Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Authors, including highly cited cancer researcher, blame “clerical error” for image mixup in paper

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The Journal of Experimental Medicine has issued a correction for a 2011 paper by Michael Karin, a prominent cancer researcher at the University of California, San Diego, after learning about a “clerical error” in one of the figures.

According to the notice for the article, “Constitutive intestinal NF-κB does not trigger destructive inflammation unless accompanied by MAPK activation,”

As a result of a clerical error, an incorrect data image was displayed in the control panel for the CD11c staining in the original Fig. 2 A. The corrected figure is below. This modification does not alter the interpretation of the data.

Karin’s work has been the subject of several posts on the site Science Fraud and at least one other blog. Several of his articles have come in for correction (Science Fraud has a list, including this JEM paper), and in 2009, his group retracted a 2000 Cell paper — all for image problems:

After publication of the above article, we realized that the anti-IKKα (IB) loading controls presented in Figures 3A, 3B, 3C, and 4C are duplicate presentations of the same gel lanes and do not represent the correct controls for the individual experiments. In addition, the anti-IKKα (IB) loading control in the right panel of Figure 4C is an inadvertent duplication of the DNA-PKcs (IB) data in the left panel of Figure 5F. These errors in figure preparation limit the interpretability of the related experimental data in these figures, which are an essential component of the support for the main conclusions of the paper regarding the activation of IKK and NF-κB. We are therefore retracting this paper and apologize for these errors and for any inconvenience they may have caused. Despite these errors, we stand by the reproducibility of the experimental data and the conclusion, which has been reached by numerous subsequent studies, that IKK and NF-κB are required for activation of innate immunity.

Dr. Lois was not reachable via any of the available contact information and therefore has not seen or agreed to the text of this retraction.

Karin has published nearly 400 papers, according to a link to Medline on his website. More than 25 of them have been cited at least 1,000 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

A clerical error could mean many things, so we asked Karin to elaborate but have not heard back. Meanwhile, Marlowe Tessmer, a top editor at the JEM, told us that

The authors indicated a mislabeling error occurred.

That makes some sense, and Tessmer said she had no reason to doubt that explanation, although it’s interesting to note that the journal learned about a problem with the figure not from the authors themselves but from “a third party.”

  • amw August 29, 2012 at 10:27 am

    As the very detailed Science Fraud website explains, the old Fig. 2A has image duplication towards the bottom right panels. And this is one of at least 10 examples of the problem. People who indulge in image reuse on this scale do so because they haven’t actually done the experiments and while compiling their ‘different’ conditions, they forget what they have already put in (if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything). So in a way it WAS a clerical error – they failed to conceal the evidence of fabrication.

    And what are the journals doing about it? Easy – just let the authors insert the ‘correct’ images one-by-one. Problem solved!

    Image fraud is interesting because we can all see it, so it’s an excellent marker of how science polices itself. Cases like this are very revealing in that they show the journals simply moving the goalposts of what is good science, and declaring what is likely to be fraud to be simply a series of ‘clerical errors’. This is why people are afraid to speak out – because even when the evidence is in everyone’s face, journals allow authors to simply sidestep the allegations and feign ‘sloppiness’.

    Given the journals allowing these corrections (EMBO, Science, PNAS) this is a pretty sad state of affairs…

  • Ressci Integrity August 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

    amw: agreed. No one can touch these people – it is mutual agreement between star investigators and the journals. That is why journals like Science take more than year to investigate misconduct and may be more time for retraction. Who can question this?

  • Marc Wathelet August 29, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I find the retraction of the 2000 Cell paper interesting. To say, oh, we messed up some of our figures but really, our conclusions were correct and were confirmed by subsequent studies is really a fig leaf to hide some unpleasant reality. In 2000 there simply was no doubt about IKK and NFkB being involved in inflammation. So they rushed a big paper for publication and because they were afraid of being scooped they could not bother with running all the proper controls or experiments. I have seen that kind of thinking many times and most people get away with it. Now in this case, the extend of sloppiness is so bad that they rather retract the paper so people stop looking under the carpet.

  • Marjory Munson August 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    “Clerical error” MAY be true, but the authors should have reported it, not a third party. When I was student clerical help many years ago, I took a medical paper I had typed – as given – to the author and pointed to two statements and asked which was correct. He told me, then asked how in the world I knew that one was incorrect. I said it was because I recognized that they contradicted each other. He thanked me profusely for saving him from the embarrassment of having the incorrect information printed in a major journal.

  • amw August 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Some of the labs featured this week in RW (e.g. Katiyar) lab are big producers but mostly in smaller journals. But with these guys hardly a month goes by without a paper in Science, Cell or one of the Nature journals.

    One thing to remember with repeated image reuse is that this is just the chaff thrown up by the process of fabrication. Most of the time, they get the fabrication right and outsiders can’t possibly know it has happened. But eventually, because they are trying to simulate different results from a stock of other images, they make a mistake and the outside world gets a glimpse of what is going on.

    It is also incredible to imagine a series of papers being submitted to Cell, Nature etc.. with clear mistakes in the images. This is not how science works – in my experience each individual figure represents the summary of months of careful work. To imagine people repeatedly ‘choosing the wrong image’ at the critical stage of manuscript preparation is fantasy.

    For these reasons the sloppiness argument is flawed, and it is dismaying that the journals continually accept it. Replacing such figures is like placing a sticking plaster over a an open wound.

  • Ressci Integrity August 29, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    absolutely. People like Katiyar gets punished for doing this in small journals. however, big ones it is a “clerical” error and an erratum will erase everything and normalcy resumed to publish again in Cell, Nature and Science. Cell cycle arrest, damage repaired and the cycle continues.

  • No clerks August 30, 2012 at 6:38 am

    Well, well… clerical error…

    Of course, if you have 400 papers you can not write them all, so you have clerks who write your papers while you are doing something else…

  • semblanceofscience September 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    So…the major journals use ithenticate and other plagiarism detection software prior to even sending a paper for review, right? Why aren’t journals also using content based image retrieval software? There have got to be packages available that could be tailored to look at Westerns, cytometry dot plots, and IHC images. Does anyone have experience with this approach?

  • chirality January 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    This link seems to list more papers with clerical errors from the Karin lab.

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