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Journal will not retract influential paper by botanist accused of plagiarism and fraud

The journal BMC Medicine has decided not to retract a controversial 2013 paper by botanist Steven Newmaster of the University of Guelph (UG) that questioned the purity of herbal remedies and had far-reaching effects on the nutritional supplement industry. An earlier UG investigation had cleared Newmaster of misconduct.

“Following [the] investigation … the Editor has concluded that no further editorial action is needed at this point,” a 9 September Editor’s Note on the journal’s website says. But BMC Medicine retained a note posted in February alerting readers that doubts had arisen about the reliability of the paper’s data.

“We still believe that the BMC Medicine paper is fraudulent,” says Ken Thompson, a Stanford University postdoctoral fellow who first blew the whistle on Newmaster’s work and signed a 2021 complaint that alleged he committed scientific misconduct. “We plan to place our full set of concerns into the public domain soon,” Thompson says. He and fellow critics fault not just the journal, but also what they see as a cover-up by the university.

Newmaster did not respond to a request for comment today.

In the BMC Medicine article, Newmaster and colleagues reported using a technique called DNA barcoding to verify the contents of popular supplements. They found that many contained inert fillers and contaminants, including toxic substances. The work eventually led major stores to pull their products from the shelves and helped Newmaster become a sought-after expert and industry consultant. He certified the purity of supplements and other products and raised millions of dollars for academic and commercial ventures to advance his ideas.

The complaint, which was signed by eight scientists, including two of Newmaster’s co-authors, alleged that the paper and two others by Newmaster were based on “missing, fraudulent, or plagiarized data.” Independent DNA barcoding specialists supported those concerns, as detailed in a February Science investigation that also described other cases of alleged plagiarism and invented facts in Newmaster’s teaching, lectures, biographical materials, media interviews, and published work.

But the UG investigation, completed in June, concluded that, although Newmaster showed “a pattern of poor judgement and failed to apply the standards reasonably expected in research activity in his discipline,” there was “insufficient evidence” he had engaged in misconduct.

Lin Lee, chief editor of BMC Medicine, said in an email to Science that the journal followed guidelines set by the Committee on Publication Ethics in evaluating the concerns. The editors also consulted with an independent reviewer with subject matter expertise and reviewed the investigation by UG, Lee says. She declined to disclose the identity of the reviewer.

“We have kept the previous Editor’s Note on the paper to maintain the accuracy of the scientific record,” Lee said. She did not respond to a question about whether the journal stands by the accuracy of the article. “If we become aware of additional concerns with the paper then we will look into them and carefully consider whether further action may be appropriate,” she said.

“It doesn’t make very much sense,” Thompson says. “The editors didn’t speak to us at all. They asked us no questions. We have no idea about the rigor of the journal’s own investigation.”

Thompson studied under Newmaster as an undergraduate at UG and published a 2014 study on forest plants with him that was among the papers challenged. Thompson requested a retraction of the study and provided evidence that Newmaster had surreptitiously used records from a separate, unrelated study rather than valid data. The journal Biodiversity and Conservation retracted the paper last fall. Thompson says BMC Medicine appears to have dismissed similar evidence about the supplements paper based on a superficial UG investigation.

Alison Avenell of the University of Aberdeen and Andrew Grey and Mark Bolland, both at the University of Auckland, who exposed fraud on a massive scale by a Japanese bone researcher, say journals often don’t take alleged misconduct seriously. The BMC Medicine paper illustrates journals’ reluctance to provide detailed responses to detailed complaints of misconduct, they write in a joint comment in response to questions from Science. “Authors submitting work for publication are asked to provide a point-by-point response to reviewers’ comments, yet journals cannot manage to do the same when integrity concerns are raised,” the three researchers say.

UG never made public its examination of Newmaster’s work, they add. In effect, the university asked that the public “trust that they have done a fair, thorough job, when the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.”

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