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Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Spanish veterinary researcher under suspicion of creating “ghost” author, fabricating data

with 10 comments

via Wikimedia

The Spanish press has picked up on the story of a prominent veterinary scientist in that country who has been accused of research misconduct.

According to El Pais, the researcher, Jesús Ángel Lemus, whose areas of interest include the effects of toxins on birds, ran into trouble in December when colleagues complained to the Ethics Committee of the Higher Council for Scientific Research about the reproducibility of his results and other problems. That triggered an inquiry by the CSIC into Lemus’ body of work, an investigation that, evidently, could not find a body.

Per El Pais (courtesy of Google Translate):

The Ethics Committee of the CSIC is looking for a ghost. A ghost with a good academic background with at least six scientific publications in international journals.

The newspaper reports that a mystery co-author, a “Javier Grande” — that’s Dr. Big, to you — is listed variously on several (the paper says six, but we found five on Medline) of Lemus’ publications as being affiliated with two public institutions, the National Museum of Natural Sciences and the Research Institute of Hunting Resources (the latter of which made a modest splash earlier this year with a report that deer antlers might hold the keys to understanding osteoporosis in humans). But neither group has a record of him.

The publications in question appeared in PLoS One, Environmental Pollution, Environmental Research and Environmental Microbiology. One of the papers that featured Lemus and Grande as co-authors has been cited 14 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, but most have been cited fewer times.

So far, we haven’t seen any retractions of Lemus’ work. We spoke with the editors of two of the journals, Environmental Pollution and Environmental Microbiology, but both said our query was the first they’d heard of the scandal.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Hat tips: Miguel Camblor, Pierre-Michel Forget

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10 Responses

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  1. “…both said our query was the first they’d heard of the scandal.”

    C´mon get off it! These editor think scientists are gullible. One journal from Elsevier, the other from Wiley. No wonder they get boycotted, these great companies only care about their pockets and no a penny about serious, strict, science.

    Rafa

    March 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm

  2. I speak Spanish so had a look at the El Pais article. Interesting reading, it seems that they managed to find a ‘Javier Grande’ who had studied with Lemus, but who now works as a veternarian and says he had nothing to do with the research.

    A comment on the El Pais article says that this isn’t the first notice of dubious results from Lemus. An Antonio Tenorio from the Ministry of Health contacted Lemus last year asking for some of his samples after Lemus published a study saying they’d found west nile virus in 40% of the birds they’d examined, when it seems that no-one else has reported detecting west nile virus in this species before (although it is possible to detect antibodies against it). Tenorio was immediately suspicious thinking it was a finding too extreme to be possible.

    Lemus’ thesis was also only submitted in 2009, available here: http://digital.csic.es/handle/10261/41572
    Titled: “Emerging diseases and residual pharmaceuticals in wild birds: health implications and associated immunity in two models of raptors”. (or something like that from my translation)
    It’s obviously about the same topic as the publication material, looks like there might be a thesis withdrawal in the pipeline as well…

    Booker

    March 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm

  3. There was an earlier ‘introduction’ to the case (in Spanish) in

    http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2012/02/25/actualidad/1330200513_328509.html

    Really worth reading, as the ‘ghost author’ seems to be only the iceberg’s tip in a really huge case of scientific fraud. Also remarkable the slowness of CSIC officials in responding …

    Manuel

    March 14, 2012 at 4:03 am

  4. “So far, we haven’t seen any retractions of Lemus’ work. We spoke with the editors of two of the journals, Environmental Pollution and Environmental Microbiology, but both said our query was the first they’d heard of the scandal.”

    This is not so surprising. The CSIC Ethics Committee was asked in late December 2011 by the whistelblowers (Lemus’s co-authors, thesis advisor and bosses at the CSIC Research Institute of Hunting Resources in Doñana) to investigate http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2012/02/25/actualidad/1330200513_328509.html , and their investigation, which would not have started until around 9 January 2012 at the earliest because of the long Chirstmas holiday in Spain, will take time. (Recall how long it took the CSIC Ethics Committee to figure out what to do over the infamous reactome paper in Science that was eventually retracted.)

    Press coverage of the case does not tell the whole story, and the public has so far been given only a small part of what will be another long, complicated story shaped by a mixture of science, ethical, professional and personal factors.

    According to the 26 Feb 2012 newspaper article that preceded yesterday’s 13 March article http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2012/03/12/actualidad/1331580969_944942.html , the whistleblowers have asked the CSIC to advise them on what to do with the publications ‘that have already come out’. All have coauthored articles with Lemus and say they feel deceived, since possible retraction of the scientific articles would negatively affect their careers. (“Reclaman al CSIC que les asesore sobre qué hacer “con las publicaciones que ya han visto la luz”. Todos ellos han firmado trabajos con Lemus y dicen sentirse engañados, ya que una posible retirada de los artículos científicos afectaría negativamente a sus carreras.”) Um, did anybody read the authorship criteria for these journals before they signed on as coauthors?

    The investigation into Lemus’s work has unfortunately started off on the wrong foot. Colleagues at the Barcelona Museum of Natural History who were unsure about his data “set a kind of trap for him” in summer 2011, according to press coverage linked above, by giving him samples to re-analyze with the labels switched (without telling him). The results led to further suspicions, after which relations between Lemus and his colleagues appear to have broken down. Two meetings at the Madrid Museum of Natural History in October 2011 intended to confront Lemus and ask him to explain his data led to him walking out of the second meeting without providing any information, according to yesterday’s article in the press. If transparent, non-confrontational procedures had been used from the start, cooperation and communication might have been better.

    Karen Shashok

    March 14, 2012 at 5:25 am

  5. Another PloS One retraction: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3329277/
    PLoS One. 2012; 7(4): 10.1371/annotation/0b18c274-2427-482d-add4-aa20001c0e98

    The correction is, in fact, a retraction.

    Correction: Sensory Coding by Cerebellar Mossy Fibres through Inhibition-Driven Phase Resetting and Synchronisation
    Tahl Holtzman and Henrik Jörntell

    The corresponding author requests the retraction of this article as the work was published without two key contributors. These contributors disagree with the publication of the article as it uses data that they had generated in part with the corresponding author but were not yet ready to publish themselves. The corresponding author sincerely apologises to the editor and readership for this misjudgement.

    Bernard Soares

    May 4, 2012 at 7:58 am

  6. More sickening fraud from this group…

    http://www.science-fraud.org/?p=408

    scifraudster

    August 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  7. News about the CSIC Ethics Committee’s findings appeared in the Spanish press recently. One of the several articles that appeared is translated below. I’ve kept the translation more literal than idiomatic since the precise meaning of several words and phrases is open to interpretation.

    As in the Science reactome case, it seems CSIC has chosen its words carefully and resorted to “a certain degree” of waffling.

    (EFE is the Spanish language news agency.)

    The Science article blogged at http://www.science-fraud.org/?p=408 (previous Comment) is an interesting case and the info on that site is worth reading. The reasons why CSIC has apparently treated that article as a special case should be explained. Unfortunately the Ethics Committee does not make its reports available on the CSIC website.

    CSIC concludes that a former Doñana scientist lied or made mistakes in 24 articles

    http://www.efeverde.com/content/view/full/133541

    Madrid, 30 July (EFE).- The Ethics Committee of the Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) has concluded that a scientist formerly with the Doñana Biological Station lied or made mistakes in 24 articles published in 17 science journals, which the president of the organism has contacted so that they can correct or retract the articles.

    The CSIC Ethics Committee’s conclusions, which EFE obtained access to today, raise questions in several areas regarding the “partial or entire authenticity” of the results of researcher Jesús Ángel Lemus, a veterinarian under contract to the Doñana Biological Station between 2007 and 2012. According to the Ethics Committee, the entity that performed most of the analyses has not been identified, and the affiliation of some colleagues, including a researcher who coauthored some articles with Lemus, is false or unknown. The events began in December 2011, when some of the researchers’ colleagues at the Doñana Biological Station – an institution belonging to CSIC – remitted a letter to the Ethics Committee because they were unable to reproduce in the laboratory the results Lemus obtained in birds, according to CSIC sources consulted by EFE. After studying the data and interviewing the scientists, the Committee decided to launch an investigation in which Lemus attempted to defend himself and did not admit to the facts, according to the same sources.

    Researcher no longer employed by CSIC
    While their investigation was under way, CSIC decided in June 2012 not to renew Lemus’s contract on the basis of an unfavorable report because he failed to perform the duties he had been hired for. Throughout this time the Committee has attempted to verify his research results by interviewing five scientists who coauthored the articles with Lemus. The Ethics Committee has now concluded its investigation, which shows, as CSIC has emphasized, that the system works because the problem was detected and appropriate measures were taken. The President of CSIC, Emilio Lora-Tamayo, has contacted all 17 journals, including the US journals PLoS ONE and PNAS and the British journal Biology Letters, and has also contacted the researchers who coauthored the articles with Lemus. The journals were informed of the events and their outcome in writing, and the researchers – who made no errors and were unaware of Lemus’s intentions – have been urged to contact the journals to correct or retract the articles.

    Correcting or retracting the articles
    “This Committee resolves that the different authors of publications legally connected with CSIC (…) must contact the different editors without delay, specifying all results that it has not been possible to verify for whatever reason, and identifying authors whose identity is unknown or whose affiliations are false.” The Committee further states, “in both cases the authors must request that to the extent possible, appropriate corrections should be published. If dissemination of the corrections is not possible because of the journal’s policies or the extent of the corrections, the authors must request retraction of the publication in question”. The Committee also recommends that the president of CSIC consider the possibility of launching an “internal investigation” to determine whether “additional or complementary responsibilities” exist, in order to “limit or impede the occurrence of events such as this one”.

    Extension of the Code of Good Practice
    Furthermore, as a consequence of these events, this organ has prepared an annex to the CSIC Code of Good Practice which asks researchers to use extreme caution regarding the requirements in publications involving different multidisciplinary groups. The annex advises that when critical analysis of a particular contribution is difficult, the authorship of each participant should be clearly defined, and the author or authors responsible for the article in its entirety should be clearly identified. The annex also advises researchers to consider that coauthorship implies knowledge of the article in its entirety and that all coauthors share a certain degree of responsibility. EFE

    Karen Shashok

    August 20, 2012 at 4:17 am

  8. In reply to Karen Shashok August 20, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Many thanks for the translation. I appreciate it. It is nice that when an English-speaker reads a piece in Spanish so many of the abstract words are the same. Is English really a “Germanic language” as people without lessons in either German or Spanish usually say Spanish is easier to read than German.
    I know that Spanish evolved directly from Latin, and that English got its Latin words via French, or from academics reading Latin books, but it is nice to see the reality of this.

    The CSIC has really done something. Let’s wait for the retractions. A turn for the better.

    David Hardman

    August 20, 2012 at 8:19 am

  9. New retraction of a Lemus paper in J. Applied Ecology: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12108/full

    Noam Ross (@noamross)

    May 21, 2013 at 2:14 pm


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