Newmaster paper that started NYAG ball rolling allowed to stand unchanged

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - Zffoto
©Getty Images - Zffoto

Related tags Dna barcoding Ny ag

A controversial paper that used a DNA testing methodology to allege widespread adulteration in herbal products has been allowed to stand unrevised, despite calls for its retraction.

The editors of BMC Medicine​ announced recently that that  a 2013 paper authored by a group led by Stephen Newmaster, a botanist at the University of Guelph, would be allowed to stand as is.

The paper, titled DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products, ​was first published on Oct. 18, 2013.  It gave rise to the investigation into herbal dietary supplements by then New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.  He used Newmaster’s results to allege that a number of herbal dietary supplements marketed by prominent firms had little to none of the listed botanical in the bottles, and so were fraudulent.

Experts said from beginning paper contained fundamental errors

 The approach taken by Newmaster’s group was seen as fundamentally flawed in its concept by experts in the botanical ingredient identification field.  DNA barcoding, as applied by Newmaster, could not be used to support the conclusions drawn, those experts maintained. 

The affair was seen as having done significant damage to industry’s reputation. This was true even if none of the companies accused in the affair ever had to admit any wrongdoing, and all the products cited by Schneiderman went back onto the shelves unchanged.

Schneiderman and GNC, one of the companies named in the original complaint, came to an agreement which served to draw a curtain on the affair.  Schneiderman’s office never admitted that the case had rested on unsound scientific foundations.  The GNC agreement, which called for some changes in GNC’s testing and supply chain management practices, also included an aspirational statement to apply DNA barcoding techniques when the state of the art had advanced to the point that made that practicable.  Essentially Schneiderman declared victory and moved on. 

Allegations of fraud

Newmaster’s 2013 paper became the center of a storm of allegations of fraud, plagiarism, and missing data, which is extensively detailed in an article in Science​.

According to the article, a 43-page allegation letter sent to the University of Guelph (UG) last summer by eight researchers from UG, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and Stanford University called for the retraction of the 2013 paper, citing major problems in the study and two others by Newmaster and his co-workers.

This is not the first time that Dr Newmaster’s papers have been questioned: Last year, a 2014 paper by Ken Thompson and Dr Newmaster was retracted from Biodiversity and Conservation​ after Thompson became concerned about the availability of the data, the sources of the data, and reproducibility.

Journal demurs to Guelph disciplinary findings

When asked in early February to comment on the allegations in Science​, Lin Lee, Chief Editor of BMC Medicine​ at Springer Nature, said: “Whilst we cannot further discuss the investigation while it is ongoing, we can confirm that the Springer Nature Research Integrity team is providing advice to the journal’s Editorial team on their investigation of the issues raised in line with the COPE Guidelines, which should be followed for best practice purposes.”

In June Guelph formally cleared Newmaster of misconduct​ following an investigation, despite despite “many shortcomings” with his work and “a pattern of poor judgement”.

Based on that decision, earlier this month the BMC Medicine​ editorial team posted this note on Newmaster’s paper: “Following an investigation conducted by the University of Guelph, the Editor has concluded that no further editorial action is needed at this point.”

Journal’s determination doesn’t satisfy critics

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, one of the groups that called for the paper’s retraction back in the time of its publication, took issue with that determination.  The university found no formal misconduct on Newmaster’s part, but as far as he could tell, it did not weigh in on the merits (or lack thereof) of the paper itself.  

“There appears to be a disconnect in terms of the criteria involved.  The University of Guelph did an investigation to see whether Dr Newmaster should be disciplined.   It doesn’t appear to me that the university did the kind of work a journal editor should do to determine if a paper should be retracted,”​ McGuffin told NutraIngredients-USA​. 

The paper has been cited more than 300 times over the years, but McGuffin said that after all of the concerns that were raised about its validity, it seems to have faded into obscurity.  But since it has now been given the journal editor’s seal of approval—or at least of no objection—it’s still in the public domain and could be used again to show that dietary supplements are generally of poor quality.

“I wouldn’t  put it past our critics to use whatever cudgel they could find.  It hasn’t been cited lately but I’m not willing to say that it has now become a dead issue,” ​he said.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, another organization that has called for retraction, had this to say:

“We stand by our previous position that the paper should be retracted because it is so full of errors.  That is, unless it has been substantially revised, and we have no evidence of that,”​ Blumenthal said.

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