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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Not our problem: Journal bows out of data dispute after U Minn challenges previous statement

with 9 comments

cellcyclecoverBack in May we reported on an Expression of Concern in Cell Cycle — a notice that had entered life as a retraction but mysteriously metamorphosed into the less dramatic form. The statement limned a rather bizarre dispute between researchers who crossed paths at the University of Minnesota and are now embroiled in litigation over ownership of the data.

Now, it gets weirder. Responding to further correspondence from the university, the journal has effectively washed its hands of the matter — without bothering to wipe down the sink or hang up the towel.

Here’s the “Comment on Expression of Concern“:

Following the publication of an Expression of Concern (10.4161/cc.25018) regarding “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes” in Volume 12, Issue 10, the University of Minnesota contacted the publishers, taking issue with the language of the statement and information therein that was deemed irrelevant to this matter.

The original statement reads as follows:
“In the May 1, 2012 issue, Cell Cycle published “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes” (10.4161/cc.20174), a Report by Olga A. Issaenko and Alexander Yu Amerik. The publishers now express a note of concern regarding this article. In October 2012, the first author claimed copyright infringement of her work by a competing researcher Dr Martina Bazzaro of the University of Minnesota, in whose lab Dr Issaenko was employed from September 2009 to July 2010. In return, the University of Minnesota performed a review of Dr Bazzaro’s laboratory materials from 2010 and claim ownership of data from Table 1 and parts of Figures 1–6. These claims have been denied, and the dispute is ongoing.”

Following is the Expression of Concern suggested by the University:
“In the May 1, 2012 issue, Cell Cycle published “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes” (10.4161/cc.20174), a Report by Olga A. Issaenko and Alexander Yu Amerik. The publishers now express a note of concern regarding this article. The University of Minnesota claims ownership of data in this paper and reports that its faculty member, Dr Martina Bazzaro, alerted UMN officials to the fact that data published in the paper was generated during the time Dr Issaenko was a staff member/employee in the laboratory of Dr Bazzaro. University officials evaluated Dr Bazaaro’s computer files and laboratory notebooks and confirmed ownership of data from Table 1 and parts of Figures 1–6. Dr Issaenko disputes the University’s claim of data ownership.”

This conflict appears to extend past the bounds of this journal, and the publisher wishes to remain impartial. We leave it to the two parties involved to settle this matter in an appropriate venue.

We’re not sure what, exactly, would constitute an “appropriate venue.” We noticed that Minnesota does not appear to have a law on the books banning dueling, but we don’t think that’s quite what Cell Cycle has in mind. Maybe a bake-off.

At the time the Expression of Concern was published, Tara Barton, a representative of Landes, which publishes Cell Cycle, told us that the statement:

  we ultimately determined was the best course of action …

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, no matter the venue.

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9 Responses

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  1. Issues of (im)proper authorship and data “ownership” are almost impossible for journals to sort out, as I know well. But how “part” of a Figure can be “owned” by somebody is a new one for me.

    Bill

    July 31, 2013 at 11:27 am

  2. Many scientists misunderstand data ownership but it is disappointing to see a journal that misunderstands its responsibilities in such matters. As Fishbein has written, “the principle that an institution, not its employees, owns the rights to its employees’ written products or other forms of expression, including primary research data. . . is not open to debate as a legal matter” (Acad Med 66:129, 1991). This is referred to as the “works for hire” principle. For scholarly purposes, academic institutions customarily designate principal investigators as the stewards of data generated in their labs, which includes copyright. If an institution notifies a journal that a trainee did not have standing to publish data that belongs to the institution, then the journal should retract the article. There are clear precedents for this: Chai et al. Biol Pharm Bull 31:2050, 2008; Diao and Hasson. J Bacteriol 191:2521, 2009; Zhang and Yang. Blood 2012 Jul 24; Tang. Neurosurg Spine epub 2012 Oct 26. Each of these papers was retracted because the author was a trainee who attempted to publish work without the knowledge and consent of the PI.

    Ferric Fang

    July 31, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    • That is IF the work was done in Bazzaro’s lab and that is IF the author was a “trainee” and that is IF Bazzaro made any contribution to the research, and that is IF it was a “work for hire”

      BUT:

      What IF the authors did the work elsewhere and shared SOME of it with a former collaborator (hence only a “part of a figure” that Bazzaro has)?

      What IF University and every single researcher who contributed to Cell Cycle article is properly acknowledged with the article?

      What IF University refused to meet with authors who wished to present date- and time-stamped original files, writings and documents and data, and not the copies that Bazzaro has?

      What IF University refused from such a meeting and refused to let authors to review whatever Bazzaro claims is hers?

      What IF authors hold Copyright certificates issued by the US copyright Office to their name?

      What IF authors did not know anything about Cell Cycle’s recent comments/actions against them?

      What IF when authors asked to publish authors response to groundless accusations, journal responded they do not publish “non-scientific” articles?

      What IF there is no litigation over data ownership?

      What IF the Minnesota’s “dueling law” is its harassment statute, which allows to issue restraining orders against researchers for their faithful concerns regarding their former supervisor questionable research ethics disclosed to others and to the University?

      Citing the same source (Acad Med 66:129, 1991): “current case law suggests that a faculty member .. does not have any legal right to review the data developed by a colleague”. What IF Bazzaro presents figures from Cell Cycle article as her own at conferences and in her grant applications (while renaming compounds)?

      Corresponding author

      August 1, 2013 at 3:05 am

    • Powerful publisher. Big IF = 5.4. Who needs to defend ethics, right, when there is so much money to be made? Let them fight it out in the amphitheater of the bloggosphere (i.e., the “appropriate venue”). Maybe when publishers don’t seem to act to fairly accepted ethical norms, then maybe they should be banned (i.e., boycotted). The image of the dirty towel reminds me of someone called Judas. The key question is: how should the remaining 11 disciples act? Apologies to anyone sensitive to the biblical comparison or for stating the obvious. The only reason why boycotts don’t work is because scientists are blinded by the IF.

      LibSci

      August 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    • I mostly agree with you… but the University and Issaenko disagree about ownership… so the proper venue is for the University to sue to publisher and Issaenko for stealing data and force a retraction or correction. The publisher’s point, I assume, is that they can’t just decide who is right without investigating. It is not the journal’s place to rule on data ownership, no?

      QAQ

      August 2, 2013 at 1:47 am

  3. It surely sounds that University is totally lost here. Authors did not transfer data to the journal. Why there is a question of data ownership at all? As far as I can see, University and other researchers are acknowledged there (this is nothing to say how much Bazzaro contributed to this article?). Under University’s own policy http://regents.umn.edu/sites/default/files/policies/Copyright.pdf
    Copyrights belong to faculties and also :” Post- doctoral fellows, researchers, and scholars shall have the same ownership rights as faculty and are covered under this policy.”
    So why the researcher who did the research and wrote the article cannot publish it?

    Researcher

    August 2, 2013 at 1:22 am

    • I do not agree that the University is “totally lost.” As far as I can see, the University has given careful consideration in their copyright policies to balance the principles of sharing knowledge with longstanding traditions of scholarship. The University Provost has posted an extensive discussion of copyright policy that follows upon the statement that you have provided (http://www.academic.umn.edu/provost/reports/copyright.html#scenarios). This includes the specific statements that “An employer owns all copyright to works created within an employee’s scope of employment (i.e., “work for hire” doctrine). See Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §101,” and that “The new policy makes clear that copyright in the work of non-faculty University employees is owned by the University.” The site also links to a survey of 20 peer institutions that shows such policies to be widely held in the academic community.

      From a practical standpoint, the rare situations in which students, post-docs or research scientists have attempted to publish their research without the knowledge or consent of the principal investigator represent a breakdown of academic traditions and the principles of collegiality that are essential to good research. It is not ordinarily necessary to consult policy statements or to contest these principles in court because the need for principal investigators and the members of their labs to work cooperatively on manuscripts is obvious in any properly functioning research group. In reply to your question “Why the researcher who did the research and wrote the article cannot publish it?,” I will quote from the foundation text on Responsible Conduct of Research at Columbia University: “Although graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or even some faculty in academia performing research may believe that they own the data collected, they are wrong. As employees of a university, they are working for hire for the university, which, in most cases, owns the rights to the data.”

      I agree with the earlier comments that authorship disputes can be difficult for journals to resolve. However, if an institution documents that an author of a published article did not have standing to submit the work, I think it is appropriate for the journal to retract the article.

      Ferric Fang

      August 2, 2013 at 8:24 am

      • I feel you are misreading the Copyright Law and University of Minnesota Policy http://regents.umn.edu/sites/default/files/policies/Copyright.pdf . Federal Copyright Law has an exception for the Universities, under which (and this is what University’s policy says) faculty, researchers, post-docs, students own copyrights in academic works they create and have equal rights. “Consistent with federal law, the University owns the copyright in works created by University employees in the course of their employment except for ownership rights vested in faculty, University employees holding a “faculty-like” appointment and students as provided in Board of Regents Policy: Copyright.” An exception here is a “work-for-hire”. Again, on University’s web-site http://www.policy.umn.edu/Policies/Research/COPYRIGHT.html “work-for-hire”, or “directed work” requires signed contract. If University has signed this “work- for- hire” contract, then they could sue for “breach of agreement” and prevail, but for some reason University prefers to twist Journal’s/Publisher’s arms, which definitely points toward that they don’t have much of a legal standing and likely there was no such contract.
        It also appears that University claimed that Issaenko has started the work in 2009-2010 and only part of that work is in Bazzaro’s possession, so perhaps it is safe to suggest that Issaenko continued her work at her other Institution and published it in 2012. So how exactly this 2012 article could have been within “the scope of employment”, which ended in 2010?
        We don’t know how much Bazzaro and Issaenko could “work cooperatively on manuscripts“ when Bazzaro sued Issaenko (how often “mentor” sues “trainee”?). It looks like Bazzaro has published similar research with the same compounds (which named differently, but looking at the formulas are all the same). Compare Bazzaro’s article: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0023888 and Issaenko’s: http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/cc/2012CC11-18-Erratum.pdf and http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/cc/article/20174/ So why Bazzaro did not “work cooperatively” with Issaenko when publishing her PLoS article, and did not list Issaenko as an author?
        If Issaenko doesn’t feel strong about Bazzaro infringing her copyrights, why would she make a claim in a first place? Perhaps journal had more insight into this matter and decided it is not in position to adjudicate, especially without proper investigation. It also appears there was a strong pressure from the University, otherwise why would the journal alter the scientific record and silently remove the old “Expression of Concern” with whatever University told them to publish: http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/cc/article/25018/ Note that different versions posted as pdf and as “full text”.

        Researcher

        August 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm


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