The journal Cell has an interesting — and somewhat puzzling — correction this month that we’ll add to our “mega-correction” file.
At issue is a paper, published in October, from the lab of Harvard’s Stephen Elledge, a noted genetics researcher, whose first author is a post-doc there named Michael Emanuele.
According to the notice, Emanuele (singled out, we note) seems to have been rather careless with the images used in the article, titled “Global Identification of Modular Cullin-RING Ligase Substrates”:
Since publication of the above article, it has come to our attention that incorrect immunoblot loading controls in Figures 6 and S5 were selected by the lead author, M.J.E., during figure preparation. Corrected versions of the figures appear below and are available with the article online. In each case, the relationship between the experimental and control data is clear on the original films. We apologize for these mistakes and emphasize that their correction does not affect any data interpretation.
The notice then shows the figures, followed by more text:
In Figure 6C, vinculin controls were mistakenly taken from the experimental rather than the untreated controls. The full experiment can be seen in a longer exposure in Figure 7D. The correct loading control is now shown in the revised version of Figure 6.
In Figure 6E, panels for PAF15, cyclin B, and phospho-S10 on histone H3, showing the cell-cycle position for each of the extracts, were previously published in Emanuele et al., 2011, and should have been cited as such. These immunoblots and corresponding quantification have since been repeated, and the new blots and graph are shown in the revised Figure 6. The original quantification shown in Figure 6E incorrectly normalized the PAF15 and cyclin B data from the earlier analysis to the vinculin control performed for this study.
In Figure 6F, cells were treated with siRNA targeting FF or cyclin F. The loading control shown for siCyclinF was incorrectly duplicated from the siFF panel and is replaced with the correct panel here. The original quantification was derived from the correct loading control.
In Figure S5D, the vinculin control for the 293T cells was inadvertently duplicated from the U2OS cell loading control. The correct control appears here.
The panels that “were previously published in Emanuele et al” appeared in 2011 in PNAS (Emanuele et al., 2011 Emanuele, M.J., Ciccia, A., Elia, A.E.H., and Elledge, S.J. (2011). Proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA)-associated KIAA0101/PAF15 protein is a cell cycle-regulated anaphase-promoting complex/cyclosome substrate. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 9845–9850.)
Emanuele, whose name appears on 11 articles, according to a Medline search, is still affiliated with the Elledge lab, where we tried unsuccessfully to reach him. We’re also trying to find out more from Elledge himself, and will update with anything we hear.
The blog Abnormal Science wrote about this paper (read both links) in December, saying that it learned about the suspect images from a “vigilant whistleblower.” The study has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
As readers of this blog are doubtless aware, recycling Western blots helped earn Naoki Mori a 10-year publishing ban from the American Society for Microbiology, along with a lengthy suspension from his institution. It also led to more than 30 retractions.
We’re curious why the two cases had such different endings. We know this much: The variable isn’t the publisher. Cell is an Elsevier title, but Elsevier also runs journals that published Mori’s work, including Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications and Leukemia Research.
We asked Cell, through an Elsevier executive, to comment on the apparent discrepancy and will update this post when we hear back.
Updated 5:20 p.m. Eastern, 2/2/12:
We spoke with Elledge, who insisted that the case was a matter of disorganization, not misconduct.
Everyone who has seen the primary data agrees that this isn’t a case of data manufacturing, this is a case of errors in the assembly process of the figures.
Elledge said he learned of the problematic figures from Abnormal Science in early December, upon which immediately took possession of Emanuele’s data and notified Cell.
There’s a really bad feeling that comes on. You don’t know what to think. It sure looked bad.
But Elledge said he quickly realized that his post-doc’s records were well-kept and thorough, and that the problem stemmed from failing to double-check the figures.
Fortunately this was all on film; this wasn’t electronic. You cannot manipulate the films, you’d have to have done something way in advance.
In the end, said Elledge, a correction, not a retraction, was the appropriate step.
There were multiple mistakes, which makes it look bad, but this is a case where there were just mistakes.
Hat tip: Pinko Punko