Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Former NIH scientist falsified images in hepatitis study: ORI

with 10 comments

Baoyan Xu, via NIH

Baoyan Xu, via NIH

A former postdoc at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed misconduct in a study of hepatitis by falsely claiming that data from a single trial subject were actually from more than a dozen different people, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has found.

The investigation was prompted by allegations made by readers of the paper. Baoyan Xu made what the ORI called “a limited admission” that “some better looking strips were repeatedly used as representatives for several times [sic].”

According to a report of the ORI’s findings to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, the paper, “Hybrid DNA virus in Chinese patients with seronegative hepatitis discovered by deep sequencing, published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):

involves a Western blot analysis of IgM and IgG antibodies from Chinese subjects in patients with non-A-E hepatitis and control subjects to test reactivity towards a newly discovered virus. Analysis of Figure 6 of the published paper and Figure S4 of the online supplemental information identified thirteen pairs of Western blot bands which had a common origin yet were labeled as from different subjects and usually as detecting a different class of immunoglobulin.

The paper has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. It was a direct submission with a prearranged editor.

Xu, now at the Institute of Infectious Diseases, Southwest Hospital, Third Military Medical University, Chonqing, China, worked in Neal Young‘s lab. She agreed to supervision of any NIH-funded research for three years, and to not serve on any peer review committees for the same period of time.

Of potential interest to Retraction Watch readers: Young was the corresponding author of a 2008 paper with John Ioannidis and Omar Al-Ubaydli, “Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science.”

Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 12/31/13: Young forwarded our questions about why the paper was being corrected, rather than retracted, and whether any other papers would be affected, to the NIH, which tells us:

While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) take issues of data falsification very seriously, following a review by the NIH and ORI, it was determined that Dr. Xu’s contribution to the paper did not in any way effect the overall findings of the research. Since the findings still stand, only a correction is necessary and other papers should not be affected.

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 29th, 2013 at 9:30 am

  • rfg December 29, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Finding new virus sequence using Next Gen sequencing = not difficult (mail it in).

    Proving new virus causes disease = hard work. Requires real science skills, like western blots (current example), epi, etc. Not to mention fulfilling Koch’s Postulates.

    • rfg January 2, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      It does get worse:

      “The finding of laboratory contamination as the origin of PHV suggests that NIH-CQV, which shares 100% amino acid identity with PHV, is most likely also a laboratory contaminant.”

  • Kevin Olter December 30, 2013 at 6:39 am

    “Xu, now at the Institute of Infectious Diseases, Southwest Hospital, Third Military Medical University, Chonqing, China” . Look at where she is now! Why would she care about not being able to apply for NIH funding anyway??? Plus, the penalty of not being allowed to sit on highly rewarding peer-review panels must be really unbearable for her.

  • Wastl December 31, 2013 at 2:39 am

    If you look at the “prearranged editor” for this PNAS paper, you will see that he is also an investigator at the NIH. Makes me wonder whether there is also some “conflict of interest” issue here … and may be a little bit too “generous reviewing” from the side of the journal. The “prearranged editor” submissions to PNAS are unfortunately still not real “direct submissions” and are frequently prone to less critical reviews …

  • Freeloader January 3, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    The Supporting Information for the Xu et al. paper is helpful enough to specify which kit was used for their viral DNA preps. Surprise, surprise…it was the same QIAamp MinElute kit that was found to be contaminated…

  • aceil December 29, 2013 at 11:02 am

    What a disproportionate penalty!

  • Sylvain Bernès December 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Perhaps the most painful penalty is to see the case publicly exposed in RW.

  • Freeloader January 3, 2014 at 7:57 am

    It looks like the New Years Eve update slipped under the radar… but are you kidding me? The FIRST author’s contribution “did not in any way affect the overall findings of the research”?? That is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a while!

  • rfg January 3, 2014 at 9:01 am

    As Alice said, “curiouser and couriouser.”

    Technically, The FIRST author’s contribution “did not in any way affect the overall findings of the research” is a LEGALLY true statement, as all the finding in the paper are very much in doubt.

    From the abstract of

    “The confirmation of PHV/NIH-CQV as laboratory reagent contaminants and not bona fide infectious agents of humans underscores the rigorous approach needed to establish the validity of new viral genomes discovered by next-generation sequencing.”

    Will the correction in PNAS mention the finding of viruses 100% identical to NIH-CQV in ocean water?

    How does one explain the other epi results in Xu et al. that were not overtly falsified?

    Is there a small window of possibility that there is an actual connection between NIH-CQV and seronegative hepatitis?
    “Our finding of very low intrastrain variation in the PHV genome contrasts markedly with that described by Xu et al., in which significant genetic heterogeneity in NIH-CQV corresponding to putative sequence variants between patient samples was observed (33).”

  • rfg January 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Independent confirmation that “Novel Hybrid Parvovirus-Like Virus, NIH-CQV/PHV, [are] Contaminants in Silica Column-Based Nucleic Acid Extraction Kits.”

    Given these recent findings in JVI and that fabricated figures, it is curious that NIH has not jumped on the “chance” to retract rather than simply “correct” the Xu et al. paper.

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