Yesterday, we noted that Axel Ullrich, a decorated cancer researcher, had retracted two papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The journal gave no explanation for the retractions, and our conversation with the publication director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which puts out the journal, was less than illuminating. This morning, Ullrich responded to all of the questions we sent him by email, and our follow-ups. The picture is now a lot more clear.
Ullrich tells Retraction Watch that he found out from a “private investigator” several months ago that the papers’ lead author, Naohito Aoki, had manipulated their figures. Aoki was a postdoc in Ullrich’s lab in the early 1990s:
It was relatively simple, and according to my estimate, it was done to make the data look more perfect without generating new results.
Ullrich said he contacted Aoki immediately, and then the journal, to say he wanted to retract the papers. He has no plans to retract any other papers, and says the now-retracted work “was never followed on and I estimate that it had no significant impact on the relevant field.”
Ullrich is not sure how many of the papers’ authors agreed to the retractions. He delegated contacting them to Aoki, and did not get a response five months ago when he urged the former postdoc to let his co-authors know about the retractions. He is not sure where Aoki is now.
Aoki’s wife, Yumiko Yamaguchi-Aoki, is an author on both papers. Ullrich said he is sure Yumiko was not involved in the manipulation.
In retrospect, I think no serious damage was done. Aoki was a perfectionist, and I believe firmly that he didn’t intend to falsify data but to make it look perfect.
We’re of course curious about why a private investigator was involved, and will try to find out more.
Update, 10:10 a.m. Eastern, 10/22/10: Ullrich tells us the “private investigator” was not someone he knew before she contacted him about the manipulated figures, and was not working on his behalf.