Trial By Error: Professor Sharpe’s Retraction Requests

By David Tuller, DrPH

After this month’s release of the Health Research Authority’s PACE analysis, Professor Michael Sharpe sent e-mails to at least two US publications requesting a retraction or major correction of critical articles. Professor Sharpe’s e-mails accused the writers involved of suggesting that PACE was fraudulent. This accusation was not true.

In both cases, the writers had accurately described the PACE investigators’ misleading presentations of the data. In both cases, editors have rejected Professor Sharpe’s request.

Professor Sharpe appears to be hyping the HRA report as a full-scale vindication of PACE. In doing so, he is ignoring the limits of the agency’s purview. In its letter, the HRA itself noted that its remit is to focus on regulatory matters, such as the process of obtaining ethical approvals, and not on the quality of the science.

I have some real issues with the HRA analysis. But I was pleased at least that the letter, in explaining what it was and was not examining, specifically encouraged the continuation of robust debate about PACE. Professor Sharpe does not seem to have received that message.

One of the publications that heard from Professor Sharpe was STAT, the savvy Boston-based health and medical site. In 2016, shortly after Queen Mary University of London released the PACE data, STAT published an excellent piece by journalist and patient Julie Rehmeyer, who chronicled her own illness in Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer’s Odyssey. Julie’s STAT article cited the newly released PACE data as evidence that the study’s dramatic outcome-switching, or rather outcome-weakening–led to better-looking results.

Nothing in last week’s HRA letter refutes the facts discussed in Julie’s STAT article. Yet here’s the e-mail Professor Sharpe sent to the publication (he also included links):

You published an article in 2016 suggesting that research I was involved in was fraudulent. You may wish to know that following similar malicious allegations, the UK Health Research Authority has investigated the study. Their conclusions are published today.

I would like to formally request either that you retract the article in question or publish a prominent erratum in your journal.

Poor Professor Sharpe. This sad little note says it all.

Julie’s piece was a meticulous account of patients’ successful efforts to unravel the mystery of how PACE participants could be recovered and disabled simultaneously on key measures. She did not suggest the research to be fraudulent. She documented the investigators’ questionable methodological choices, which happened to allow them to report more attractive results than would otherwise have been possible.

Nor does the piece contain errors that require correcting. It contains opinions and interpretations with which Professor Sharpe strongly disagrees. He has the right to find what Julie wrote to be distasteful and offensive. And Julie has the right to express thoughts that Professor Sharpe might find distasteful and offensive. (Julie is a friend and professional colleague, and the STAT article included a favorable mention of my role in the PACE saga.)

To Professor Sharpe, questioning his shaky methodology can apparently be equated with calling his research fraudulent. Noting that a study violates basic scientific principles can be compared to making malicious allegations. In a similar vein, Professor Esther Crawley appeared to believe my blogs were libellous because she disliked my harsh assessments of her research. (At least that was my assumption; since she never explained what she meant, I don’t really know.)

Professor Sharpe’s demand for a retraction or a prominent erratum was an act of hubris–an overreach based on what seem to be long-standing distortions in his perceptions of reality and surprising limitations in his understanding of proper scientific conduct. STAT rejected Professor Sharpe’s request.

The other news organization that received a similar message from Professor Sharpe was The Conversation. In that case, his complaint involved a piece by Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor and an expert in legal ethics. (Professor Lubet is a friend and colleague who has written for Virology Blog; in one post, he defended me against Professor Sharpe’s publicly declared concerns about my crowdfunding.) Like STAT, The Conversation found Professor Sharpe’s request to have no merit.

I assume Professor Sharpe likely knew beforehand about the public release of the HRA letter; the Science Media Centre seemed to post statements from him and two other pro-PACE experts within short order. Perhaps Professor Sharpe harbored hopes or expectations that the document would revive the declining fortunes of the GET/CBT ideological brigades. But no amount of spinning the HRA letter will ultimately save PACE from its most perfect fate: As a classic case study of bad research in epidemiology courses and textbooks.

Under ordinary reporting circumstances, I would have touched base with Professor Sharpe to ask why he thought sending out such notices was a good idea and whether he tried to contact more than two publications. These aren’t ordinary reporting circumstances.

(I’ve co-written two pieces for STAT, neither discussed in this article. My co-author on the first was Julie Rehmeyer, and on the second Professor Lubet. Professor Sharpe has not yet requested a retraction/correction for either of these two stories.)

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