Retraction by reason of insanity? A look at a 60-year-old entomology paper
By now, Retraction Watch readers are familiar with papers that are withdrawn because of faked data. Those cases may involve pressure cooker environments, bad seeds, or both, but they’re usually intentional. But what if a researcher fabricated findings without even knowing it?
That’s the idea behind a provocative paper just published online in Science and Engineering Ethics. In it, Matan Shelomi, a graduate student in entomology at the University of California, Davis, describes the case of Jay Traver, an entomologist who, in 1951, published a description of her experiences with “a mite infestation of her scalp that resisted all treatment and was undetectable to anyone other than herself” in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington (PESW). As Shelomi notes:
The Traver paper is unique in the scientific literature in that its conclusions may be based on data that was unconsciously fabricated by the author’s mind. The paper may merit retraction on the grounds of error or even scientific misconduct ‘‘by reason of insanity,’’ but such a retraction raises the issue of discrimination against the mentally ill.
Vaughan Bell, who tipped us off to Shelomi’s paper, wrote of Traver’s study earlier this year:
It is perhaps one of the most remarkable scientific papers ever published, not, as it turns out, because of the startling new discovery, but because the Professor had never been infected by parasites.
The bugs were hallucinated, the infestation a delusion and Traver was suffering from a mental illness.
Known as delusional parasitosis the condition consists of the usually focused delusion that the person is infected by parasites that crawl under the skin and which remain present in the surrounding environment.
So, should the Traver paper be retracted? As Shelomi writes:
…Traver did not engage in malicious and deliberate violations of scientific ethics.
The issues are complex, however:
In such a case, Traver’s conclusions are not based on fabricated data and cannot be referred to as scientific misconduct, but rather bad science: Her condition made her as incapable of drawing the correct conclusions from the data as someone with no scientific background at all. PESW should never have published such a paper due to the poor science and judgment it displayed, and can still engage in a retraction for error. Error is the most common cause for a paper’s retraction (Budd et al. 1999) and does not carry the same criminal connotations as ‘‘scientific misconduct.’’
Ethical problems exist with attempting any retractions that hinge on an author’s madness, however.
Still, Shelomi recommends retraction:
When a paper with irreproducible results has been published due to scientific misconduct or error, it should be retracted. This paper recommends to the editors of the PESW to issue a retraction of the paper on the pre-established grounds of either error or possible scientific misconduct, rather than attempting retraction due to insanity of the author, which would not be ethically supported. If an investigation into scientific misconduct or a retraction are not undertaken, a ‘‘Letter of Concern’’ should be published at the very least to indicate that the results in the Traver paper may not be reliable (Sox and Rennie 2006).
He also adds a sentence that resonates with us:
Public responses and criticisms of potential cases of misconduct are necessary to maintain the purist enterprise of science regardless of the potential repercussions for the journal, the offending author, or even the critic (Montgomerie and Birkhead 2005).
Shelomi tells us that he hasn’t contacted the editors of the PESW about Traver’s paper. He says there’s a “far more sinister paper” that he’s more interested in having retracted. That paper, “Collembolla (Springtails) (Arthropoda: Hexapoda: Entognatha) found in scrapings from individuals diagnosed with delusory parasitosis,” was published in 2004 by authors unrelated to Traver in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society, now called Entomologica Americana. As he writes in a footnote of the Science and Engineering Ethics paper:
Another commonly cited paper that claims springtails (Collembola) infest people (Altschuler et al. 2004) has also been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited (Christiansen and Bernard 2008). It was published with the aid of an illegally manipulated photograph, a clear case of scientific misconduct that is being cited as grounds for retraction of the article and an investigation into one of the authors (‘‘Call for Retraction: ‘Collembolla Found in Scrapings from Individuals Diagnosed with Delusory Parasitosis,’’’ Shelomi, submitted to Entomologica Americana).
The paper has not been retracted.
Bonus: Shelomi recently graced Gawker after he answered a Quora question — or, actually, didn’t answer it — on whether it’s OK to kill bugs.