Major Journal Retracts Controversial Paper on the Dangers of Microbeads

Oona M. Lönnstedt
Oona M. Lönnstedt / Oona M. Lönnstedt

A wave-making article on the effects of plastic microbeads on sea life has been retracted by the journal Science after an independent review board found its authors “guilty of scientific dishonesty.”

The original study, published in June 2016, reported that ingesting plastic microparticles like those found in cosmetics and toiletries made baby fish “smaller, slower, and more stupid,” and overall less likely to survive, as Mental Floss reported at the time.

Oona M. Lönnstedt

These conclusions were not terribly surprising, as other studies have found that plastics and the chemicals that cling to them can significantly affect animal behavior, growth, and mortality. But this particular study raised some serious red flags for other experts in the field.

In response to allegations of misconduct from the scientific community, the authors’ institution, Uppsala University, ordered a preliminary investigation, which was inconclusive. But the concerned researchers had also notified the Central Ethical Review Board of Sweden (CEPN), which launched a more thorough investigation of its own.

As experts began poring through their files, authors Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv contacted Science to notify the publication that their data was missing and could not be recovered or examined—the result, they claimed, of a stolen laptop. In response, Science published an Editorial Expression of Concern.

Back in Sweden, CEPN hired ichthyologist Bertil Borg of Stockholm University to review the work, and Borg found Lönnstedt and Eklöv’s paper to be riddled with problems and holes. “The suspicions of deceit cannot be denied,” he wrote to the board.

The CEPN group’s final report [PDF] was damning. In addition to the missing data, the board found that the authors had failed to acquire the right ethics-board permissions to experiment on the fish—and that it’s possible they may never even have conducted the experiments. The report concluded that Lönnstedt and Eklöv’s responses to the allegations “have been in all essentials deficient, at times contradictory and have not infrequently given rise to further questions.”

The report chided Science, one of the most prominent scientific journals in the world, for ever publishing the study in the first place.

Despite telling the journal that they disagreed with elements of the report, the authors requested on April 28 that it retract their study, and on May 3, Science did just that.

Some researchers feel a retraction is not a sufficient response to the extent of the authors’ misconduct, and have pressed Uppsala to investigate further.

“We take what has happened very seriously,” university representative Johan Tysk said in a statement. “It may damage confidence in the University and in research. It is also very difficult for all those involved. We intend to thoroughly review all aspects of the case, but we cannot say at present exactly how we will go about this.”