Journal retracts study linking “gut makeover” to weight loss, improved health

Over the objections of the authors, PLOS ONE has retracted a paper linking a diet designed to restore healthy gut bacteria to weight loss and other benefits.

The study, published in June 2017, claimed to show that a “Microbiome restoration diet improves digestion, cognition and physical and emotional wellbeing.” The diet was one championed by The Gut Makeover, whose author, Jeannette Hyde, is also a co-author on the paper (which the paper clearly disclosed). The diet is “designed to improve the health and diversity of the microbiome,” the microbiota that live within us.

The paper apparently prompted some criticisms, and even led one academic editor at PLOS ONE to resign. The journal  now says “the conclusions of this study are not supported by the data presented,” and have retracted it. But the case may reveal more about the limitations of peer review at the journal than it does about any weaknesses of the study.

That’s because many of the reasons given for the retraction are limitations authors included in the paper. For example, retraction notice notes that there was no control group, and the participants weren’t blinded to the diet. But readers — and peer reviewers — would have known all that. From the Discussion section of the paper, which repeats some of what also appears in the Materials and Methods section:

There was no control group in the study and the participants were not blind to the treatment protocol.

If we may: It’s one thing to reject a paper because the study it’s based on is too flawed to be published — or “not even wrong,” as some might put it. It’s another to retract it because peer reviewers apparently missed the fact that it was too flawed to be published. That’s not among the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) criteria for retraction.

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