Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

How a Cell journal weeds out the “bad apples”

with 9 comments

Anne Granger (left) and Nikla Emambokus (right)

Anne Granger (left) and Nikla Emambokus (right)

There are a lot of accusations about research misconduct swirling around, and not every journal handles them the same. Recently, Cell Metabolism Scientific Editor Anne Granger and Cell Metabolism Editor-in-Chief Nikla Emambokus shared some details about their investigative procedure in “Weeding out the Bad Apples.” We talked to them about why they don’t necessarily trust accusations leveled on blogs (including ours), but will consider the concerns of anyone who approaches the journal directly – even anonymously.

Retraction Watch: What made you decide to write an editorial about research fraud now?

Anne Granger and Nikla Emambokus: The topic has been on our minds for quite some time now, and since more and more scientists have been asking us how we deal with data concerns, we thought it would be useful to the community to outline our current process. We have also been involved in leading an effort across Cell Press journals to review how we handle data concerns and share best practices.

RW: You note that you only start an investigation if you receive a formal notification of concerns, and “Our current policy at Cell Metabolism is that the editors do not follow blog discussions on data manipulation because we cannot consistently and comprehensively monitor the ongoing discourse” – are you thinking specifically of sites such as PubPeer and Retraction Watch? And are you at all concerned you may miss a problem if no one is brave enough to come forward and formally raise concerns?

AG and NE: PubPeer and Retraction Watch are prominent online sites where concerns, including data manipulation, are frequently discussed. Of course there are many other sites, including the commenting feature on PubMed Commons where various aspects of a paper are discussed. We take our responsibilities as journal editors very seriously and we know that, if we miss a serious problem, it can impact the scientific community. However, although there are many legitimate discussions of concerns going on, we also unfortunately have experience with many publicized issues that turned out to be false alarms. We sincerely hope that, if someone thinks that there is a problem serious enough to discuss in a blog post or any kind of commenting feature, s/he would be sufficiently compelled to report it directly to the journal.

RW: You note that most of the people who raise issues are anonymous ‘‘concerned readers.’’ Will you take anonymous concerns seriously, or do readers have to provide their real names and contact information? If so, why? 

AG and NE: Absolutely, we take anonymous concerns seriously as long as the concerned reader reporting the problem does so in a clear, rational and factual manner. Our personal preference at Cell Metabolism is to know who is contacting us but we will look into any legitimate reports we receive. We understand that it takes proactive effort to come forward to report a concern and that, at times, being labeled a “whistleblower” can have negative consequences on one’s career; we make every effort to respect a person’s wish to remain anonymous.

RW: Is there anything unique about the procedure to investigate fraud at Cell Metabolism, which distinguishes it from many other journals?

AG and NE: Not to our knowledge though we have not compared notes with our colleagues from other publishers. The procedure at Cell Metabolism is the same as other Cell Press research journals.

RW: Have you ever conducted your own investigation of a paper, without the help of the authors’ institution? If so, can you describe what was involved, and how long it took (without revealing details of the specific paper, if need be)?

AG and NE: Taking the example of a potentially fabricated image, we will first look at the figure ourselves. If it looks as though there might indeed be a potential problem, our first port of call is to contact the authors highlighting that there could be an issue with the figure and ask them to send us the raw data, ideally time stamped, and explain the steps taken in the generation of the figure. We will review the information and go back to the authors for more clarifications, if necessary. Often the issue can be resolved at that stage.  However, if the data and information we receive are still inconclusive or unsatisfactory, we usually refer the authors to their institutional or governmental research integrity office as they are best placed to investigate the generation, analysis or reporting of the data. The initial editorial evaluation of the concern(s) can last a few weeks to a few months, depending on how recent the data are and, in general, institutional investigations take longer. To date, Cell Metabolism has not conducted an investigation independently of the authors’ institution. In instances where the authors themselves discovered the problem with the figure, their institution might only be peripherally involved.

RW: Recently, Nature said retractions take a long time and often lack transparency because lawyers have become increasingly involved. Has the same thing occurred at Cell Metabolism?

AG and NE: Retractions almost invariably take a long time because of due process. Our experience at Cell Metabolism in the last couple of years is that we have indeed seen an uptick in the number of cases where lawyers representing the authors and the publishers have been involved. Our aim at the journal is to provide sufficient information in the retraction notice so that the reason for the retraction is clear, while avoiding going into extraneous details or breaking confidentiality.

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Written by Alison McCook

November 25th, 2016 at 9:30 am

  • RSD November 25, 2016 at 9:45 am

    I would suppose I believed that .
    Definitely , initiative like retraction watch will be the best filter for “rotten apples” . I

  • rfg November 25, 2016 at 10:15 am

    “Retractions almost invariably take a long time because of due process. Our experience at Cell Metabolism in the last couple of years is that we have indeed seen an uptick in the number of cases where lawyers representing the authors and the publishers have been involved.”

    I agree that involvement of lawyers [authors including their institutions and publishers] in PPPR is trend.

    That is very disturbing on several levels.

    It slows down the process by the editors direct admission. It also means that decisions that affect the scientific literature are being made by non-scientists/non-experts, presumably on the basis of an assessment of the threat for litigation.

    Journals must institute a policy of no lawyers until the science is decided. Then, let the chips fall as they may. A publisher not willing to back their editors because of legal threats should be run out of business.

  • TL November 25, 2016 at 10:41 am

    The sentence “To date, Cell Metabolism has not conducted an investigation independently of the authors’ institution” really tells the whole story. Meanwhile, their policy of contacting the authors suspected of misconduct first has lead to such interesting resolutions as papers being retracted by the authors because a dog ate their homew^W^W^W^Wforeign lab technician (who is no longer in the country, of course) improperly discarded the lab notebooks:

  • fernando pessoa November 25, 2016 at 11:20 am

    “However, although there are many legitimate discussions of concerns going on, we also unfortunately have experience with many publicized issues that turned out to be false alarms. ”

    Can the editors from Cell Metabolism give many examples?

  • fernando pessoa November 25, 2016 at 11:26 am

    The Pubpeer lists for Cell Metabolism are:-

    It should not take the editors that long to look at the comments (some may be positive)
    and decide what to do next.

  • Ken Pimple November 25, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    “we take anonymous concerns seriously as long as the concerned reader reporting the problem does so in a clear, rational and factual manner.”

    These criteria seem to be reasonable. However, I have heard from several authorities on investigating allegations of research misconduct that some complainants (a.k.a. whistle blowers) are so traumatized that their claims do not seem to be “clear, rational, and factual.”

    I don’t fault Cell for the criteria, but I hope they will find a way to recognize legitimate suspicions. As far as I know, that is a very high bar.

  • Show the data November 25, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    From the original article “In our opinion, to conclusively determine if there is an issue or not, one needs to see the raw data.”

    Exactly – so why not show the original data to the readers?

    • rfg November 26, 2016 at 8:05 am

      Many of us long for the day when all data is open!

      A first step:
      How long before all journals require that raw unspliced gels to be required in supplemental data?

  • Boris Ratnikov August 5, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    I have to comment on this, as the “weeders” have to pass the “weed test” themselves to carry any water, so to speak. In 2016 there was a paper published in Cell Metabolism, PMID: 27618686. In its figure 2A and elsewhere in the text, it faithfully reproduced a part of figure 5 as well as other findings of our paper published in September 2012 in PloSOne, PMID: 23024808, without providing a reference to it. I got in touch with the corresponding author, Dr. Settleman and with Dr. Granger and Dr. Emambokus of Cell Metabolism in an effort to get the proper referencing of our work reinstated, but to no avail. Dr. Settleman was surprised to hear that lack of referencing was an ethical violation. Dr. Granger took at least 30 days to respond to each of my inquiries into the matter and woke up only when asked a second time, and even then with messages indicative of complete oblivion as to the subject matter, while Dr. Emambokus outright denied any wrongdoing on the part of both Dr. Settleman and Dr. Granger and, when asked to substantiate her decision, declared that the case was closed. I have a complete email record of the facts, if anyone would like to see them with their own eyes.
    Turns out, this comes as no surprise, as Retraction Watch itself acknowledges that appealing to the “bad apple” authors as well as editors is the worst strategy to seek justice!!!
    Kudos, Retraction Watch!!!

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