Journal Retraction of Séralini Study A Travesty of Science

Dec 4, 2013

Controversy surrounds the recent retraction of a paper by Prof. Gilles-Eric Séralini in Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal by an assistant editor brought in after the publication of the study in the fall of 2012. The journal had also published Seralini`s original response to his critics, after pressure to discredit the study began in earnest not 24 hours after it was first published.

 The following interview with Dr. Ann Clark and the piece by The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) reflects the sectors response to this unfortunate censorship on science that challenges the biotech sectors’ sacred cows. These attempts to discredit one of the world’s leading research teams are a black eye on science.

 We stand by the work of Dr. Séralini and others who take the issue of safety seriously and are brave enough to ask tough questions and demand answers industry simply has not provided.

Orwellian Airbrushing of Scientific Record

Points made by Dr E Ann Clark in a Canadian radio interview about the retraction of two papers suggesting potential harm from GM crops.

Dr Clark was formerly an Associate Professor in Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph where her specific interests included the risk assessment of genetically modified crops. 

 Clark Comments for Calgary Today, 29 Nov 2013

1.  The issue is the retraction of papers suggesting potential harm to rats from GM crops.

2.  I am a crop physiologist by training, so the content and methodology of the retracted papers – dealing with mammalian physiology, histopathology, and blood chemistry – are out of my area of expertise.  Thus, I will comment solely on the issue of retraction of two papers by the refereed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.  Both papers, one by Gilles-Eric Seralini and colleagues in France and a second by Mezzomo and colleagues in Brazil, dealt with GM corn – the first with RR corn and Roundup itself, and the second with several types of Bt [toxin].

3.  Both papers were submitted and went through the conventional process of peer review before being accepted and published in 2012.  The Seralini paper was reviewed by 5 scientists, unlike the more typical 2 or 3 scientific reviewers.

4.  Early in 2013 – after the two papers had been accepted and published – a wholly new position – deputy editor in biotechnology – was created at the FCT journal and filled by an allergy specialist from the University of Nebraska – Richard E. Goodman.  As it happened, this specialist had worked for Monsanto in Regulatory Sciences from 1997 until July, 2004.

5.  Within months of Dr. Goodman’s arrival at FCT, two papers which identified possible concerns with GM corn were retracted.  Reasons for retraction are unknown for the Brazilian paper – which has since been published in another journal.

6. The reason given for retraction of the Seralini paper was just unprecedented – “….the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for FCT.”   The Editor-in-Chief further stated that he had found
“… no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data”
but cited concerns with the number of animals per group and the particular breed of rat used in the study.

7.  Now, what does it take to retract an article already published in the scientific literature?  According to the Committee on Publication Ethics, of which FCT is a member, the only valid reasons for retraction are (direct quote):
•Clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (eg data fabrication) or honest error
•Plagiarism or redundant publication
•Unethical research.

8.  None of these faults were found in the Seralini paper, leading to questions about why the paper was retracted.  It is simply unheard of to retract an accepted, peer reviewed, published paper just because results are not conclusive.  Most scientific papers are not conclusive, but rather, report findings that are then in the public domaine for other scientists to read, challenge, repeat, and build on.  It is even more dumbfounding that the paper would be retracted more than a year after it was published.

9.  The issue of rat breed and sample size are red herring arguments, which Seralini and colleagues responded to both in their 2012 paper, and in a subsequent 2013 response paper.  Indeed, Seralini had modelled their study on a Monsanto study (Hammond et al. 2004) which was also published in FCT – same corn, same breed of rats, and same sample size.  Why no complaints about that one?

10.  Still unanswered is the real reason for why not one but two papers identifying potential harm from GM crops were retracted, within months of the arrival of a former Monsanto employee, to an editorial position newly crafted at FCT.

Puts me in mind of George Orwell’s lead character in 1984 – Winston Smith – whose job was to rewrite history and air brush out people/events whenever they became unsavoury in the eyes of the power elite.  What confidence can people have in science – and specifically, in the safety of GM foods – when research findings inconsistent with corporate interests can just be airbrushed out?

ENSSER Comments on the Retraction of the Séralini et al. 2012 Study

Journal’s retraction of rat feeding paper is a travesty of science and looks like a bow to industry

Nov, 29, 2013

 Elsevier’s journal Food and Chemical Toxicology has retracted the paper by Prof. Gilles-Eric Séralini’s group which found severe toxic effects (including liver congestions and necrosis and kidney nephropathies), increased tumor rates and higher mortality in rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified NK603 maize and/or the associated herbicide Roundup[1]. The arguments of the journal’s editor for the retraction, however, violate not only the criteria for retraction to which the journal itself subscribes, but any standards of good science. Worse, the names of the reviewers who came to the conclusion that the paper should be retracted, have not been published. Since the retraction is a wish of many people with links to the GM industry, the suspicion arises that it is a bow of science to industry. ENSSER points out, therefore, that this retraction is a severe blow to the credibility and independence of science, indeed a travesty of science.

Inconclusive results claimed as reason for withdrawal

Elsevier, the publisher of Food and Chemical Toxicology, has published a statement[2] saying that the journal’s editor-in-chief, Dr. A. Wallace Hayes, “found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data”. The statement mentions only a single reason for the retraction, namely that “the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive”. According to Hayes, the low number of rats and the tumour susceptibility of the rat strain used do not allow definitive conclusions. Now there are guidelines for retractions in scientific publishing, set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)[3]. Inconclusiveness of research results is not one of the grounds for retraction contained in these guidelines. The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology is a member of COPE[4]. ‘Conclusive’ results are rare in science, and certainly not to be decided by one editor and a secret team of persons using undisclosed criteria and methods. Independent science would cease to exist if this were to be an accepted mode of procedure.

Séralini paper a chronic toxicity study, not a full-scale carcinogenicity study

Most notably, Séralini and his co-authors did not draw any definitive conclusions in the paper in the first place; they simply reported their observations and phrased their conclusions carefully, cognizant of their uncertainties. This is because the paper is a chronic toxicity study and not a full-scale carcinogenicity study, which would require a higher number of rats. The authors did not intend to look specifically for tumours, but still found increased tumour rates. Secondly, both of Hayes’s arguments (the number of rats and their tumour susceptibility) were considered by the peer reviewers of the journal, who decided they formed no objection to publication. Thirdly, these two arguments have been discussed at length in the journal following the publication of the paper and have been refuted by the authors of the paper and other experts. Higher numbers of animals are only required in this type of safety studies to avoid missing toxic effects (a ‘false negative’ result), but the study found pronounced toxic effects and a first indication of possible carcinogenic effects. The Sprague-Dawley strain of rat which was used, is the commonly used standard for this type of research. For these reasons, the statistical significance of the biochemical data was endorsed by statistics experts. The biochemical data confirm the toxic effects such as those on liver and kidney, which are serious enough by themselves. The tumours and mortality rates are observations which need to be confirmed by a specific carcinogenicity study with higher numbers of rats; in view of public food safety, it is not wise to simply ignore them. Unpleasant results should be checked, not ignored. And the toxic effects other than tumours and mortality are well-founded.

Who did the reevaluation?

Even more worrying than the lack of good grounds for the retraction is the fact that the journal’s editor-in-chief has not revealed who the reviewers were who helped him to come to the conclusion that the paper should be retracted; nor has he revealed the criteria and methodology of their reevaluation, which overruled the earlier conclusion of the original peer-review which supported publication. In a case like this, where many of those who denounced the study have long-standing, well-documented links to the GM industry and, therefore, a clear interest in having the results of the study discredited, such lack of transparency about how this potential decision was reached is inexcusable, unscientific and unacceptable. It raises the suspicion that the retraction is a favour to the interested industry, notably Monsanto.

ENSSER promotes independent critical discourse

It is part of ENSSER’s mission to promote the critical discourse, particularly in Europe, on new technologies and their impacts. As scientific and technological advances are increasingly driven by private interest, disinterested independent health and environmental safety information often lags behind. Uncertainty is inherent to science, as is the debate between conflicting explanations of findings. Openness of this debate and independent research to find the truth are crucial prerequisites for the survival of independent science. This holds true in particular for the technology of genetically modified crops, where the safety studies done by the producers for authorisation of the crops are all too often not published at all because of business confidentiality of the data and may not hold up to an independent peer-review. These studies, not only the independent ones like Séralini’s, should be subject to debate. The public have a right to be informed of anything related to the safety of their food.

In short, the decision to retract Séralini’s paper is a flagrant abuse of science and a blow to its credibility and independence. It is damaging for the reputation of both the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and its publisher Elsevier. It will decrease public trust in science. And it will not succeed in eliminating critical independent science from public view and scrutiny. Such days and times are definitively over. Prof. Séralini’s findings stand today more than before, as even this secret review found that there is nothing wrong with either technicalities, conduct or transparency of the data – the foundations on which independent science rests. The conclusiveness of their data will be decided by future independent science, not by a secret circle of people.

[1] Séralini, G.-E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Malatesta, M., Hennequin, D., de Vendômois, J.S.: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food and Chemical Toxicology 50 (11), pp. 4221-4231 (2012)

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