Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Other shoe drops for MIT cancer researcher Robert Weinberg as Cell retraction appears

with 22 comments

cell cloningRobert Weinberg, a prominent cancer scientist whose papers often notch hundreds or thousands of citations, has lost a fourth paper, this time a 2009 publication in Cell.

Journal Genes and Development pulled two of Weinberg’s papers in March, stating that they had retracted the 2009 study because data from several experiments was used in figures that seemed to represent only one. The Genes and Development papers were sunk because the “same analytical methodology was used.”

At the time, the Cell retraction was unavailable, though a spokesperson informed us it was forthcoming. The paper has been cited 482 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Now that the notice has landed, here’s why the paper is being retracted:

compiling data from independent experiments to present them as one internally controlled experiment, statistical analyses based on technical replicates that are not reflective of the biological replicates, and comparisons of selectively chosen data points from multiple experiments.

Here’s the notice for “A Pleiotropically Acting MicroRNA, miR-31, Inhibits Breast Cancer Metastasis”:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors. Our study reported that miR-31 is a regulator of multiple mRNAs important for different aspects of breast cancer metastasis. We recently identified concerns with several figure panels in which original data were compiled from different replicate experiments in order to assemble the presented figure. The scope of the figure preparation issues includes compiling data from independent experiments to present them as one internally controlled experiment, statistical analyses based on technical replicates that are not reflective of the biological replicates, and comparisons of selectively chosen data points from multiple experiments. As many of the published figures are therefore not appropriate or accurate representations of the original data, we believe that the responsible course of action is to retract the paper. We apologize for any inconvenience we have caused.

As we noted last month:

First author Scott Valastyan was a promising postdoc at the time of the paper’s publication. He was a 2011Runyon Fellow at Harvard, a three-year, $156,000 award for outstanding cancer postdocs. He doesn’t seem to have published anything since 2012, though he is listed as a joint inventor with Weinberg on patents filed in 2009 and 2014.

We’ve asked Weinberg for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

Hat tip: the Wackademic

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Written by Cat Ferguson

April 3rd, 2015 at 11:35 am

  • Sylvain Bernès April 3, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Consider the following rough computation:
    In 2011, Cell was assigned an IF of 32.403. The metric is computed by Thomson Reuters as: IF=(cites to recent items)/(number of recent items) = 22423/692=32.403
    Now, let us assume that the Weinberg’s retracted paper was cited ca. 400 times over 2009 and 2010. The revised IF is then: 22023/691=31.871
    The observed drop based on a SINGLE retracted paper makes clear, at least for me, that the ranking of journals using IF factors calculated up to three decimal places is an illusion.

    • zyu158 April 7, 2015 at 9:53 am

      Before you making this calculation, make sure you understand the period of the ‘cites to recent items’. I agree with you there will be some affect, but the drop is not that huge.

  • Dr. Hassan April 3, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    The question now wether his claim to fame and awards should be retracted as well ?

    • DefendSmallScience April 3, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      Who’s claim? Bob Weinberg’s? Surely you jest. The postdoc has already faded into obscurity. Check out the alumni listing on the Weinberg Lab website. Most graduates of the empire have gone on to prestigious academic or industry posts. For Valastyan, all that is listed is “New Jersey.” Can’t get much worse than that.

  • Dave April 3, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    The scope of the figure preparation issues includes compiling data from independent experiments to present them as one internally controlled experiment

    That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Usually replicate experiments are combined into a single figure that represents the mean. The ‘internally controlled experiment’ wording is also very clumsy. Anybody have more detail on this?

    • S. April 4, 2015 at 8:11 am

      As I read it, an example would be combining controls from different experiments in order to increase the n-value of that group. So, maybe you did an experiment in which you treated your negative control animal with no drug. In another experiment you treated your negative control with the vehicle for that drug. You are not allowed to combine the numbers that you get for those two different negative controls, even if the two conditions gave you the same mathematical result.

  • Dave April 3, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    ….comparisons of selectively chosen data points from multiple experiments

    I suspect that this is the real reason behind the retraction. There is more to this retraction.

  • Mike Briggs April 3, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    I’m waiting for the other, other shoe to drop.
    This paper has been corrected, but even the correction appears to have splicing ans a duplication.

  • Leonid Schneider April 4, 2015 at 1:57 am

    Another Weinberg paper questioned on PubPeer, featuring Rangarajan (author on both problematic Cancer Cell papers):

  • Fix citations April 4, 2015 at 7:55 am

    The retracted page states:
    “Cited by in Scopus (486)”
    Will Prof. Weinberg and his colleagues correct the 486 papers that cited this paper?
    Can Elsevier please indicate clearly who is responsible for correcting downstream literature?
    Can COPE please indicate clearly who is responsible for correcting downstream literature?

    • chris April 6, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      In general “downstream literature” doesn’t need to be “corrected” following a retraction. Scientific papers to a large extent are self-contained entities – the main thing is that the work described should be self-consistent. Clearly a piece of “downstream” may well be influenced by the retracted paper, but ultimately it’s the self-consistency of the downstream findings and their reporting that is important. In fact I expect quite a bit of “downstream literature” may well be rather supportive (and even confirm the validity) of retracted papers.

      The problems of retracted work (i.e. retracted due to improper or flawed procedures) largely lie elsewhere…

    • lhac April 6, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      What makes you believe there must always be someone responsible to solve whatever problem you can think of?

      “Don’t ask what the government can do for you…”

      Actually, it is YOU who are responsible: as a reader you have to understand that a scientific papers may contain errors – or be based on wrong data. So be critical of what you read.

  • Dr. Hassan April 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Prof. Weinberg has presumably mislead many investigator who cited his works and innocently accepted them at face value, is this fair? Is his work reproducible? Is MIT should be responsible?

    • Kadubu Kadubu April 4, 2015 at 10:44 am

      Why him? He is on the verge of getting a Nobel prize..

    • lhac April 6, 2015 at 6:25 pm

      “…who cited his works and innocently accepted them at face value….”

      Scientists who “innocently accept findings at face value” deserve no pity.

  • Morty April 4, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Where are ORI and MIT? There should be a full and open investigation and a review of all the articles published by this group. I have lost many hours by reading this garbage, and an investigation is the last they could do to rectify what is done here.

  • Leonid Schneider April 5, 2015 at 2:33 am

    Another Weinberg paper flagged on PubPeer, contains other big names of cancer research:

  • Fix citations April 8, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    chris, I strongly disagree with you. Imagine a scientist picks up a paper that has cited this retracted paper and uses the content of that paper to base his/her conclusions, introduction or discussion. Even if the science of the retracted paper is intact, the fact that the paper officially no longer exists (except as a historical remnant of the literature) is enough for the publisher to issue an erratum. Indeed, any author who references another paper should read the original, but if the paper that refers to the original is factually incorrect (i.e., indicating that a paper exists when in fact it does not), is this not in itself an error of the paper that cites the retracted paper? IMO, this is an error worthy of an erratum. Painful as it may be. Moreover, it MUST be the author’s primary responsibility, as I see it. Only if the author flat-out rejects to contact the “downstream” journals, or in extreme cases, such as death, should the publishers then be held responsible. But, I disagree that this laisser faire attitude is the right way to go. With the number of retractions that we are seeing increasing, the literature is going to be a pretty shoddy mess in 1-3 years from now unless this issue is addressed urgently. This is why I believe COPE should issue a concrete policy, for clear guidance.

    lhac, let’s not confuse issues. Cleaning up the scientific literature is not the same as holding the government accountable. Somebody has to be responsible for cleaning up the literature. In the case of a retraction, I firmly believe that the authors are primarily responsible for this task. For identifying errors and reporting them, I would agree with you that the wider community shares responsibility. BUt then, it is incumbent upon the authors of problematic papers, the editors and the publishers to do something about it. Again, this all boils down to “who is responsible” and accountability. Enough of the pass-on-the-buck attitude in science publishing.

  • Clarification April 9, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    There are two separate URLs for the same retraction (original page and retraction page):
    Which URL should be referenced when discussing this retraction?
    As a curiosity, there is an option in the right-side menu that states:
    “Order reprints (100 minimum order)”

  • Dr. zhang September 30, 2016 at 1:03 am

    Nih should issue one policy to ask the corresponding author of the retraction to return awarded funding or fellowship.

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