Whistleblower forces retractions of four stem cell papers amid questions about more than a dozen studies
In a case that is a good reminder of why journal editors shouldn’t ignore anonymous tips, a Seoul National University stem cell researcher has been forced to retract four papers, and withdraw another under peer review, in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling following a whistleblower’s exhaustive analysis.
Two retractions by Soo Kyung Kang, a professor of veterinary biotechnology at Seoul National University, appeared on May 9 after an anonymous whistleblower sent a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation to the editors of ten journals that contained evidence of suspicious floating error bars, errors larger than actual measurements, pasted-together lanes in PCR gels and RNA and CHIP blots and several cases where the same control blot data is shown across different experiments and in different papers. In all, the whistleblower raises questions about 14 papers in the ten journals.
Here is the May 9 notice for “Nuclear Ago2/HSP60 contributes to broad spectrum of hATSCs function via Oct4 regulation”:
In response to allegations brought forth by a reader of this Journal, I Soo Kyung Kang, take full responsibility as corresponding author and accept that some of the data presented in this manuscript (Im YB, Jee MK, Jung JS, Choi JI, Jang JH, Kang SK. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 May 15;16(10):1046-60) are not accurate. I retract the publication in its entirety from the scientific literature.
A notice for “miR23b ameliorates neuropathic pain in spinal cord by silencing NADPH oxidase 4” on May 9 was identical.
A forthcoming editorial in Antioxidants & Redox Signalling will explain why two other published papers will be retracted, along with why a manuscript under peer review will be withdrawn, editor-in-chief Chandan K. Sen tells Retraction Watch:
We want to make sure as few researchers are victimized on this as possible.
Sen sent Retraction Watch an advance copy of the editorial:
Responsible Reporting: A Major Cornerstone in the Development of Science
On May 8th I was alerted by an anonymous ARS reader about possible “evidence for fabrications” together with an attachment highlighting allegedly fabricated data published in ARS from the laboratory of Dr. Soo-Kyung Kang (2,3). Review of the submitted illustrations led to the observation that the allegations were serious. I contacted the author requesting quick response. The author co-operated, accepting problems in the quality of data, but claiming error over fabrication. Dr. Kang also apologized for his/her lack of adequate oversight and sought retraction of these works (2,3). These publications were retracted on May 9th.
As we were reviewing these manuscripts and related submissions, it was found that one manuscript (in peer review process) contained data which in the author’s response were “immature” and “uninspected”. On May 17th, this submission was promptly withdrawn from further consideration at the author’s request. The content of two other publications (1,4) by the same corresponding author was also found to suffer from data of questionable quality. This time the author contested some of the allegations and requested permission to redo some experiments to improve the quality of data in these accepted manuscripts (1,4). Because ARS does not accept changing data (beyond minor corrections) in accepted manuscripts and considering the overall situation, these manuscripts (1,4) are being retracted on May 17th 2012.
It is beyond the scope of our Journal to investigate the matter at the institutional level in order to address “fabrication” versus “error”. I have brought the matter to the attention of the appropriate Dean responsible for Research Ethics at the Seoul National University requesting an investigation. Dean Lee promptly wrote back saying that they will conduct an investigation and keep me informed of the outcome. Whether error or fabrication, we are convinced that the published works rested on questionable data quality. To imminently protect ARS reader interest, the affected published works are being retracted. The works had to be retracted in its entirety because it was assessed that the inaccurate data sets undermined the entire work.
One of the key responsibilities of the Journal is to provide quality information to its readers. The quality of published information may be compromised by a number of ways including error and unethical practice. ARS treats all submissions as being responsible until we have reliable proof to suspect otherwise. Once we have such proof, we are committed to moving swiftly to perform due diligence and to correct the record as applicable. I call upon our readership to be vigilant against irresponsible scientific reporting. It is because of your support that we could address this problem with the expediency it deserved.
1. Choi JI, Jee MK, Im YB, Kang SK. Novel GSK-3β Inhibitors and CBM-1078 Guide hATSCs’ Deaging Via Oct4 and β-Catenin Activation. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 May 8. [Epub ahead of print]. Withdrawn from publication in print.
2. Im YB, Jee MK, Jung JS, Choi JI, Jang JH, Kang SK. miR23b ameliorates neuropathic pain in spinal cord by silencing NADPH oxidase 4. Antioxid Redox Signal.16(10):1046-60, 2012.
3. Jang JH, Jung JS, Choi JI, Kang SK. Nuclear Ago2/HSP60 contributes to broad spectrum of hATSCs function via Oct4 regulation. Antioxid Redox Signal. 16(5):383-99, 2012.
4. Jang JH, Jung JS, Im YB, Kang KS, Choi JI, Kang SK. Crucial role of nuclear Ago2 for hUCB-MSCs differentiation and self-renewal via stemness control. Antioxid Redox Signal. 16(2):95-111, 2012.
Sen deserves a lot of credit for acting quickly and decisively. He’s been in the midst of a fair amount of cleanup at the journal recently. Dipak Das, the resveratrol researcher found guilty of more than 100 counts of misconduct by the University of Connecticut, was relieved of his duties as co-editor-in-chief when the results of that investigation came to light.
When reached at her Seoul National University lab on Monday, Kang explained her reasons for retracting the studies:
We need more strong information about my researches. We have to try another experiment.
Kang tells Retraction Watch she had not seen the PowerPoint slides, nor did she know anything about the data fabrication allegations. In the course of a seven minute conversation, and a few follow-up emails, she made it clear she did not want to discuss the issue further.
Retraction Watch contacted the anonymous whistleblower through a Gmail account that includes the terms “research ethics.” The person declined to identify him or herself, but wrote the following:
I found fabrication by accident when I was reading journal published by this author. But the fabrication looked likely not simple error so I thought that all the data from this author would have some problem.
My research is not connected with Stem Cell Research therefore I don’t think this author could be a indirect competitor. Unfortunately, I could not directly contact this author. If the fraud data were simple error I would directly contact and ask to make erratum. As you may know, most of the journals published by this author are involved and I saw very strong intention. That was the reason why I did not directly contact the author.
I’m just a researcher and pursue truth of nature.
I think those kind of fabricated data can be blinding the eyes of researcher and make them to spend years for nothing. Therefore, ethics in research is important.
Joon Sik Lee, dean of research affairs at Kang’s institution, Seoul National University — which was also the home of stem cell fraudster Woo Suk Hwang — wrote in an email:
We are also aware of the paper retraction by Prof. Kang from other information source and accordingly our committee is taking peer review on the papers.
Several of the journals that could also be affected started their own internal investigations. Maria Kowalczuk, deputy biology editor for BMC Neuroscience, tells Retraction Watch:
We have received the Power Point presentation and we are currently investigating the allegations related to the publication in BMC Neuroscience. This investigation is confidential so I am not able to provide any more detail.
In addition to Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, the whistleblower raised questions about papers in the following journals:
Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta
Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry