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.
This piece in Science, further illustrates how journals resist retracting papers they are published, despite evidence that they are problematic. Such behaviour further harms the academic record and is not acceptable. We need further stories like this item in Science to call out such questionable behaviour.
“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.
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.