FASEB J retracts 15-year-old study after author comes forward, but universities decline to investigate
The FASEB Journal — FASEB stands for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology — is retracting a 15-year-old paper without the consent of all of the authors, despite what seem like valiant attempts to figure out exactly what went wrong.
Here’s the notice for the University of Bern-University of Urbino paper:
The publisher of The FASEB Journal is administratively retracting S. E. Spycher, S. Tabataba-Vakili, V. B. O’Donnell, L. Palomba, and A. Azzi, “Aldose reductase induction: a novel response to oxidative stress of smooth muscle cells,” FASEB J. 1997 Feb. 11:181–188 at Valerie O’Donnell’s request and with the consent of Angelo Azzi.
On November 7, 2011, an author of the article, Valerie O’Donnell, sent a communication to the The FASEB Journal’s Editor-in-Chief indicating that data in The FASEB Journal article overlapped with an article that may have been simultaneously submitted to Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications and was previously published as S. Spycher, S. Tabataba-Vakili, V. B. O’Donnell, L. Palomba, A. Azzi, “4-Hydroxy-2,3-trans-nonenal Induces Transcription and Expression of Aldose Reductase,” Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 1996 Sep. 13;226(2):512–6., doi: 10.1006/bbrc.1996.1386.
The journal made several attempts to locate all of the other authors on the article published in The FASEB Journal, and established contact with Angelo Azzi and Letzia Palomba. The journal requested misconduct reviews from each author’s institution, but each request was declined. The journal also made additional attempts to locate and contact the remaining authors on the article, but was not successful. If any of the authors’ institutions conducts a misconduct review, the journal reserves the right to follow the recommendations made by that institution, which may or may not include reinstating the full article.
O’Donnell tells Retraction Watch:
I became aware of it after the BBRC paper was accepted for publication. I had already left Switzerland and was working in the USA.
I did not act on it at the time because I was a junior fellow and worried about the implications of raising the issue.
While we’re sympathetic to the concerns of a junior member of the team — and cheer O’Donnell’s willingness to acknowledge such realities, which seem to allow a lot of senior faculty to get away with less-than-admirable behavior — we should note that in the 15 years since the paper was published, it has been cited 124 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
The level of detail and transparency in the notice — not to mention the thinly veiled expressions of exasperation — should be applauded, and held up as a standard, just as a notice earlier this year by Steven Goodman, editor in chief of Experimental Biology and Medicine, should be a model. In both cases, the editors demanded more accountability from institutions — a role we wish more editors would play.
And this isn’t the first time FASEB Journal editor Gerald Weissmann — who, in the interests of full disclosure, was one of Ivan’s medical school professors and later a columnist at a webzine Ivan edited — has taken things into his own hands when not all authors saw eye to eye with the journal. Last year, he upgraded a previously agreed-upon erratum to a retraction after hearing the results of a misconduct investigation.
The University of Bern tells us that they are unaware of any requests from the journal, and suggested that the editors may have asked Azzi’s current institution, Tufts, to investigate. We’ve asked Azzi and Palombo for more information — particularly why the universities declined to conduct a misconduct review — and will update with anything we hear back.
Hat tip: Clare Francis