Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Clare Francis scores a bullseye: Journal of Cell Biology paper retracted for image manipulation

with 28 comments

jcbIf you’re a journal editor or publisher, there’s a good chance your email inbox has seen its share of emails from “Clare Francis,” who has been crusading against text and image duplication in papers for some years now. Some editors have grown quite weary of those emails, sometimes because they don’t want to deal with anonymous whistleblowers, and sometimes because they have found Clare’s claims to be without merit.

But the Journal of Cellular Biology is one journal that has apparently continued to take them seriously. Today, they retract “Follistatin induction by nitric oxide through cyclic GMP: a tightly regulated signaling pathway that controls myoblast fusion,” a 2006 paper about which Francis first raised concerns in early November. Here’s the notice, one of those wonderfully detailed ones that make us squeal like schoolgirls meeting the Beatles:

After concerns were raised by a reader, the Editors of The Journal of Cell Biology detected the following issues with the data in the above article:

(1) The top panel in Fig. 1 F (NOS-1μ) is identical to the top panel in Fig. 2 B (α-sGC).

(2) The bottom panel in Fig. 1 F (NOS-III) is identical to the bottom panel in Fig. 2 B (GAPDH).

(3) Lanes 2 and 3 of the Follistatin panel for satellite cells in Fig. 4 A are identical to lanes 1 and 2 of the Myostatin panel for satellite cells in the same figure.

(4) A band appears to have been erased from lane 4 of the Follistatin panel for satellite cells in Fig. 4 A.

(5) Lane 4 of the Myostatin panel for satellite cells in Fig. 4 A is identical to lane 1 of the Follistatin panel for E12.5/E15.5 in the same figure.

(6) The E9.5 explants and E12.5/E15.5 panels for GAPDH in Fig. 4 A are identical.

Given the above issues with the experimental data in Fig. 4 A, the quantification data in Fig. S1 A cannot be validated.

No issues were detected with the other figures in the paper nor with the other parts of the figures listed above (Fig. 1, A–E, G, and H; Fig. 2, A and C–E; Fig. 4 B; and Fig. S1 B).

The authors were contacted by the Executive Editor of the journal and provided the following statement:

“Given the time that has elapsed since the original date of publication, we are unable to find the original data used to prepare these figures and are not able to explain these observations. We thus retract the paper and apologize for any confusion it may have caused to the research community. Because of the issues noted above, the conclusions presented in this paper that changes in NOS activity are the consequence of activation and inhibition of enzyme activity and not of changes in protein expression (Fig. 1 F), that regulation of guanylate cyclase occurs through posttranslational events (Fig. 2 B), that there is a role for nitric oxide in expression of follistatin mRNA in cultured cells (Figs. 4 A and S1 A), and that there are roles for nitric oxide and cGMP in expression of follistatin mRNA in vivo (Figs. 4 A and S1 A) cannot be validated. The reported observations on the effects of nitric oxide and cGMP on myoblast fusion in cultured cells, of cGMP on myogenesis in vivo, of cGMP on expression of follistatin mRNA in cultured cells, of cGMP and nitric oxide on expression of follistatin protein in cultured cells, and of cGMP on expression of follistatin protein in vivo are not affected by the flaws detected in the figures.”

As a result of this retraction, no data in this paper should be cited in the scientific literature.

The Authors and Editors have informed the University of Milan of this retraction.

The paper has been cited 68 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Written by Ivan Oransky

January 22nd, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Comments
  • chirality January 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    There are nine authors on this paper. I do not believe that every one of them was involved in data fabrication. Those who were not should have insisted on identifying the perpetrator(s) by name in the retraction notice. Omertà is overrated in science.

    • Not Clare January 23, 2013 at 11:57 pm

      Then, this is what they have to deal with within their group of nine. It is up to them to find the guilty person who is responsible for spoiling their scientific reputation and punch him/her promptly.

      On the other hand, there is a proverb: “tell me who your friends are…

      On a serious note, there is no excuse at all for that! If you are an author of a paper (no matter one of two, one of nine, or one of fifty) you are completely responsible for everything that is written in the paper and published. Just be more careful with how you build up your publication list.

      Serious science is not a kindergarden where you can point your finger at another boy.

      And if one of them was so sophisticated in his/her secret data manipulations that no one of the other eight scientists could know, notice, or even suspect something wrong, then sorry guys… bad luck.

  • fernando pessoa January 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    In reply to chirality January 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    “I do not believe that every one of them was involved in data fabrication”.

    One method to is “lineage tracing” which can be credited to prof Joerg Zwirner.

    E Clementi lineage.

    1. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Nov 23;101(47):16507-12.
    2. Science. 2005 Oct 14;310(5746):314-7.

    G Cossu lineage:-

    1. Nat Cell Biol. 2007 Mar;9(3):255-67.
    2. Nature. 2006 Nov 30;444(7119):574-9.
    3. Stem Cells. 2009 Jan;27(1):157-64.
    4. Nat Med. 2008 Sep;14(9):973-8.
    5. PLoS One. 2008 Sep 16;3(9):e3223.
    6. Sci Transl Med 4,140ra89 (2012).
    7 Nature. 2007 Dec 20;450(7173): discussion E23-5.
    8. Skelet Muscle. 2012 Nov 26;2(1):24.
    9. Stem Cells. 2006 Apr;24(4):825-34

  • amw January 22, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    JCB has taken care of what it can, which is indeed to be applauded. A retraction of this form isn’t a trivial thing, and other scientists in the field will now treat work from this group with a large dose of scepticism – which in the end is what science is about.

    Given the multiplicity of the image problems in this paper, it would be reasonable to look for other cases of the same type from these authors. This would require intense, unrewarding work from independent scientists (such as 11jigen, Clare Francis and Paul Brookes).

    Let’s remember that classing this as data fabrication (with the implication of intent to deceive) is the job of the institution. You can’t expect the journal to do this – misconduct is an institutional matter and for good reason; would you want to get into the intricacies of the power / personal struggles within an Italian University? U Milan should undertake an investigation but I would be astonished if such an investigation were undertaken in a transparent way.

    • fernando pessoa January 23, 2013 at 2:16 am

      In reply to amw January 22, 2013 at 9:35 pm

      “would you want to get into the intricacies of the power / personal struggles within an Italian University?”

      The penultimate author, professor G Cossu, has been at University College London since May 2011, where he is Chair in Human Stem Cell Biology,Cell & Developmental Biology
      .
      https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/research/personal?upi=GCOSS26

      What is the evidence that “the intricacies of the power / personal struggles within an [English] university] are any different from that in an Italain university?

      • CH January 23, 2013 at 6:30 am

        Well… “Measuring Nepotism through Shared Last Names: The Case of Italian Academia”
        http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0021160

        • fernando pessoa January 23, 2013 at 6:57 am

          In reply to CH January 23, 2013 at 6:30 am

          Thanks very much for pointing out that paper.

          “In Italy, nepotism is perceived as a cancer that has metastasized, invading many segments of society, including academia ”

          From my own reading I had come to the same conclusion. “metastasized”, by its nature, does not stop at the borders of Italy.

        • fernando pessoa February 20, 2013 at 11:22 am

          It has even been mentioned by the BBC, with some interviews with young people.

          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21507168

  • Frederic January 23, 2013 at 6:04 am

    Finally a Journal with editors that do their job properly! They retract and stands for it, pointing out what are the wrongdoings! Finally some balls in science!

    • Paolo Mignatti July 10, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      I don’t think it’s “a journal with editors that do their job properly”‘. None of the reviewers noticed that identical panels were shown in different figures? None’ of the editors?

  • Hibby January 23, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Talking about whistleblowers, this corrigendum on Dr Curi just came out http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0024320513000428

    This paper had been exposed in Science Fraud Blog, and also flagged as plagiarism by colleagues. There must be other corrigenda in progress as Dr Curi is currently being investigated by his funding agency and he will certainly claim innocent mistake, with the argument that he “promptly corrected all papers, thanks to that wonderful blog”. I am predicting the future here.

  • Jeremy Fox January 23, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Shouldn’t the reviewers have noticed duplication of *entire figure panels* within *the same paper*? And if you say, maybe not unless they were looking for it, haven’t retractions for image manipulation become common enough that reviewers *should* be looking for it, no matter who the authors are? A bit more alertness on the part of reviewers would at least help prevent the most obvious/brazen sorts of image manipulation.

    • fernando pessoa January 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      “A bit more alertness on the part of reviewers would at least help prevent the most obvious/brazen sorts of image manipulation.”

      echos what the authors wrote in the retraction notice.

      “The reported observations on the effects of nitric oxide and cGMP on myoblast fusion in cultured cells, of cGMP on myogenesis in vivo, of cGMP on expression of follistatin mRNA in cultured cells, of cGMP and nitric oxide on expression of follistatin protein in cultured cells, and of cGMP on expression of follistatin protein in vivo are not affected by the flaws detected in the figures.”

  • SG January 23, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    This is a lame excuse…
    “Given the time that has elapsed since the original date of publication, we are unable to find the original data used to prepare these figures.”

    Doesn’t anyone keep lab notebooks anymore? I have some from over 20 years ago.

    I do want to hear Ivan “squeal like schoolgirls meeting the Beatles”

  • puzzled monkey January 25, 2013 at 2:04 am

    Yeah, yeah, yeah!

  • Paul February 27, 2013 at 12:01 am

    If the issue is nepotism in the italian academia, it is important to note that E Clementi (a pharmacologist) is the son of F Clementi another italian pharmacologist. [Sentence deleted 6/25/14 at commenter’s request, because it went beyond the available evidence.]

    This work received contributions from many funding agencies: ” This work was supported by grants from Telethon, the European Community, Duchenne Parent Project Italia, The Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the Italian Ministry of Health, the Italian Ministry of University and Research, Fondazione Cariplo, the Italian Association of Cancer Research, and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.” .

    Telethon, the European community, NIH, AIRC, Fondazione Cariplo ….. Have been informed that their contributions have been used in this very unethical way?

    • fernando pessoa February 28, 2013 at 4:02 am
      • fernando pessoa February 28, 2013 at 4:10 am

        I believe that the statement

        “In Fig. 4b of this Article, the gel for the loading control MyHC for the dog Vaccin was an unintentional duplication of the loading control for the dog Vampire (which is correct).”

        is incorrect.

        I think that the same MyHC panel had been used in the lower left MyHC panel and both MyHC panels on the right.

        In the right MyHC panels the right tip of the right-most line of continuous bands on the left has been cut off.

        In the left MyHC panel the left-most section (lane) of the MyHC panel has been cut off.

        If you put your finger over the “band” in the left-most lane of the right MyHC panels you will see how similar they are.

        Because the left-most “band” in the right MyHC panels goes up to the left you think they are different.

        • Paul March 3, 2013 at 3:46 pm

          Yes, you are absolutely right!! Twice from the same group……….

      • fernando pessoa March 2, 2013 at 10:26 am

        Original version of figure 4b Nature. 2006 Nov 30;444(7119):574-9. Epub 2006 Nov 15. PMID: 17108972

        http://retractionwatch.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/figure-4b-nature.ppt

        • michaelbriggs March 4, 2013 at 7:32 am

          In reply to fernando’s reply to Paul March 4, 2013 at 2:48 am
          That makes it three!
          J. Cell Science. I hope that journal has a rigorous editorial policy with regards to corrections.

  • fernando pessoa March 4, 2013 at 11:26 am

    The bigger picture.

    http://www.optistem.org/about-us/principal-investigators

    Including Guilio Cossu, Emilio Clememti and Yvan Torrente.

    Some may say this is an ancient paper by Yvan Torrente, who is first author.

    Hum Mol Genet. 2000 Jul 22;9(12):1843-52.

    You are free to look at any part of figure 4, but I found the lower two panels, and the upper panel, slightly puzzling.

    http://hmg.oxfordjournals.org/content/9/12/1843/F4.large.jpg

  • Paul March 7, 2013 at 1:37 am

    Hi Fernando absolutely right!!! Many lanes in the lower two panels are identical, even with the distribution of background dots!!!! Like pairs with like!

    • fernando pessoa March 7, 2013 at 3:49 am

      In reply to Paul March 7, 2013 at 1:37 am

      But the samples are all different according to the labeeling across the top of the panels. There should have been separate preparations and separate reactions, which are run in separate wells of the gel. I don’t think that the images in different lanes should look the same.

      Some of the features in the top panel are also repeated.

  • fernando pessoa March 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    More of the bigger picture.

    Mol Pharmacol. 2003 Apr;63(4):886-95.
    Activation of endothelial nitric-oxide synthase by tumor necrosis factor-alpha: a novel pathway involving sequential activation of neutral sphingomyelinase, phosphatidylinositol-3′ kinase, and Akt.
    Barsacchi R, Perrotta C, Bulotta S, Moncada S, Borgese N, Clementi E.

    Figure 2. eNOS panels

    http://molpharm.aspetjournals.org/content/63/4/886/F2.large.jpg

    Figure 3. eNOS panel

    http://molpharm.aspetjournals.org/content/63/4/886/F3.large.jpg

  • Demosthenes August 6, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Well I am not surprised, a scientist who is the son of a famous and powerful Italian scientist, very well known pharmacologist, who is including his own wife in the papers. I do not see any ground for nepotism there…

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