Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

University investigating duplicated images in retracted paper

with 14 comments

Cell MetabolismThe authors of a Cell Metabolism paper are pulling it after discovering blot images that “appear more than once in independent and unrelated experiments.” 

Just how the duplication occurred in the 2009 paper — about transcription of mitochondrial DNA — remains a mystery, the authors note:

…the reasons for the errors are still under investigation…

Meanwhile, we’ve learned that the last author on the paper — Carlos Moraes of the University of Miami — has requested a retraction for another 2013 paper in Mitochondrion, also co-authored by Tina Wenz at the University of Cologne in Germany. That paper is among multiple publications co-authored by Moraes and Wenz that have been flagged on PubPeer.

We’ve reached out to the parties involved, and received a warning from an attorney representing Wenz that if we write about

…speculations without any proof, we shall advise our client to initiate a lawsuit against you in Germany without further warning.

Cell Metabolism posted the retraction October 6, citing reused northern and western blot band images in two figures: 

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors.We have recently become aware that northern and western blot band images in Figures 6 and 7 appear more than once in independent and unrelated experiments. Although the reasons for the errors are still under investigation, we believe that the most responsible course of action is to retract the article and to sincerely apologize to the scientific community for not detecting these errors prior to publication. We also apologize for any negative impact this may have caused.

The paper, “mTERF2 Regulates Oxidative Phosphorylation by Modulating mtDNA Transcription,” has been cited 63 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

After the retraction, the paper attracted some attention on PubPeer, including from a commenter using Moraes’s name (marked “author”, because the commenter’s email matched that of the corresponding author). 

In the days after Cell Metabolism posted the retraction, comments were posted on other papers co-authored by the pair, alleging similar issues. In a discussion about a 2009 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a commenter under Moraes’s name (also marked “author”) says the situation is a “nightmare:”

I cannot comment further because of the ongoing investigation and at this point I will have to wait for it to conclude to take further action. 

Last year, Wenz, Moraes and their co-authors issued a correction to a 2009 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Increased muscle PGC-1α expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging,” after a control blot “appeared incorrectly.” That paper had also received some comments on PubPeer, and a commenter under Moraes’s name says the first author (Wenz) said a “mix-up” led to the duplication.

We asked each journal about the status of each paper. Mitochondrion’s editor-in-chief Keshav K. Singh told us Moraes had just requested a retraction:

Dr Carlos Moraes contacted me today and requested for retraction of the article from Mitochondrion journal.

Christina Bennet, Publications Ethics Manager for the Journal of Applied Physiology’s publisher, told us publisher policy prevents them from discussing “perceived or actual ethical infractions” with the media.

We’ve contacted Moraes to ask if he posted the comments under his name on PubPeer.

We also contacted Wenz to ask about the retraction and the allegations on PubPeer. Lucas Brost, a lawyer at Höcker Rechtsanwälte, responded on her behalf: 

First of all, we would like to state that there is until now no evidence for scientific misconduct in our client’s scientific work. Currently the University of Cologne investigates in an objective process whether there are any incidents for such a misconduct. Until this process has ended with a concrete result, you are not allowed to state that there is any evidence for scientific misconduct. 

Brost added that Wenz could not respond to questions about how the duplication occurred in the Cell Metabolism paper, as they:

…concern the current investigation before the University of Cologne. Ms. Wenz is therefore not allowed to answer it.

He added that Wenz is not aware of any pending retraction in Mitochondrion:

Dr. Wenz is the corresponding author of this paper and not aware of any retraction being in process. She was neither contacted by Dr. Moraes, who is a co-author, nor by the journal. This questions concern the current process before the University of Cologne. Ms. Wenz is therefore not allowed to answer it or share details….

In regards to the 2008 Cell Metabolism paper, Brost noted:

Dr. Moraes is the corresponding author and responsible for the article and the figures. Ms. Wenz and all authors only supported in generating the data. Dr. Moraes prepared the final figure and submitted it to the journal. We want to point out that Dr. Moraes, in his role of corresponding author, was aware of all raw data and as the lab head, in which the data were generated, is in possession of all lab documentation and original data according to legal requirements.

Brost concluded his communications with a warning:

If you write about these speculations without any proof, we shall advise our client to initiate a lawsuit against you in Germany without further warning. We have successfully sued US entities in Germany such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. German court decisions are enforceable in the USA and vice versa due to international agreements that Germany and the US are signatories to.

We’ve also contacted the University of Cologne and Cell Metabolism’s editor-in-chief Nikla Emambokus to ask about the investigation and we’ll update with any responses we receive.

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Comments
  • Query October 26, 2015 at 10:59 am

    “Christina Bennet, Publications Ethics Manager for the Journal of Applied Physiology’s publisher, told us publisher policy prevents them from discussing “perceived or actual ethical infractions” with the media.”

    Can someone elaborate further on this and explain how widespread this policy is among main STM publishers. Could this be one reason why we hardly ever see any publisher representative coming forward to discuss issues related to a retracted paper in an open and transparent way?

    Surely “ethical infractions” are issues of public importance and concern?

  • pchemist October 26, 2015 at 11:57 am

    The more you quoted the lawyer, the less sympathy I felt for his client.

  • fernandopessoa October 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    What does “speculations without any proof, we shall advise our client to initiate a lawsuit against you in Germany without further warning” have to do with scientific scrutiny?

    • Debora Weber-Wulff October 26, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      It means that as some German courts have been interpreting things thus: if you even mention the word “misconduct” in connection with someone’s name, and don’t have “proof” (i.e. not just indications, but “real” proof, whatever that is) you are going to be the subject of a libel suit and you will pay dearly for it. Scientific discussion goes out the door the moment the lawyers (and judges who do not understand the scientific process) enter. I’m currently dealing with such a case myself, having quoted someone who was stating that someone else committed academic fraud. It goes against common sense, but my lawyer is advising me to back down, or it will be exceedingly expensive.

    • Laborjournal October 27, 2015 at 4:04 am

      We at Laborjournal, a German language science magazine, recently made the same experience in a German court as Debora describes. In a certain misconduct case, nobody doubted that data manipulation had occurred – but in the court case this didn’t matter at all. What we actually had to prove was that the person in question had indeed and intentionally manipulated data with her own hands. How to prove that? In the end, we lost the case. The obvious scientific arguments didn’t count at all.

  • Paul Brookes October 26, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Wenz, as far as I can tell, is not at Uni. Koln any more. The site you link to has a Bio that says she’s part of the CECAD cluster of excellence, but their website does not list her at all… http://cecad.uni-koeln.de/Principal-Investigators.34.0.html

    In addition, although her papers show up on their publications site for prior years, there’s nothing at all for her in 2015, even though PubMed says she has papers this year… http://cecad.uni-koeln.de/Publications-2015.403.0.html

    She also lists the Cologne Institute for Genomics as an affiliation, but their website does not list her either… http://www.genetik.uni-koeln.de/ Notably, their site has an alumni/former members page, where she is not listed.

    There is a LinkedIn page showing a Tina Wenz working at Boehringer Ingelheim (linkedin.com/pub/tina-wenz/95/1b8/301).

    • Laborjournal October 27, 2015 at 3:46 am

      Tina Wenz left Köln University in summer and is now working as lab head at pharma company Boehringer Ingelheim. Got this info from Leonid Schneider who has investigated into this case.

  • Sylvain Bernès October 26, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    uff! I really thought Mr Lucas Brost was about to state: “You are not allowed to think”.

  • Rolf Degen October 26, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Höcker is a well known celebrity law firm in Germany, representing stars such as Heidi Klum, taking on internet giants, like Google. But as to scientific retractions, they might want to visit the Retraction Watch archive and look up the Hayempour saga, for a precedent. You don’t want to unleash a Streisand effect.

  • fernandopessoa October 27, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Lawyers like that don’t come cheap.

  • Herrmann Wevers July 26, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Does anyone know what happened to this case?

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