Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Coauthor’s past misconduct prompts dep’t chair to retract Diabetes study

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A department chair of a Swedish university asked to retract a 2010 study in Diabetes after none of the authors could explain image-related ambiguities.

The matter prompted particular attention because the paper’s first author, Pontus Almer Boström, had been found guilty of scientific misconduct by the University of Gothenburg in 2012, after Jan Borén noted some irregularities in data calculated by Boström. At that point, the research group combed the data to identify further issues arising from Boström’s work, and didn’t find any.

But last summer, when a user on PubPeer raised questions about some of the images in the 2010 paper, the matter was brought back into focus. According to Borén, they found “no evidence of scientific misconduct in this study.” But Boström had left the university in 2009 and could not be reached, the corresponding author had passed away, and the remaining co-authors hadn’t stayed in the field. So Borén decided it would be best to retract the study to avoid any “lingering questions.”

Here’s the retraction notice for “The SNARE Protein SNAP23 and the SNARE-Interacting Protein Munc18c in Human Skeletal Muscle Are Implicated in Insulin Resistance/Type 2 Diabetes,” in which Borén thanks “Peer 1″ on PubPeer for “detecting the ambiguities and bringing them to our attention:”

The following statement was submitted by Jan Borén of the University of Gothenburg (Gothenburg, Sweden) on behalf of the coauthors listed below and has been reviewed and approved for publication by the American Diabetes Association’s Panel on Ethical Scientific Programs:

This study represents a major effort from several laboratories and considerable resources over several years. While we remain confident that the majority of the results presented are correct, we are concerned by ambiguities identified in this article in light of the fact that the first author, Pontus Almer Boström, who left the University of Gothenburg in 2009, has been found guilty of scientific misconduct by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gothenburg. Science must be credible. In this context, we would like to thank “Peer 1” from the PubPeer .com discussion for this article (https://pubpeer.com/publications/20460426) for detecting the ambiguities and bringing them to our attention.

We have no evidence of scientific misconduct in this study, but because the corresponding author, Sven-Olof Olofsson, sadly passed away in 2011 and none of the coauthors have continued working in this field, we are unable to repeat the experiments performed in the study to clarify the identified ambiguities. Furthermore, we have been unable to contact Pontus Almer Boström to discuss these ambiguities. Therefore, the coauthors listed below have decided that the most reasonable course of action is to retract the article.

We spoke to Borén, chair of the Department of Molecular and Clinical Medicine at the university, who authored the retraction notice, to learn more about the decision to retract the Diabetes paper:

I was informed through a PubPeer note that Peer 1 had identified ambiguities in the data. Unfortunately, since Olofsson had died, Boström had left the university and the other coauthors were not working in the field anymore, we couldn’t clarify the identified ambiguities.

Just days after seeing Peer 1’s comment, Borén alerted the editor-in-chief of Diabetes of the ambiguities and explained that he was taking these concerns especially seriously, given that the University of Gothenburg had found Boström guilty of scientific misconduct in 2012.

Although the authors ultimately did not uncover misconduct in the Diabetes study, Boström could not be reached to discuss the ambiguities and thus Borén felt the best course of action was to retract the paper:

My understanding is Boström has left science and is now working as a physician. We sent him a letter but he didn’t respond. We have no evidence of scientific misconduct in this study, but since we are unable to clarify the ambiguities, we felt the most honest thing to do was to tell people what had happened and to retract the paper instead of having any lingering questions about the study. Science must be credible and we must act accordingly.

Boström has previous retractions, (1, 2), as well as papers questioned on PubPeer. One thread on PubPeer has discussed a controversial 2012 Nature paper on fat and metabolism, “A PGC1-α-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis,” on which Boström is first author.

We spoke with Boström in 2014, when he told us he disagreed with the findings of the investigation:

We have refuted all aspects of this decision which has grounds in an old conflict.

According to Borén, Boström moved on to Harvard Medical School, then the Karolinska Institutet (KI). We emailed Boström at his KI address about the latest retraction, but did not hear back.

The 2010 Diabetes paper has been cited 20 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

According to Borén, when Olofsson died in December 2011, his research group was left with no principal investigator. Borén decided to step in and help guide the group’s research efforts. The researchers opted to finish a project that had been dormant after the manuscript had been rejected by Diabetes in July 2011. According to Borén, the researchers chose to revise the paper and submit it to a different journal — but the control experiments didn’t provide the expected results. Given these discrepancies, Borén asked his group to take a second look at the original data, compiled by Boström, who had left the university several years earlier. Borén contacted the vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg (Pam Fredman) and the Head of the Institute of Medicine about his concerns, and they officially started investigating the matter.

Fredman confirmed to us that that “the university had performed an extensive investigation and found Boström guilty of scientific misconduct:”

There was a very serious, detailed investigation looking into misconduct. Based on the data, you could show that Pontus was the one who had done the misconduct, not the other coauthors.

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