We’ve written about mega-corrections that allow scientists to retrace virtually all of their steps yet preserve their publications as supposedly legitimate. And we’ve seen plenty of corrections that allow authors to assert that their conclusions are correct when evidently important pieces of data are themselves unreliable.
Now comes a correction that seems to us to strike the right chords, given the fact that editors are to a large extent at the mercy of authors in these situations.
The paper in question is from the lab of Bharat Aggarwal, a researcher at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Aggarwal’s work as come under scrutiny from more than a few bloggers, including Science Fraud, who have pointed to what they consider to be fudged figures. Aggarwal told us last year that he was under investigation by the institution, although the status of that inquiry is not public.
The “author reported correction,” which was first noted by Science Fraud, appeared in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, for a paper published in March of this year titled “Zyflamend sensitizes tumor cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis through up-regulation of death receptors and down-regulation of survival proteins: role of ROS-dependent CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein-homologous protein pathway.”
According to the notice:
This is a non peer-reviewed author-reported erratum addressing: Zyflamend sensitizes tumor cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis through up-regulation of death receptors and down-regulation of survival proteins: role of ROS-dependent CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein-homologous protein pathway. Kim JH, Park B, Gupta SC, Kannappan R, Sung B, Aggarwal BB. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 Mar 1;16(5):413-27. The authors claim that Figure 7 reporting Western blot data was erroneous. Specifically, the beta-actin panel of Fig. 7B was found to be switched with that of Fig. 7D. The corrected version is reported here. The authors claim that this correction does not influence the conclusion of the study.
We think the several disclaimers — non peer-reviewed, author-reported, authors claim, etc. — are adequate yellow flags of caution for anyone who takes a look at the article.
Chandan Sen, editor-in-chief of ARS, told us that initial communication about the paper came from Aggarwal and a research integrity officer from M.D. Anderson. But that email simply had a one-line request for correction, which he would not have published as submitted.
What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that Aggarwal was under investigation at his institution for image manipulation — a fact he was alerted to today. For the moment, that knowledge won’t change his handling of the matter:
The journal takes no position at this point.
But, he added,
is if he learns that Aggarwal has been found guilty of fraud:
…we will instantly retract.
We reached Aggarwal in his office, but the conversation didn’t last long. He told us he could not talk with us and quickly hung up.