In a retraction’s wake: Postdoc Shane Mayack, dismissed from Amy Wagers’ stem cell lab, speaks out
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by this blog, the readers of Retraction Watch are no doubt aware that in October 2010, a paper that I co-authored was retracted from Nature and a notice of concern was posted regarding a second paper published in Blood.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?