Last month, we brought you the story of Soo-Kyung Kang, a Seoul National University stem cell researcher who has now retracted four papers amidst questions about image manipulation in a total of 14 studies. That story has drawn a great deal of attention in Korea, with comparisons to the Woo-Suk Hwang scandal, and has even led to a profile of Retraction Watch in the Seoul Daily, one of Korea’s largest newspapers.
We’ve now learned that the investigation has grown to 25 papers after an anonymous whistleblower warned about possible data fabrications in another paper by Kang, an associate professor of veterinary biotechnology, and Kyung-Sun Kang, director of the Adult Stem Cell Research Center in the same department (but no relation). And Soo-Kyung Kang was investigated in 2010, according to the Korea Herald.
The researchers’ labs are also under lockdown, except for a space for students to work, with all files, notes and computers confiscated by university officials, Joon Sik Lee, dean of research affairs at Seoul National University, told Retraction Watch.
The internal investigation is expected to take from one to two months, Lee wrote to Chandan K. Sen, editor in chief of Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, where Soo-Kyung Kang’s four now-retracted papers originally appeared.
Soo-Kyung Kang had already come under scrutiny by the university for potential data fabrication in 2010. A university committee found Kang guilty of data fabrication in an article published in the International Journal of Cancer, and verbally reprimanded her after she explained that the data included mistakes, not fabrications, according to unnamed sources in the Korea Herald. (We were unable to find a study by Kang in the IJC.)
Lee confirmed the investigation had taken place, but told Retraction Watch:
Our Committee reviewed potential data fabrications in 2010. But I am sorry I cannot inform you any because it is strictly classified.
The questioned paper by both Kangs, “JNK Activation by Up-Regulation of iNOS on Cholesterol Accumulation Limits Neurogenesis and Induces Region-Specific DNA Damage Responses in the Subventricular Zone of NPC Mice,” appeared online on April 10 in the same journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling — the journal from which Soo-Kyung Kang has already retracted four papers.
The anonymous whistleblower alleges that the authors had copied, flipped, and the pasted one control panel into a separate experiment. ARS editor Sen tells Retraction Watch:
The Kangs (Kang SK) have 5 papers in ARS and all 5 are in question. There were two submissions in peer review process which have now been rejected.
When reached by phone in the lab, Soo-Kyung Kang said:
I cannot speak with you right now. I have some testing.
She did not respond to a follow up email. Kyung-Sun Kang responded to emails and telephone messages from Retraction Watch by forwarding an email with journal editor Sen explaining that the latest questionable figure in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling was an error on the part of his student. From the letter, the entirety of which is available here:
It was an error. And my students can also showed the raw data supporting that it was an error. I would like to correct it before published it in hard copy of ARS journal, if it is possible. Or if not, this is just a simple error, I would like to publish it’s erratum in following issue after looking through at my data and explanations.
Lee told Sen to hold the Kangs’ April 10 paper from print until the investigation is complete.