Stem cell retraction leaves grad student in limbo, reveals tangled web of industry-academic ties
A contested retraction in Stem Cells and Development has left the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduate student who fought for it in limbo, uncertain if he will earn his PhD. And many of those who didn’t want the paper retracted have a significant financial interest in a company whose work was promoted by the research — despite any lack of disclosure in the now-retracted paper.
Here’s the notice:
Concerns were raised by one of the co-authors, Luke Cormack, and after an investigation was conducted by the authors’ institution, The Queensland University of Technology, Stem Cells and Development is officially retracting the paper, A Chimeric Vitronectin: IGF-1 Protein Supports Feeder-Cell-Free and Serum-Free Culture of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, by Manton et al., from volume 19, issue 9 (pages 1298-1305).
The concerns center primarily on whether the images provided in Figure 1 show colonies of the stem cell line described at the passage stated stained for the marker listed. There were also related concerns with the PCR data included.
It is important to note that the corresponding author, KJ Manton, has denied deliberate wrongdoing. Stem Cells and Development acknowledges and appreciates the thoroughness of the investigation undertaken by Queensland University of Technology.
Stem Cells and Development believes that had the peer reviewers of the paper been aware of the extent and nature of the mistakes in the paper that apparently went undetected by the authors through an initial submission, two revisions, as well as galley proof, they would not have deemed the paper acceptable.
Stem Cells and Development is dedicated to the highest ethical standards of scientific publishing.
Although Cormack, a QUT grad student, was not the lead author on the paper, published in February 2010, it “formed the entire basis of my PhD,” he tells Retraction Watch. He submitted that PhD in December of last year, only to have it rejected in March. He didn’t have enough data, nor enough cells to do the necessary assays, and the committee felt the literature review wasn’t sufficient.
But there were other findings worth publishing, and QUT gave Cormack a scholarship to write manuscripts. Cormack went back to the original data from the now-retracted paper. The media had been developed in June 2007, before he joined the lab.
It was during the writeup of some manuscripts that I found that the paper was so full of errors.
That prompted an internal investigation, and Cormack’s co-authors wanted an erratum, but Cormack didn’t think that was enough. Neither did Graham Parker, who edits the journal. Parker tells Retraction Watch:
There were problems with the paper that I believe had the reviewers known they would not have accepted as it stood. Those problems must have been known to at least one of the authors. After revisions and galley proof approvals no-one except Cormack alerted the journal to those problems. Following an investigation by the host institution those problems were acknowledged yet no explanation was offered as to why the publishers had not been previously informed.
The paper has been cited six times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
What also caught our notice is that senior author Zee Upton is consulting chief scientific officer of Tissue Therapies, which QUT spun off to develop technologies based on vitronectin and other compounds. She and other investors co-founded the company in 2003, approached QUT for a license on the intellectual property, and had Tissue Therapies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2004, according to an Upton presentation available on the QUT website. An eprint of another paper by Upton and co-authors available on the QUT site notes that several authors had bought stock in the company:
The Authors have purchased shares in Tissue Therapies Ltd., an enterprise spun-out from the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, to commercialize some of the technology described in this manuscript.
That all seems to us like a conflict of interest for both the authors and for the university investigating the research. None of that was disclosed in the now-retracted paper, however.
Upton, Manton, and the head of the QUT press office are on holiday, according to their out-of-office replies. We’ll update with anything we learn.
So what next for Cormack?
It’s been a horrendous year. I haven’t been in the lab since March.
Cormack tells Retraction Watch he’s written a letter to the dean of research and training, asking if he can revise his thesis to include more background and describe the problems in the paper and why the retraction is a significant contribution to the literature.
I’d talk about my outcomes, what I have, and if I had been privy to the truth, what outcomes I should have had.
He remains optimistic.
I think things are a lot clearer now, now that it’s retracted. I’m moving forward.