Cardiologist Makes a Federal Case Out of Retracted JAHA Paper

Neil Osterweil

December 22, 2020

The latest chapter in the saga of an initially little-noticed and then retracted journal paper has found its way to a US District Court docket.

In an article published this past March in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA), Norman C. Wang, MD, an electrophysiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reportedly argued against the use of affirmative action in medical school admissions and cardiovascular disease training programs.

The original abstract of the paper, which was retracted by JAHA in August, states that the "purpose of this white paper is to provide an overview of policies that have been created to impact the racial and ethnic composition of the cardiology workforce, to consider the evolution of racial and ethnic preferences in legal and medical spheres, to critically assess current paradigms, and to consider potential solutions to anticipated challenges."

As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, the article, titled "Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity: Evolution of Race and Ethnicity Considerations for the Cardiology Workforce in the United States of America From 1969 to 2019," initially escaped notice, but later prompted a social media outcry among cardiologists and other medical and educational professionals that may have led to the retraction, reportedly against the wishes of the author.

In the retraction, the editors state that "the American Heart Association became aware of serious concerns after publication. The author's institution, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), has notified the Editor‐in‐Chief that the article contains many misconceptions and misquotes and that together those inaccuracies, misstatements, and selective misreading of source materials void the paper of its scientific validity."

The retraction occurred following a storm of commentary on Twitter criticizing Wang and the AHA for allowing the article to be published in its journal.

In response, the AHA tweeted that the article "does NOT represent AHA values. JAHA is editorially independent but that's no excuse. We'll investigate. We'll do better. We're invested in helping to build a diverse healthcare and research community." The tweet included a link to a statement on diversity and inclusion in research and cardiology.


A Change in Status, and a Suit

In the aftermath, Wang was removed from his position as program director for the clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellowship at UPMC.

Now Wang, represented by the civil libertarian law group Center for Individual Rights (CIR) has filed suit in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleging that the University of Pittsburgh violated Wang's right to free speech by removing him from the program director position and forbidding him from contacting medical students, according to CIR.  

"We're suing the University of Pittsburgh for a violation of the First Amendment, and then we're suing the university and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and various individuals, including some who are not now known to us, for defamation, for making statements that the people either knew or should have known were not true about the quality of Dr Wang's citations in the article," said CIR President Terry Pell, JD, PhD, who is representing Wang, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

Individuals named in the suit include Wang's supervisor Samir Saba, MD, chief of the division of cardiology and codirector of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute; Mark T. Gladwin, MD, professor and chair of the department of medicine; Kathryn Berlacher, MD; assistant professor of medicine, Division of Cardiology; and Marc A. Simon, MD, associate professor of medicine, Division of Cardiology.

Pell told Medscape Medical News that the article was withdrawn largely in response to tweets complaining about the article, and not, as JAHA editors stated, for inaccuracies in the article itself.

"It's not simply that the article was retracted; the article was retracted in response to demands made by the university, and individuals at the university, all of whom participated in denigrating in the strongest possible terms the point of view that Dr Wang was pursuing and expressing in his article," he said.

In response to a request for comment from Medscape Medical News, David Seldin, assistant vice chancellor of communications at the University of Pittsburgh, provided the following statement:

"We are aware of the complaint and will respond appropriately. The University of Pittsburgh took no action against Dr Wang, and we remain fully committed to advancing the value of academic freedom."

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