Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Journal flags paper about GMO foods over concerns about figures

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A journal has flagged a paper by a researcher who has questioned the safety of genetically modified organisms, after receiving concerns that there were issues with some images.

In the 2006 paper, researchers led by Federico Infascelli, an animal nutrition researcher at the University of Naples, tested the blood of rabbits fed genetically modified soybeans. Starting in November 2015, however, the journal animal fielded concerns that gels appeared manipulated, and a figure legend differed from that in a thesis associated with the research.

This isn’t the first notice issued for Infascelli’s controversial work, which has been under scrutiny in recent years, including by Italian senator and biologist Elena Cattaneo. Last year, he was formally reprimanded by the University of Naples for including manipulated data in three papers.

Although the University of Naples concluded the image manipulations were “not a breach of scientific integrity,” the journal has issued a lengthy expression of concern about the paper:

From November 2015, we received several expressions of concern from third parties that the electrophoresis gels presented might have been subject to unwarranted digital manipulations and that the detailed legend of Figure 2 differs from that published in a thesis associated with the research. A detailed independent investigation was carried out by animal, the successor of Animal Science, in accordance with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines. The authors were notified of our concerns and asked to account for the observed irregularities. After reviewing the authors’ replies, we asked the University of Naples to which the first and corresponding authors are affiliated to investigate further. The University commission considered that the selection of specific lanes in a gel image, when it is not intended to hide inconsistent results but aims to focus the reader’s attention to one or more relevant results, is not a breach of scientific integrity. The commission did not comment on the legend of Figure 2. We decided to post this Expression of Concern to alert our readers to our remaining concerns about this article:

-Were the lanes deleted to produce Figures 2 and 3 part of the trial?

-Is the legend of Figure 2 correct?

Genetically modified soya bean in rabbit feeding: detection of DNA fragments and evaluation of metabolic effects by enzymatic analysis” has been cited 26 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

In the article, the researchers look at blood samples from rabbits that ate GM food, and report:

No differences in enzyme levels were detected in serum, but a significant increase of lactic dehydrogenase, mainly concerning the LDH1 isoenzyme was found in particular in kidney and heart but not in the muscle, thus suggesting a potential alteration in the local production of the enzyme.

According to the journal, questions about the paper arose in November 2015. In January 2016, Italian reported that Infascelli was under investigation by the University of Naples over allegations that he’d manipulated images to show GMOs were harmful. According to news reports, there were three papers affected, published by Food and Nutrition Sciences, animal, and Small Ruminant Research. The university reprimanded Infascelli (and 10 other scientists) in February 2016.

Last year, Food and Nutrition Sciences retracted a paper co-authored by Infascelli, after concluding it duplicated a figure. (The journal eventually updated the notice to include data fabrication in the reason for retraction.) A few months later, animal pulled another paper, citing digital manipulations brought to its attention by readers starting in September 2015. In that instance, the University of Naples agreed that the issues with the images were likely due to digital manipulations.

Some of that questioning was prompted by the work of Cattaneo, after she heard Infascelli testify in the Senate about the potential dangers of GM crops for animals. According to a review of her memoir by Nature:

Cattaneo spent the weekend poring over his papers. She could not understand the data, and discussions with Infascelli did not help. So she prompted investigations into his work, which eventually saw some of the papers retracted. Her team went on to produce a 1,556-page document for the Senate compiling nearly all available scientific evidence about GM crop safety. For her pains, Cattaneo was demonized by some in the Senate as a lobbyist for the agricultural biotechnology firm Monsanto.

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