do know that Jeremy Farrar contacted the chief editor of Nature, Magdalena Skipper, to pressure her to publish the paper.
In addition, the authors’ stated that they strengthened their claim that a research-related incident was implausible as a response to a peer-reviewer (Reviewer 2) and their belief that this change in emphasis would facilitate the publication of the paper, despite what they actually believed.
On the day that Proximal Origins was published in Nature Medicine, the chief editor of that journal, Joao Monteiro, Tweeted out a link to the paper with the accompanying statement: “Let's put conspiracy theories about the origin of #SARSCoV2 to rest and help to stop spread of misinformation - great work from @K_G_Andersen”. You can see that Tweet below.
Clearly, the chief editor of Nature Medicine promoted the idea that a research-related origin was a “conspiracy theory” and the authors believed that if they supported this position, that would facilitate the publication of their paper. No doubt it happens more than many would care to admit, but scientific publishing should not be about promoting an editorial position of a journal or the personal views of an editor.
All of this is troubling — Farrar’s hidden hand in seeking to influence the publication process involving a peer-reviewed paper, the apparent stance of a journal’s editor on content and the authors’ willingness to adopt that same perspective — that they themselves did not believe — to facilitate publication.
As Farrar was overseeing the drafting of Proximal Origins he co-signed a letter to The Lancet which stated:
We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. . . Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.
That letter included a citation to a pre-print version of Proximal Origins. Farrar clearly had an interest (for whatever reason) in characterizing a research-related origin as a “conspiracy theory.” That characterization was wildly successful and shaped the public discourse and institutional actions to this day.
In 2021, more than a year after its publication, Farrar stated (via a spokesperson) that Proximal Origins was,
“the most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus to date”
This statement was made in the context of the first revelations of Farrar’s central role in coordinating the paper’s drafting and facilitating its publication.
Without a doubt, the editor of the journal that published Proximal Origins and its primary “ghost author” had interests in characterizing a research-related origin as a “conspiracy theory.” The authors of the paper were happy to oblige. All of this is highly irregular and not only warrants retraction, but Nature and Nature Medicine should investigate and fix their compromised publication processes.
The evidence that we have available makes for an overwhelming case for the retraction of Proximal Origins.
This is not a close call. Not remotely.
There is a much larger issue here that I’ll end on for today. The retraction of Proximal Origins is not just the right thing to do as a matter of established scientific practices. It is also an important test of trust.
Can the public and those who represent them trust the scientific community to conduct their work with integrity?
Proximal Origins is misinformation. I have studied science in policy and politics for more than three decades — and based on my knowledge and experience, I believe Proximal Origins to be the most significant corruption of scientific integrity this century, and probably much longer. The only comparable corruption was the “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco that was used to justify the war in Iraq.
Proximal Origins must be retracted to demonstrate to the world that we in the expert community can be trusted to correct course when we get off track. If we can’t correct course, then we will deserve the resulting loss of authority and legitimacy, to the detriment of science and society.
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