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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Authors retract two Cell Metabolism papers after “data were inappropriately removed from the laboratory”

with 22 comments

A group of researchers at the University of Utah has retracted two papers from Cell Metabolism after they realized that a dismissed employee had tossed out data that were the basis of some error-laden figures.

Here’s the notice for both papers:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the Authors.

We, the authors, wish to retract “Decoupling Ferritin Synthesis from Free Cytosolic Iron Results in Ferritin Secretion” by De Domenico et al. (Cell Metab., 13 (2011) 57–67, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2010.12.003 and “The Role of Ubiquitination in Hepcidin-Independent and Hepcidin-Dependent Degradation of Ferroportin” by De Domenico et al. (Cell Metab., 14 (2011) 635–646, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2011.09.008) because a number of errors have been detected in the assembly of the figures, and some of the original data were inappropriately removed from the laboratory. We stand by the validity of our studies; the data are reproducible, and the conclusions were not affected by the errors. However, we believe that the most responsible course of action is to retract the paper. We are preparing a new expanded version of this study for future submission. We deeply apologize to the community for the inconvenience.

“Decoupling Ferritin Synthesis from Free Cytosolic Iron Results in Ferritin Secretion” has been cited three times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

We asked senior author Jerry Kaplan what happened:

The data were lost when an employee, who was dismissed, discarded lab notebooks without permission.  This occurred prior to the identification of errors in the manuscripts and was reported at that time to the University authorities.

The dismissed employee? Kaplan said:

It was not a co-author but a technician who is no longer in the US.

The university, a spokesperson told us

does not comment on the existence or status of investigations.

Meanwhile, four of the authors of the retracted papers had an earlier mega-correction in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Here’s that notice:

CELL BIOLOGY Correction for “Hepcidin-induced internalization of ferroportin requires binding and cooperative interaction with Jak2,” by Ivana De Domenico, Eric Lo, Diane M. Ward, and Jerry Kaplan, which appeared in issue 10, March 10, 2009, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (106:3800–3805; first published February 20, 2009; 10.1073/pnas.0900453106).

The authors note that several figures appeared incorrectly. In Fig. 1, the anti-Jak2 panel was replaced due to errors in preparing the figure for publication. In Fig. 2A, the human Jak2 differential interference contrast (DIC) image and the epifluorescence image (-Hepcidin) as well as the anti-Jak2 Western blot panel were replaced due to errors in preparing the figure for publication. Fig. 3B was replaced due to errors in preparing the figure for publication. Lastly, in Fig. 4A, the anti-Fpn panel (1.) was replaced due to errors in preparing the figure for publication. These errors do not affect the conclusions of the article. The corrected figures and their legends appear below.

We asked Kaplan why the papers were handled differently:

We take these matters very seriously and deeply regret that errors were made in the assembly of the figures. We stand by the data and conclusions in the papers.  We have independently repeated critical findings and preferred to correct the publications because these are important contributions to the literature.   Some of the original data for the Cell Metabolism papers were in the discarded notebooks.  That fact was influential in the decision to retract the Cell Metabolism papers.

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Written by ivanoransky

May 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

22 Responses

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  1. Presumably, the technician discarded his own lab notebooks. If the data these notebooks contained were pivotal to the retracted papers, why was the technician not a co-author on either of them? I am asking all this because it looks dodgy if all the authors absolve themselves of any responsibility, while pinning it on some guy who, conveniently, is no longer around. If I had a penny for every time I heard this story I would have at least a dime.


    May 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

    • There are many places and instances where technicians are not co-authors, as their role is (conceived to be) that of data collector.


      May 23, 2012 at 11:12 am

      • Data collector and scapegoat, right?


        May 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm

      • Not necessarily.


        May 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      • Let me just point out that the said lab technician is not even mentioned in acknowledgements in either of the articles. A big red flag to me if the lab technician wasn’t even acknowledged, but supposedly handled crucial experimental data and methods that NO ONE ELSE could reproduce or derive in the lab. I smell scapegoating.


        May 24, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    • You would have much more than a dime, chirality. Damage control dictates that, if possible, one person should take the fall, and that person should be the lowest person on the totem pole and no longer a member of the group.

      It could be hard to figure out what happened without more details. Why was the technician dismissed? Because s/he discarded his/her own notebooks that contained the data (suggesting that s/he should have been credited as an author), or because s/he discarded someone else’s notebooks that contained the data (suggesting that the fall guy/gal didn’t deserve author credit)? Or for some other reason, and the notebooks were tossed out as the employee cleared out his/her space before leaving?

      How important are the errors in the figures relative to the missing notebooks? Since the data went missing first and the paper was not retracted at that time, it seems that the subsequent discovery of errors was the motivation to retract. If errors are the main reason for the retraction, maybe a few words could be devoted to explaining what the problem was. Sloppy or rushed preparation? Poorly labeled photos got mixed up? Captions were wrong? Instead, the missing data receives the long explanation: the ominous “improperly removed from the laboratory” phrase, with its connotation that the data was stolen by a nefarious researcher. When WR inquires, the missing data turns out to be in the dumpster. Maybe “accidentally discarded” would have been a shorter, more informative, and less finger-pointing description of how the data disappeared. Is the phrase “improperly removed from the laboratory” inviting us to blame a low-level employee and ignore the person who is responsible for the errors in the figures? And what’s with that bit about “no longer in the US”? What does it matter? Is it claimed that the dismissed technician is beyond the reach of a poor recommendation letter and therefore it’s best to just forget about the episode and move on? Or is this a subtle way of saying that the dismissed technician is one of those untrustworthy furriners?

      The mega-correction is very funny. If the incorrect figures had no effect on the conclusions, why were they in the paper? If the figures were incorrect, why did the reviewers fail to notice that these figures did not support the conclusions?

      Thanks for the follow-up, Ivan. You guys do a thorough job.


      May 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    • Data collector and scapegoat, right? Right you are. The wise boss makes sure s/he gets plenty of credit when things go right and has someone to blame when things go wrong. Why would science be different from business and politics? :-)


      May 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm

  2. Science is doomed! All big guys never do any work.Now with all the grant searching they don’t even have time to think! What they do is hiring people to do the work and thinking!
    There should be a stop in all this.
    Senior researchers should have no more than 2 pos docs (and that is already a lot!). Work would go slower for only a minority of them. For science as a whole I think it would be more efficient – money wise – and also be more stimulating.


    May 26, 2012 at 7:43 am

  3. In reply to wuzzuMay 26, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Amen! Medicine is the same.

    David Hardman

    May 27, 2012 at 7:19 am

  4. University of Utah biologists retract findings after lab tech tosses data

    After losing key data under strange circumstances, a team of University of Utah molecular biologists this month retracted two published studies about regulation of iron in the blood.


    It becomes bigger!


    June 7, 2012 at 5:26 am

  5. And here (second paragraph):


    June 7, 2012 at 5:27 am

  6. From retraction watch:
    Two new corrections for Utah group that retracted two Cell Metabolism papers for missing notebooks



    June 8, 2012 at 6:01 am

  7. Here is a paper just published in Cell Metabolism. Authors demonstrate that hypothesis from De Domenico are WRONG! This paper is the PNAS (De Domenico 2009) mega-corrected some weeks ago. In the correction De Domenico & Kaplan wrote: “These errors do not affect the conclusions of the article.”
    No comment.

    Molecular Mechanism of Hepcidin-Mediated Ferroportin Internalization Requires Ferroportin Lysines, Not Tyrosines or JAK-STAT.
    Cell Metab. 2012 Jun 6;15(6):905-17



    June 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

  8. Finally I am wondering what is the position on PNAS journal after this new publication:
    Molecular Mechanism of Hepcidin-Mediated Ferroportin Internalization Requires Ferroportin Lysines, Not Tyrosines or JAK-STAT.
    Cell Metab. 2012 Jun 6;15(6):905-17
    Authors demonstrate inverse results from De Domenico et al. PNAS 2009 … and De Domenico just published a megacorrection (5 mistakes in the 4 figures of the paper!) of this PNAS 2009.
    In this case retraction should be take into consideration.


    June 12, 2012 at 11:22 am

  9. Sad.. makes me sick… once again.. and again… that maybe why I stepped out of the business??


    June 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm

  10. Another Cell Metabolism retraction.


    Cell Metabolism, Volume 15, Issue 4, 4 April 2012, Pages 466-479


    July 13, 2012 at 3:47 am

  11. It seems that this bad Domenico’s story ends. No more correction. No more retraction.


    September 20, 2012 at 5:34 am

  12. Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications


    October 17, 2012 at 10:51 am

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