Brian Wansink, the Cornell University food marketing professor who faces scientific misconduct allegations, has withdrawn a paper about enticing children to eat vegetables — just a few weeks after it had been corrected.
The retraction, which came about after a request from one of the study’s funders, caps a bizarre saga for the controversial study, which has influenced policies in school cafeterias across the US.
And it marks a sixth retraction for Wansink, whose Food and Brand Lab has for years sliced and diced data beyond scientifically sound practice, often with the explicit goal of gaining media coverage. The professor faces an investigation from Cornell, as well as questions about errors and inconsistencies in more than 50 of his studies that date back three decades.
When the now-retracted study was published in 2012 in the journal Preventive Medicine, it reported that elementary school students were more likely to pick and eat vegetables at lunchtime when they were given catchy names, such as “X-Ray Vision Carrots.” Wansink cited the seemingly intuitive and effective finding as evidence for the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a $22 million federally funded program that he co-oversees. It gives science-backed recommendations to elementary, middle, and high schools that seek to encourage healthy eating.
The 2012 paper summarized the results of two experiments, including an observation of how students behaved during lunchtime. The students were reported to be between 8 and 11 years old — but as it turned out, they were actually preschoolers aged 3 to 5.
Earlier this month, the paper was corrected by Wansink and two of his longtime collaborators, Collin Payne of New Mexico State University and David Just of Cornell. (Wansink, Payne, and Just did not respond to requests for comment.)
At the time, critics were bewildered as to why it wasn’t retracted. Not long before, the same team had admitted that a similar study of theirs was not done on 8- to 11-year-olds, despite what they’d reported. This study had found that kids would choose apples over cookies when the fruit had Sesame Street stickers — and it, too, had been cited by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement. It was retracted, twice.
Yet the scientists stood by their vegetable-naming paper. They pointed out that elementary school students were in fact involved in the other experiment mentioned in the study.
“These mistakes and omissions do not change the general conclusion of the paper that attractive names increase vegetable intake in schools across a wide age-range of children,” they wrote in the Feb. 1 notice.
But on Monday, the study was withdrawn.
A notice said that the study was retracted at the journal editor’s request, with the scientists’ agreement. After the correction was published earlier this month, “additional corrections regarding funding attribution were brought to the journal’s attention,” the notice said.
A forthcoming editorial from the journal’s editors, which they shared with BuzzFeed News, explains the backstory. When the age discrepancy first came to light last fall, the editors had wanted to retract the paper. But the scientists were “remarkably candid in explaining the complex circumstances behind the error,” the editors wrote, so they opted to instead correct it “in the interest of preserving the translational value of the authors’ research.”
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Two days after the correction was published, the editors wrote, one of the study’s funders requested a change in how its grant was cited in the paper. (The editors declined to name the funder.)
Although “it was a minor request,” the editors wrote, yet another correction would mean that “the actual research message would have been shrouded in confusion” — hence the retraction.
The scientists can resubmit their research for consideration to be published, the editors added.
“We felt confident that the errors were inadvertently made and were not fatal to the validity of the findings and their interpretation,” they concluded. “We were also satisfied with the authors’ evidence-based rebuttal of the challenges we submitted to them.”
Cornell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.