Both retracted studies were led by Dr. Mandeep R. Mehra, a widely published and highly regarded professor of medicine at Harvard, and the medical director of the Heart and Vascular Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
In a statement last week, Dr. Mehra apologized for the retractions, which he attributed to an eagerness to publish helpful information during the pandemic. He stopped short of calling them fraud, saying only that the data could not be verified by independent auditors.
The data in both studies were produced by a small company outside Chicago called Surgisphere, run by another of the papers’ authors, Dr. Sapan Desai. In an interview with The New York Times in May, Dr. Desai vigorously defended his work and the authenticity of his data registry, which he said included patient records from 1,200 hospitals and other health facilities around the world.
But when the N.E.J.M. and The Lancet demanded independent audits, he refused, citing confidentiality agreements with client hospitals. Following the retractions, Dr. Desai has declined further comment.
“This got as much, if not more, review and editing than a standard regular track manuscript,” Dr. Rubin, the editor in chief of the N.E.J.M., said of the heart study, which was based on a smaller set of Surgisphere data, that appeared in the medical journal. “We didn’t cut corners. We just didn’t ask the right people.”
He said the journal should have tapped outside experts familiar with big hospital data sets to be involved in the peer review. And The Lancet, Dr. Horton said, will demand independent verification of the quality of a database when reviewing studies from now on.
But, both editors said, peer reviewers cannot be expected to detect outright fabrication. Reviewers do not examine the raw data underlying the studies they review, except in exceedingly rare cases. That would be too laborious, and reviewers are not paid for their time.