As last of 12 promised Bulfone-Paus retractions appears, a (disappointing) report card on journal transparency
The final two retractions by Silvia Bulfone-Paus and colleagues, among the 12 promised by Research Centre Borstel following an investigation into scientific misconduct, have appeared. Both are in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), and read as follows:
This article has been withdrawn by the authors.
We find that near-complete lack of information frustrating, not to mention useless to the scientific community. Unfortunately, it’s par for the course when it comes to the JBC and Bulfone-Paus retractions. The other three said exactly the same thing.
With that in mind, we thought it would be worth looking at all 12 retraction notices, as a sort of case series in journals’ transparency. We often look at particular retractions in a vacuum, but here was a chance to look at 12 papers, all retracted for the same reason, to see how each journal reported the withdrawal.
Here are the 12, in rough order, worst to best, based on how useful they are to scientists coming across them:
Ranks 9-12: The four worst notices, in our eyes, aren’t actually the JBC ones that say nothing, as bad as those are. No, to be worst on our list, you need to go further. These four specified exactly what was wrong with the original studies, but then they did something very questionable. They allowed the authors to claim — without the journal editors having reviewed any findings, one of them told us — that the data and conclusions had been confirmed. An example:
Eight of the authors (ZO, LT, UM, PB, CB, DA, RP and SB-P) wish to retract this paper, following an independent formal investigation initiated by the Research Center Borstel into scientific misconduct (see http://www.fz-borstel.de/cms/index.php?id=1). The investigation concluded that multiple figures contained PCR and western blot duplications and possible other manipulations (Figures 2A, 3A, 4A, 5, 7A and 7C, Supplementary Figures S1A, S2A and S2B, unconfirmed: Figure 1C). The above signed declare that Vadim Budagian and Elena Bulanova conducted these experiments and generated the figures. The authors declare that key experiments presented in the majority of these figures were recently reproduced and that the results confirmed the experimental data and the conclusions drawn from them. However, due to these unacceptable irregularities, the listed authors retract this paper in its entirety and regret any adverse consequences that may have resulted from its publication. Vadim Budagian and Elena Bulanova declined to sign the retraction.
Rank 4: One notice, in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, notes that there was misconduct, but doesn’t specify what was wrong. But it doesn’t let the authors claim the data are still good, so that gives it points over the worst of these:
Retraction: Enhanced Inhibition of Tumour Growth and Metastasis, and Induction of Antitumour Immunity by IL-2-IgG2b Fusion Protein The following article from Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, ‘Enhanced Inhibition of Tumour Growth and Metastasis, and Induction of Antitumour Immunity by IL-2-IgG2b Fusion Protein’ by Budagian V, Nanni P, Lollini PL, Musiani P, Di Carlo E, Bulanova E, Paus R, Bulfone-Paus S, published online on 29 April 2002 in Wiley Online Library (http://www.onlinelibrary. wiley.com), has been retracted by agreement between the corresponding ⁄ senior author, the journal Editor in Chief, Roland Jonsson and Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
The retraction has been agreed due to a finding of scientific misconduct within the laboratory where the experiments took place, and was brought to our attention by the scientific community.
Ranks 2-3: Two retraction notices, in The Journal of Leukocyte Biology and the FASEB Journal, that refer to “figure irregularities” but don’t specify what those irregularities are. Then again, they don’t allow the researchers to claim the data are still valid. They both read like this:
The article, “ATP induces P2X7 receptor-independent cytokine and chemokine expression through P2X1 and P2X3 receptors in murine mast cells,” by Elena Bulanova, Vadim Budagian, Zane Orinska, Friedrich Koch-Nolte, Friedrich Haag, and Silvia Bulfone-Paus, which appeared in Volume 85, April 2009, of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology (doi: 10.1189/jlb.0808470) has been retracted at the request of Zane Orinska, Friedrich Koch-Nolte, Friedrich Haag, and Silvia Bulfone-Paus. The retraction was requested because of figure irregularities. All versions of the paper have been removed from the journal’s Web site.
Rank 1: The best, in our opinion, was a retraction notice in Molecular and Cellular Biology. Although the notice is brief, it is specific, makes it clear there was misconduct, and doesn’t allow the authors to make unsubstantiated claims:
The publisher herebyretracts this article due to evidence of data manipulation inFig. 2C, 4B, and 9, a clear violation of ASM’s ethical standards.
What a disappointing record. To be honest, we’d give all but number one a failing grade. Everything south of number 3 is a failure to alert scientists to just what was wrong with a paper. And allowing scientists who have been forced to retract 12 papers to claim that their data are still valid, without having examined that data, is an abrogation of a journal editor’s responsibility.
We should note that we’ve tried to contact all of the editors, as well as Bulfone-Paus, to discuss these notices, but have had very little response, as our previous posts demonstrate.
This isn’t scientific transparency. It doesn’t build trust, and it leaves scientists who come across these papers wondering what went on. Perhaps those editors, and Bulfone-Paus, would like to respond now, after some dust has settled, to help us understand this episode better. In the meantime, we’ve also tried to contact some researchers in the field to ask how these retractions may affect their work.
We’ll update if we hear anything back.
Hat tip: “Clare Francis”