A paper about eye damage in astronauts got pulled for “security concerns.” Huh?

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Here’s a head-scratcher: A 2017 paper examining why long space flights can cause eye damage has been taken down, with a brief note saying NASA, which sponsored the research, asked for the retraction because of “security concerns.”

According to the first author, the paper included information that could identify some of the astronauts that took part in the study — namely, their flight information. Although the author said he removed the identifying information after the paper was online, NASA still opted to retract it. But a spokesperson at NASA told us the agency did not supply the language for the retraction notice. The journal editor confirmed the paper was retracted for “research subject confidentiality issues,” but referred a question about who supplied the language of the notice back to NASA.

Now lawyers are involved.

So we still have some questions about this one. Here’s what we do know.

New clues to protecting astronauts’ health

According to first author Noam Alperin of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, the paper “Role of Cerebral Spinal Fluid in Space Flight Induced Ocular Changes and Visual Impairment in Astronauts” showed that visual damage caused by long space flights resulted from tiny shifts in the volume of spinal fluid — not vascular changes, as many experts had previously thought. The article appeared April 21 in Radiology; it has not yet been indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

When Alperin presented his findings in November 2016 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, the media noticed: News stories appeared in the BBC, National Geographic, and other outlets.

The 2017 paper has since been replaced by this notice:

This article has been retracted due to security concerns raised by NASA, the sponsoring agency.

(Incidentally, the last retractions issued by Radiology were published more than 30 years ago, for four papers co-authored by notable fraudster Robert Slutsky; an investigation concluded many of his papers contained fraudulent or questionable data.)

The editor of the journal, Herb Kressel, told us:

Their concerns related to research subject confidentiality issues … We were surprised when we were contacted by NASA, as you might have expect. We attempted to work with the sponsor and the author to try to ameliorate the concerns raised but it was not possible.

Why would identifying astronauts be considered a security issue? Kressel told us to ask NASA about the language of the editorial notice. But a spokesperson for the space agency told us the agency wasn’t responsible.  

NASA sent us this statement:

This paper by the primary author was retracted at NASA’s request due to the inclusion of information that would allow the identity and medically sensitive data of the human subjects to be revealed. NASA works with researchers to ensure that all legal requirements and best practices are used to ensure medical and research data privacy is maintained. When there are violations of these privacy laws and research protocols, NASA works with the researcher and the publishers to retract any scientific papers, presentations, or articles in which medical and research data privacy has been compromised.

Alperin told us the online version of the paper initially did include information about some astronauts’ flights, he removed anything that would identify them. He said as far as he knows, the paper contains “no security concern.”

A retroactive decision

Although Alperin said he agreed in July to all the changes they requested, in August, NASA told him it was retracting the paper and cancelling his Institutional Review Board approval for conducting the study. Soon after, NASA revoked a $600,000 grant it had awarded Alperin, designated to study non-astronaut volunteers in Germany subjected to simulated space conditions.

On Sept. 25, Alperin received an email from NASA saying he couldn’t publish anything related to the astronaut vision study.

The next day, Alperin’s attorney sent an email to NASA saying:

I have reviewed the applicable statutes and regulations and I do not see the authority for banning publication of the results of the concluded research…I do see the authority for you to terminate a protocol. However I do not see any authority for a retroactive termination of a protocol. Let us be clear on what this termination of the protocol is about: by including the end point parameters for the length of the space flights of the subjects that were involved in the study a “space geek” could figure out the name of two of the subjects that participated in the study. This was an unintentional oversight and the paper was changed long ago to correct this problem. There is no data that can reveal the identity of any of the subjects in the paper as presently drafted.

It is also worth noting that the paper was accepted for publication in Radiology at a time when it had IRB approval. The subsequent termination of the IRB protocol should not reverse the fact that this paper was carefully peer-reviewed and accepted in this leading journal…I am concerned about the loss of the valuable contribution to science and, most importantly, to astronaut health that would [result] from the position that had been taken by the IRB.

In a letter dated Oct. 18, a NASA attorney responded to Alperin’s lawyer, explaining that NASA can terminate an IRB:

…not only does the NASA IRB have authority in this matter, the Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health (LSAH) Advisory Board (AB) has contractual authority. The LSAH AB review is part of the data use agreement that Dr. Alperin agreed to in securing the necessary approvals for the research protocol. However, Dr. Alperin circumvented the LSAH AB review prior to publication, a review that was meant to act as a provision to protect data. Subsequently, Dr. Alperin demonstrated multiple failures to comply with requests by both the NASA IRB and the LSAH AB to mitigate the breach, which resulted in the publication remaining in public domain for over 3 months.

As a natural consequence, the NASA IRB has lost trust that Dr. Alperin can be a good custodian of the data he receives from the LSAH and follow approved protocol procedures. He has shown that he is unable to interpret and implement the human subject protections required of him.  

A painful process

Alperin told us he thought he was following the proper approval procedures; he said he got approval before the paper was submitted, but didn’t seek approval again after it was revised:

I was just naive.

He said the episode has been particularly difficult, because he believed he was helping astronauts, many of whom come home with vision problems:

I was making a real difference.

Losing the research he had already conducted is a major setback in astronaut health, he said:

This is the second saddest event I ever had in my life, after my father died.

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