Trust Me

The Obligation to Retract an Unethical Paper

Trust is fragile. But the fragile currency of trust is the foundation for advancing science in peer-reviewed publications. Ethical journals work hard with authors and reviewers to ensure that their publications are trustworthy. Journals also have a process for correcting errors that slip into publications. Retraction is an option that’s necessary when errors invalidate a paper’s findings. But in the Journal of Medical Ethics, William Bülow et al tell us that the obligation to retract an unethical paper is just as great.

A recent paper in Scientific Reports offers a perfect case study for the obligation to retract an unethical paper.

Flawed Science and Ethics

The paper in question purports to show that obesity causes dishonesty. As we explained recently, this claim, advanced in the paper’s title, is false. Finding a false claim about dishonesty in a scientific journal is pretty jarring all by itself. It also turns out that the data for this paper has a number of irregularities that call its findings into question.

From our perspective, the largest issue is the ethics of claiming that BMI is a measure of dishonesty. Not only is it scientifically wrong, it’s ethically wrong. By publishing this paper, Scientific Reports is promoting weight stigma.

A Call to Retract

On August 11, leaders from the Obesity Action Coalition joined with experts in obesity research and practice, urging Scientific Reports to retract this article:

Weight stigma is a serious issue for people living with obesity. It is a widely prevalent problem that, in some cases, causes more harm than obesity itself. One of the ways in which people with obesity encounter weight stigma is from providers who falsely accuse them of dishonesty in their clinical interactions and thus provide inadequate care. The language in the discussion section of the paper (e.g., “obese people lie”) raises serious issues of bias. By promoting weight stigma, this paper presents a serious ethical issue that must be corrected.

Scientific Reports has responded by adding an editor’s note to the paper:

Readers are alerted that the methods and conclusions of this paper are subject to criticisms that are being considered by editors. Further editorial action may be taken as appropriate once the investigation into the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.


Bülow et al describe perfectly why it is so important to retract unethical research from a peer-reviewed journal:

Retraction is an appropriate response to deeply unethical research as it can deter scholars from behaving unethically and serves to delineate the borders of acceptable practice. Furthermore, it might be wrong for journals to publish unethical research, lest they be complicit in wrongdoing.

We trust that our readers know how wrong it is to promote weight stigma and the false idea that a high BMI makes a person dishonest. If you feel strongly about this (we do) you may wish to tweet or email to Scientific Reports to explain this.

Click here for the paper in Scientific Reports and here for the letter from OAC et al urging its retraction. For more on the scientific errors in this paper, click here. You can find the paper by Bülow et al by clicking here. Finally, you can share your thoughts with Scientific Reports on Twitter @SciReports or via email to

Trust Me, photograph © Neil Moralee / flickr

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August 21, 2020