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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

In a retraction’s wake: Postdoc Shane Mayack, dismissed from Amy Wagers’ stem cell lab, speaks out

with 28 comments

courtesy Nature

Last October, Retraction Watch readers will recall, up-and-coming stem cell researcher Amy Wagers retracted a study in Nature describing how her team rejuvenated blood-forming stem cells in older mice. Shane Mayack, a postdoc in Wagers’ lab who had been dismissed after an inquiry into what happened, did not sign that retraction. Since then, Mayack has not spoken to the press, except for a brief comment to Nature through her attorney.

Here, we present, unedited, Mayack’s side of the story. While accepting responsibility, she also has a number of suggestions for how universities and journals can handle these situations better. Shane can be reached at smayck[at]yahoo.com.

Since it was well covered by this blog, the readers of Retraction Watch are no doubt aware that in October 2010, a paper that I co-authored was retracted from Nature and a notice of concern was posted regarding a second paper published in Blood.

So, what went wrong?

The answer to that question begins with the fact that errors, not fabrications, were made in assembling figures for these manuscripts.  I am likely the one who made these errors.  In any case, I believe that since I signed the manuscript submission forms — as all authors are required to do — I hold a responsibility to the accuracy of the manuscript contents. I believe these errors occurred due to mistakes made in data retrieval that were a cause of a poor, but not a unique, data management and archiving system.

In my view, what went wrong does not end there.

I am confident that many people assume that actions taken against a published manuscript, such as a retraction or a notice of concern, come only after a thorough process of investigation into the questions regarding that work has been completed.  That is what I always thought as well.

Given the gravity of retracting a paper, a quick and harsh judgment could further confuse the scientific record and wrongly ostracize the scientist(s) taking and/or being held responsible.

In October 2010, when the retraction and notice of concern were announced, an official investigation into the underlying data to which this work is vested had not even begun. An inquiry, not an investigation, had been established. The inquiry was based solely on noted duplications of figures, not fabrications.  The job of the inquiry panel ‘[our job is] was not to evaluate the data’ but to determine whether further investigation into the matter was warranted.

Many may also assume that regardless of the reasons or process by which certain actions are taken with respect to a published manuscript, all of the authors would be officially notified of the action taken on a given manuscript either by the corresponding author, the affiliated institute where the work was performed, and/or the corresponding journal.

Indeed, according to information provided on the Nature website regarding retractions, not only would all authors be notified of a retraction, but if all authors are not in agreement of said retraction, Nature would conduct its own investigation into the matter to determine whether a retraction was warranted before a retraction was released.

Despite this, I first learned that the Nature paper on which I was a co-author was retracted via a Facebook message from a Boston Globe reporter trying to reach me for a comment the day the retraction notice was posted by the journal.

This is only a snapshot of my experience.  I highly doubt that my experience is unique.

Ok. But, why salute these events?

Well, first, as recognition of mistakes made and an apology to the community.

Regardless of what I believe to be unjust circumstances and actions by others involved, the mistakes made were serious, even egregious. I take responsibility for these mistakes, and I understand that there are and should be some degree of consequence. I am a professional, well-trained individual and more should be expected of me.

That being said, more should be expected of all of us — the system as a whole — shouldn’t it?

Errors in scientific data that make their way into publications do so as a dysfunction of not only one person but as a result of a dysfunctional system.  This is true whether the errors result from unfortunate mistakes or blatant fabrications.  Science is not done in a vacuum.  There are a number of checks and balances in place both pre- and post- publication to weed out inaccuracies.  For example, it is expected that a scientific body of work is critically evaluated numerous times by lab supervisors and colleagues before publication of the data is even considered.  As in my case, the work I did as a postdoc was regularly vetted by my mentor and lab mates through weekly individual meetings with my mentor as well as regular presentations at weekly group meetings.

So, one important component to critically evaluating, discussing and writing about retractions of scientific work is to use these unfortunate occurrences as a way to delve into what drives the errors to occur — whether they arise from mistakes or fabrications — in the hands of competent and talented individuals? How and/or why do errors remain unchecked and end up bearing their ugly heads in scientific publications, slipping past the fastidiousness of superiors and other multiple check points?   This happens more often than it should, probably more often then we know or care to admit, and depending on how you dice the numbers, may potentially be on the rise?

Why does it so often seem to happen that 100% of the responsibility falls onto the underling(s) involved and none attaches to the leadership? From a purely practical point of view, can that be possible?  Moreover, is holding no accountability to the leadership really the best strategy to reducing the number of errors published in science?

Are we more quickly and more harshly accusing and retracting as a quick and slightly less painful global panacea to much broader issues? As harsh and quick actions do not seem to be a good idea in any situation — nor would I hope is it the typical modus operandi of a scientist — I question whether this behavior is honestly in the interest of assuring accuracy of the scientific record. These actions may in fact confuse the scientific record and result in the scientific blackballing of highly trained and educated scientists who may or may not deserve or require such punishment.

Even in cases befitting a retraction and/or or some level of sanctioned misconduct, (such as in my case, failure to properly archive one’s data will likely be considered true misconduct), is it cost-effective for science as a discipline to completely banish potentially good scientists as opposed to openly repurposing or even requiring that their talents be used for the greater good of science?  (Remember that the community of scientists care about the greater good and the productivity of the field … and also happen to themselves be taxpayers.)

So, I salute these events as a means to center a productive dialogue around these issues and learn the real lessons that can be gained from my experience and others who have seen this unique side of science and the scientific ‘process’.  I hope such discussions can ultimately drive change.  I hope, too, to galvanize others who have had matters arise with their work.  Let your experiences, whatever they have been, be heard with the hope that we can gain something positive by analyzing the how and why and learn from them.  We are scientists after all. Isn’t that what we should be doing?

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Written by amarcus41

March 17, 2011 at 9:30 am

28 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Mayack, for your candid letter.
    Not frequently we can read the other side comments.

    Marek Wronski

    March 17, 2011 at 11:30 am

  2. The only useful thing I learned from this is that Shane can sometimes used as a feminine given name. However, according to Wikipedia the feminine version of the name is not derived from the Northern Irish name Shane, but rather from the Yiddish name Shayna, meaning “beautiful”.

    scotus

    March 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  3. I don’t quite get the argument. As I understand it, Dr Majack argues that she should have been punished a bit less, specifiacally that it is ineffective to “completely banish potentially good scientists”.

    It is well known that many “potentially good scientists” routingely do NOT become professors and thus drop out of research. Let’s suppose we could just make the two papers, which she admits to be compromised, “unwritten”, i.e., we take them out of her publication and citation data. Then, not all that much remains, and she would presumably not be one of the chosen few who become a professor even in the absence of any official “banishment”. This punishment is the normal outcome for many postdocs who are not inovled in any misconduct cases, but she nevertheless appears to consider it too harsh even in cases of “real” misconduct.

    So, the appropriate punishment for mistakes should be lighter than taking the mistaken work out of the literature? Sorry, but no. That would imply that all of these other postdocs, whose publication record does not promise a professorship, should falsify data and be caught for it in order to improve their chances.

    Schlupp

    March 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    • Schlupp,

      Thanks for your comments. Though, I think you are overlooking one important detail, published papers can be corrected instead of retracted. There is a huge difference between those two things both in terms of the accuracy of the scientific record and the impact it would have on one’s career. So, if you mean that by suggesting that the appropriate action in my case would have been to correct the manuscript instead of retracting it that I am suggesting my punishment should have been less—well, then yes, I am.

      Shane

      March 18, 2011 at 7:20 am

      • Dunno.

        Corrections are really tricky when it comes to assessing the individual contributions of multiple authors. So, if the putative “correction notice” had effectively said that the first author’s work was not all that good*, then this would in all fairness still be considered as “the first author should get considerably less credit than a first authorship in Nature usually confers”.

        If a Nature paper is obtained by sloppy work (let alone dishonest practices), then it must be considered as less valuable than some other postdoc’s clean work in a lesser journal. Otherwise, the incentive is to favor sloppy work in order to get into Nature.

        *) as opposed to saying that something cosmic went wrong that nobody could have seen coming. This is different.

        Schupp

        March 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  4. Dr. Mayack, I salute your courage writing this.

    I witnessed something disturbing when I worked for John Newport (deceased). He retracted a paper by one of his postdocs at the time when I was in the lab. The story basically went like this:

    Paper was published in Cell (A role for Ran-GTP and Crm1 in blocking re-replica… [Cell. 2003] – PubMed result
    http://goo.gl/YIUnd)

    One (and maybe more) of John’s other former trainees, now PIs themselves, attempted to reproduce the results, and contacted John to ask why it didn’t seem to work as reported.

    The first author was in the middle of applying for faculty positions, so he was interviewing and out of town a lot.

    John asked a new postdoc in the lab to try to reproduce the results, and he could not.

    John retracted the paper against the first author’s wishes.

    As an observer in the lab, my opinion was that the methods section of the paper was SORELY lacking in detail, and that this was in fact at least part the responsibility of the PI, not only the first author.

    I think several things had to fail for this to happen:

    Here’s a postdoc who doesn’t know how to write a method section. Graduate school fail.

    Here’s a PI who couldn’t be bothered to read the paper thoroughly before it was submitted. PI fail.

    Here are 3 reviewers, presumably experts, who didn’t raise questions when the paper was in review. Peer review fail.

    Here’s a first author who probably should have dropped what he was doing to come back and show everyone exactly what he did, and publish an extended methods section online or something, but so far as I know, he never did that. I’m not sure John ever gave him the chance.

    Should the paper have been retracted? I don’t know.

    But I also know that every time something like this happens, it affects everyone else in the lab at the time. John told me he didn’t want to publish any more papers after that, so I decided to switch labs.

    Could the whole thing have been peacefully resolved with a more scientific approach to investigating what went wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it just would have taken longer.

    Personally, I think the peer review system is broken when things like this get through. As authors, we have to rely on our supervisors and peers to help us. I was very grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers on my last paper for catching a few minor typos, but even after it was published, I caught about four more. The journal won’t fix them, and they don’t make it easy for me to fix them myself.

    I’m a proponent of the suggestion that we switch to open data sharing. It should be easy to ask questions and correct errors before it’s too late.

    Samantha Zeitlin

    March 17, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  5. She writes that she should take responsibility for her actions (or inactions to correct the mistake), but she doesn’t sign the retraction?

    I don’t get it.

    BTC

    March 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    • Hi BTC,

      Thanks for commenting. But, like, Schlupp, I think that perhaps what you may be overlooking is the issue of making a correction(s) to a published manuscript

      Below is a definition I stumbled upon on Wikipedia and I believe is very relevant here particularly in adding perspective on reasons why one would not be willing to sign a retraction (as opposed to a correction):

      “A retraction is a public statement, by the author of an earlier statement, that withdraws, cancels, refutes, diametrically reverses the original statement or ceases and desists from publishing the original statement. Retractions may or may not be accompanied by the author’s further explanation as to how the original statement came to be made and/or what subsequent events, discoveries, or experiences led to the subsequent retraction. They are also in some cases accompanied by apologies for previous error and/or expressions of gratitude to persons who disclosed the error to the author.

      Retractions always negate the author’s previous public support for the original statement. Like original statements, retractions are in some cases incorrect. Retractions share with original statements the attribute that they are in some cases made insincerely, in some cases for personal gain, and in others under duress.

      The term retraction carries stronger connotation than the term correction. An alteration that changes the main point of the original statement is generally referred to as a retraction while an alteration that leaves the main point of a statement intact is usually referred to simply as a correction. Depending on the circumstances, either a retraction or correction is the appropriate remedy.”

      Shane

      March 18, 2011 at 7:29 am

      • Thanks, Shane. I think it’s pretty clear that this was a mistaken and not intentional file mix-up, hence not misconduct since it was unintentional, but I don’t quite understand why the PI went right for a retraction and NOT a correction, since the former is far more debilitating than the latter. And, more importantly, I’m not quite sure why a retraction was issued (so quickly) while ignoring the possibility that it was, indeed, a mistake.

        BTC

        March 18, 2011 at 4:55 pm

  6. Also, I should add that poor record keeping is not technically considered misconduct. Nor are unintentional mistakes, which is what it seems is what’s going in this case.

    BTC

    March 17, 2011 at 6:14 pm

  7. I appreciate the letter but I wish there was more information about what actually happened. It sounds like she is saying it was a computer glitch or a mislabeled file.

    That would be an honest mistake, not misconduct I think. The fact that it is going to be considered misconduct makes me think that there may be more to the story than just swapping dates in a spreadsheet or mislabeling a file.

    There is more potential info here:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101015/full/news.2010.544.html

    The question is, is there a similar plot somewhere that was accidentally swapped in the published version? Is there is proof the data was taken for the 2nd paper but just misplaced?

    A

    March 17, 2011 at 11:15 pm

  8. I also wish there was more information about what happened to help me know what might be done to avoid a similar problem in the future. Is there a particular data archiving system that is problematic and requires double checking? Is there a specific better way to keep track of data? Did the PI read the paper carefully? Did the reviewers?

    It seems like the one concrete suggestion is not to retract too quickly, prior to a full investigation. What else might have been done to prevent this issue? And what should be done now?

    A

    March 17, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    • I think the PI did not take the amount of responsibility she should have taken. If she can’t go through the paper correctly, she does not have the liberty to even retract the paper without specific permission of Shane. And these PIs exercise their power and the postdocs and grad students are at the receiving end.

      Shree

      February 2, 2013 at 12:34 am

  9. I second A’s call for clarity. She admits to ‘mistakes made in data retrieval’ and ‘failure to properly archive one’s data’. However, in the end this is explained by only one of the following scenarios (i) the data for both experiments exists, but the 2008 results were accidentally used in the 2010 publication. (ii) as above, but this was intentional. (iii) there was only one set of data because results were lost or experiments were never performed. Of these, the first warrants an erratum and the others a retraction. Based on the outcome we must assume the worst.

    JSH

    March 18, 2011 at 7:40 am

  10. As I understand it one of the alleged “serious even egregious errors” involves duplication of a figure from a prior paper in Blood in the retracted Nature paper.
    Some information is here:
    http://www.biotechniques.com/news/biotechniquesNews/biotechniques-305300.html
    If this was a simple honest error presumably the paper could have been corrected.
    it sounds to me as though the bona fide data could not be located which as we all know in the world of research misconduct is the same as not having obtained the data in the first place.

    scotus

    March 18, 2011 at 8:05 am

  11. Dr. Mayack’s comments are most welcome, however questions still remain. The published accounts of what happened are lacking and while Dr. Mayack accepts responsibility for her actions, we still don’t know the exact nature of these. Since the investigating body did not release the details (which I doubt they will), this all remains a mystery.

    However, the point Dr. Mayack makes about the “system” is obvious. There was an apparent lack of oversight. Careful scrutiny of data in the lab, in particular those submitted for publication, is a MAJOR responsibility of the PI. If indeed the problem with these manuscripts was duplicated figures, this should have been picked up. This is a catastrophic failure and it happened twice. Why was only Dr. Mayack reprimanded? I think we know the answer to that.

    X. Perimental

    March 18, 2011 at 9:34 am

  12. The answer is “plausible deniability”.

    scotus

    March 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm

  13. I echo the sentiment that it’s helpful to be able to finally hear Dr. Mayack’s side of the story. I was shocked at the apparent speed with which the retraction was issued, which does not serve the greater scientific good. So what happens now if the conclusions of the paper are supported by data in Dr. Mayack’s notebooks? Will there be a new manuscript sent to Nature?

    To the more substantive issue of how this happened. This is the kind of thing that keeps me, as a PI, up at night. Given the volume and complexity of much of the data generated in biomedical research these days, I suspect there are many more cases in the literature of the “wrong” data being shown in one or more figures of high-impact papers.

    Larry Kane

    March 20, 2011 at 10:23 am

  14. Dr Mayack,
    I commend you for your posting but I’m amazed that you salute the events you do. I am confused and have many questions. You salute being blindsided by Amy Wagers, Harvard’s PR department, Nature and the Boston Globe? Where are the sanctions waged against them for their part in this? Did Amy Wagers not believe in this work for years? Was she not involved every step of the way? Why suddenly retract rather than simply correct when it seems an honest and simple mistake and the stakes are so high? Was her lab so large that she could not possibly keep track of everything? Is this simply to be swept under the rug in hopes that it doesn’t tarnish the reputation of Amy Wagers or Harvard? Is this an attempt by Harvard to deflect attention from more serious matters of misconduct in that institution – a can of worms not to be opened? I have to believe that if science was the only motivation here, a further investigation in to the study’s validity would be called for rather than simply pouring a promising career, not to mention years of work and funding, down the drain.

    Why is the Boston Globe not pursuing the whole story and prying the top off? Is it true that they simply regurgitate press releases? Seems to be. I’d like to know when a Facebook message began to suffice as a valid attempt to contact someone for a story. I hate to jump on this bandwagon but unfortunately our major media has failed us. Thankfully we do have this and other such new media outlets that are not slaves to the likes of Harvard’s public relations department.

    Dr Mayack, you have your medium. Postdocs and other underlings of such despots in similar situations have had to sit and suffer the injustices … I salute the fact that they no longer have to! I salute your courage! I salute your fight! Viva La Revolution!!

    Phil Score

    March 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm

  15. Dear Dr. Mayack:

    This is not helping.

    Being so vague about the details (if on your lawyer’s advice, why not just say so?) make me even more suspicious of your work. I would assume – if the data is clean – your mentor will be more then happy to clarify it rather than retract. She is surely aware she will have hard time publishing high-profile papers after this retraction. Why would she do that – unless she is sure this is real, real bad…?

    After all, the difference between a Nature paper and a “PloS One” paper amounts to a one “make-believe” result…

    Fedor Godunov

    April 25, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  16. When the paper is published it is to the PI’s credit when it is to be retracted its the grad student/ post docs fault!!! The story never changes ….
    I had my former PI change the labeling on a figure provided by me on his grant application (a minor thing – the ctrl was not NT shRNA but the parental cell line as it was a preliminary screening but he changed it to NTshRNA). When I saw the draft grant I pointed out to him that it was parental cell line and not infected with NTshRNA thinking that he had made a mistake. In response I was told “I know.. this is only for a grant and anyway if I am questioned I will say that my post doc never informed me”. He said it laughing, making it out to be joke but the mesg was not lost. This was again at one of the top 5 universities, PI a well known name in the field.
    It is easier to give advice to report but the consequences are for the person reporting and not the faculty. It is so rampant that you can’t escape it

    expostdoc

    February 2, 2012 at 7:24 am

  17. Again, a horde of apologists come running to defend… Your sympathies betray yourselves.

    Hater_Jonny

    August 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

  18. Perhaps she can explain how a figure from the web managed to get into her paper. I understand, perhaps, old figures one generated at a previous date getting into a manuscript. Maybe. However, I cannot imagine a scenario where the author cannot distinguish between something she downloaded and something she herself generated. Did the first author actually do the experiments and gather the data for this paper herself?

    Dan

    August 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  19. Her finger slipped and she accidentally made eight figures with data from a completely different experiment published 2-years earlier?! I hope this woman no longer has a job in this field and finds a new career — ideally one where she can insult the intelligence of everybody with such a pathetic “mishandling” excuse and not be called out on it. Waste of space in the lab, shame on her.

    Dr Postdoc

    September 5, 2012 at 5:47 am

    • Totally agree with the comments above from Dan and Dr Postdoc.

      I would love to know what exactly what “data management and archiving system” was used (Google search for data perhaps ?!?!). I can at least understand how you might mix up pieces of your own data, but how images from someone else’s website ends up in a paper is completely beyond me.

      When I looked at some of the figures in question (outlined here: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2012/08/28/2012-21236/findings-of-research-misconduct#p-11 ) it became blatantly clear that this was no mix up. The intent to deceive is obvious. One image of stained cells is copied from a website, except it has been cropped to remove the original labels plus some additional samples and then rotated and re-labelled. The fact that this is part of the supplemental data of the Mayack ‘Nature paper’ leads me to think that this was done with attitude of ‘oh it’s just a minor point buried in the supplemental, no one will notice if if we copy data’. This was no mistake in “data retrieval” as Mayack claims, this is clearly data fabrication.

      I was surprised that Mayack was essentially just put on 3 years probation as a result of the ORI investigation. She’s not actually even barred from getting funding (although I expect it will be pretty hard for her to do so since her only high impact papers have been retracted). I expect the coverage of this story will be sufficient to push her out of science, I certainly wouldn’t want to work with someone who engages in these sorts of activities.

      Although Mayack “neither admits nor denies ORI’s finding” her claim above that “errors, not fabrications, were made in assembling figures” is quite damning especially in light of the ORI’s finding regarding the origin of the stolen images. The only error that was made was a serious error in judgement on Mayack’s part. These figures were fabricated in a very devious way that could easily have escaped detection. I have to wonder, were these images faked because the experiments didn’t work or were they faked because Mayack was too lazy to actually do the experiments???

      Lab heads should be held accountable in cases of data fabrication if they are involved, but I think Mayack is way out of line pointing fingers at her supervisor. She argues that her data had been seen by her supervisor and colleagues implying that they are similarly responsible. At face value this might seem reasonable, but as someone familiar with the techniques used in these papers I can say that unless her lab head was literally physically there watching her as she actually did these experiments there is no way she could have known the data was fake (short of launching a full on investigation). That level of supervision is impossible in many modern labs where PIs are occupied with lab management, administration, funding, meetings, conferences etc. Keep in mind the data was faked in a way that made it past the reviewers at Nature. I think Mayack is trying to play the underdog and deflect blame from herself when in reality she is the fraudster.

      Jonesey

      September 6, 2012 at 11:02 am

  20. I agree with Dr. Mayack that a number of errors slip through the cracks even after I agree with Dr. Mayack that a number of errors slip through the cracks even after going through the best peer review process. We should try to reduce these errors as much as possible, but they are nonetheless human errors. Scientists are held to a high standard but are still expected to make mistakes. That is part of the scientific process. If a graph’s interpretation is incorrect or the wrong statistical test is used, these are mistakes we can fix and are permissible as long as we don’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. With that being said, what Dr. Mayack did is inexcusable. She is a liar and a fraud. She has set back all of science for two reasons. The first simply being that other researchers may have used her work or cited it in their on research and publications. Secondly, her actions destroy the trust that society has in science to get it right and for scientists to hold themselves to a higher standard.

    It would be my hope that Dr. Mayack never publishes in science again. Her actions are a disgrace and hurt all of science. I would never hire her to conduct research and would hope scientists in her field come down on her just as hard.

    E.W.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

  21. Based on details from the NIH Office of Research Integrity (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-12-147.html), this case now appears to be unambiguous, intentional fraud. At least 2 figures in the retracted papers were pulled from unrelated data on the web or from another paper. It is impossible to argue that this situation occurred due to sloppiness or error.

    Scientist

    September 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm


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