Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

A university asked for numerous retractions. Eight months later, three journals have done nothing.

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Anil Jaiswal

When journals learn papers are problematic, how long does it take them to act?

We recently had a chance to find out as part of our continuing coverage of the case of Anil Jaiswal at the University of Maryland, who’s retracted 15 papers (including two new ones we recently identified), and has transitioned out of cancer research. Here’s what happened.

As part of a public records request related to the investigation, we received letters that the University of Maryland sent to 11 journals regarding 26 “compromised” papers co-authored by Jaiswal, four of which had been retracted by the time of the letter. The letters were dated between August and September 2016 (and one in February) — although, in some cases, the journals told us they received the letter later. Since that date, three journals have retracted nine papers and corrected another, waiting between four and six months to take action. One journal published an editorial note of concern within approximately two months after the university letter.

And six journals have not taken any public action.

Many of the most recent retractions and corrections appear to be a direct result of the university’s letters, which explain that the university conducted an investigation in which it uncovered a “compromised” paper or papers on which Jaiswal is last author. The letters then outline why the article or articles in question deserve a retraction or correction, with reasons ranging from figure duplication and manipulation to unreliable data.

In most cases, the university’s chief accountability officer Roger Ward asked the journal to retract an article. But for four papers, he told the journal to use its judgment about whether to issue a retraction or erratum. (In one case, the university sent a letter to a journal providing an update to an existing retraction, but did not request any action. This journal is not included below.)

Here are more details from each journal.

Journal of Cell Science

On August 24, the university dated a letter to Journal of Cell Science, asking the journal to retract two papers. In mid-February, the journal retracted both articles, along with a third paper by Jaiswal that was not mentioned in the letter. Time from date of letter to retraction: Almost six months.


In a letter dated September 29 (which revised an initial letter dated in August 24), the university asked Oncogene to retract two papers. On March 6, the journal did. We recently spotted these notices, upping Jaiswal’s previous count of 13 to 15.

Here is the notice for “Stress-induced NQO1 controls stability of C/EBPα against 20S proteasomal degradation to regulate p63 expression with implications in protection against chemical-induced skin cancer,” published in 2012 and cited eight times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters:

Following an internal investigation by the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the Editors and Publisher have agreed to retract this paper owing to the results of the investigation concluding that Figure 2 does not support the claim of presenting new data from keratinocytes.

And here’s the second notice, which cites band duplication:

Following an internal investigation by the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the Editors and Publisher have agreed to retract this paper due to duplication of bands used to depict varying NQO1 interactions in Figure 4.

Disruption of NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase 1 gene in mice leads to 20S proteasomal degradation of p63 resulting in thinning of epithelium and chemical-induced skin cancer,” published in 2011, has been cited 17 times.

Time to retraction: Just over five months.

Journal of Biological Chemistry

The university sent a letter dated September 26 to The Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), requesting retractions of four papers and retractions or corrections to two others. Three of these papers had already been flagged with an expression of concern. The letter also provided updates to two papers that JBC had retracted in April 2014 and in August 2014, but did not ask the journal to take further action. JBC issued retractions to five of the papers and an erratum to one; according to a spokesperson, the notices were issued in early February January, but are stamped early February.

Time to take action: Just over four Three months.

Cancer Research

In a letter dated August 24, the university requested retractions of five papers in Cancer Research. The university also provided an update to a paper that the journal had retracted in 2015. The five papers are:

Time to act: Eight months and counting.

Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications

In a letter dated August 24, the university requested a retraction of one paper in BBRC. That paper is:

Time to retraction: Eight months and counting.

Chemico-Biological Interactions

In a letter dated August 24, the university requested Chemico-Biological Interactions retract the 2006 paper, “Si RNA inhibition of GRP58 associated with decrease in mitomycin C-induced DNA cross-linking and cytotoxicity,” which has been cited six times. Editor-in-Chief Daniel Dietrich told us he received the request in September, and the initial letter was “not sufficient to automatically invoke a retraction,” so he contacted the university requesting more information. He asked for:

… an explanation [of] how the “malpractice” or [“]misrepresentation/adulteration” was determined in a fair and transparent way had to be sent to us, prior to CBI initiating retraction procedures.

Dietrich did not specify when he asked the journal for more information. But on March 6, he got what he needed from the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s research integrity officer, and sent it to the publisher on March 8, 2017:

I immediately forwarded this information to Elsevier, who then submitted this information to their Panel. I have also notified the authors of the impending retraction, should they not be able to dispel the accusations brought forth by the University of Maryland. The authors usually have 48 hrs to respond. Once the response is in (failure to respond is taken as admission to the accusations of the University of Maryland), this will be discussed. If the authors can provide evidence that the accusations brought forth have no basis, we will send the response back to the University of Maryland.

If the journal and publisher found the authors’ explanation unconvincing, they would move forward with a retraction, he added.

Dietrich acknowledged that this process may seem slow, but he said it’s all in an effort to ensure that decisions are not made “in haste”:

Although we may appear as slow or reluctant to act, we must ensure that we do not take decisions in haste and unfairly to either the author(s) in question nor to the scientific audience at large.

Time to action: Seven months and counting.

Molecular Cancer Therapeutics

In a letter dated August 24, the university requested a retraction of one paper in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. That paper is:

Time to retraction: Eight months and counting.

Free Radical Biology & Medicine

In a letter dated August 24, the university asked Free Radical Biology & Medicine to issue a retraction or erratum to one paper, and described problems with a second paper without specifically asking the journal to act. That second paper, “NAD(P)H:quinone oxidoreductase 1 protects bladder epithelium against painful bladder syndrome in mice,” had already received two corrections, which the letter did not acknowledge. The initial erratum for the 2012 paper occurred in 2013 for a figure-related error, and the second was published in 2014, citing an “unintentional” figure error. The letter mentions issues with one of the figures called out in the 2014 erratum, stating that “there is no valid explanation for the absence of heavy or light chain signal in the Western blots.”

The first paper is “Nrf2-induced antiapoptotic Bcl-xL protein enhances cell survival and drug resistance,” cited 49 times.

Time to issue editorial notice on remaining paper: Eight months and counting.

Clinical Cancer Research

In a letter dated February 21, the university asked Clinical Cancer Research to issue an erratum or a retraction to one paper.

Time to action: Two months and counting.

FEBS Journal

The journal responded to the university’s August 24 letter with an editorial notice on November 5, instead of a retraction or correction. The paper in question, “Human Antioxidant-Response-Element-Mediated Regulation of Type 1 NAD(P)H:quinone Oxidoreductase Gene Expression,” was published in the European Journal of Biochemistry (now The FEBS Journal) more than two decades ago (in 1994), and has been cited 75 times. The notice explains:

This Editorial Note is intended to alert our readers to the fact that questions have been raised regarding a figure in the above-mentioned manuscript [1]. It is unfortunate that we cannot state with complete certainty that the data in Figure 5 are accurate representations of the described experiments. However, we are satisfied that the key conclusions of the manuscript would not be affected by a potential error in this figure and thus will not be pursuing further action at this time.

We asked editor-in-chief Seamus Martin why the journal opted not to issue an erratum or retraction:

We issued an Editorial Note, instead of retracting the paper, because the data under question were limited to one figure (Figure 5), which appeared to contain a duplication of a CAT assay slot blot in both panels of that figure. As members of [Committee on Publication Ethics], we followed their guidelines on retraction vs. correction; notably, that an instance in which “a small portion of an otherwise reliable publication proves to be misleading (especially because of honest error)” warrants a correction.

I would note that the overall conclusions of the manuscript are not in dispute. Duplication of the same piece of data within the same figure (i.e. panels A and B of Figure 5 appear to be largely identical) looks, on the face of it, to be more likely due to sloppy data handling or poor figure preparation rather than wil[l]ful data manipulation. Thus, in our view, the COPE guidelines did not support a retraction and we proceeded accordingly.

We are aware of the ongoing investigation into Dr Jaiwsal’s work and, as mentioned in the Editorial Note, regret that we cannot state that the data in Figure 5 are reliable. If additional evidence comes to light that casts doubt on other figures in this paper, or the overall conclusions of the study, we are likely to take further action.

We’ve contacted the journals who have yet to take action to ask if and when they are planning to do so.

Sarah N. Archibald, research integrity officer at University of Maryland, told us she does not believe the university has held up the process:

The University completed its investigation process and then sent letters to journals. To the best of my knowledge, the University has responded to all requests for information made by the journals.

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  • rfg April 26, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    If I understand the timeline correctly, the original posts regarding the papers by Dr Jaiswal appeared in a cluster on PubPeer in early December 2013.

    It seems that the University of Maryland then took about three years to determine whether there were issues with the papers, then did the right thing by asking the journals to retract.

    Three years seems like a rather long time, but I’d say this is at or near the average for misconduct case adjudication at the University level. I’d be interested to hear from others if this is their impression as well.

    Eight months is clearly too long for a journal to act after being asked by a University to retract a paper. Some time for verification is required to make sure that the university is not simply retaliating against a whistleblower, but an editorial evaluation of the scientific issues regarding a paper published under their watch should be pretty quick – at most a few months.

    Of course, the most lengthy delays occur when authors, institutions, the journal and in some cases a regulatory agency obstruct, drag their feet, become non-responsive or do nothing at all. This is when whistleblowers really need to be persistent and thicken their skins against the inevitable charge of harassment.

  • fernandopessoa April 26, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    A similar train of events started in December 2013 at UCL, London, U.K.. Only 2 of the 8 retractions recommended by the investigation have appeared.

    “The allegations, made in 2013, have prompted two inquiries by UCL, one of which is ongoing. So far, researchers have retracted two of the papers and corrected five more. The events have attracted attention largely because of Latchman’s prominence: he is the chief academic and administrative officer at Birkbeck, University of London, and was formerly dean of UCL’s Institute of Child Health, where he still holds a part-time research role.”

    “UCL had convened a panel of scientists to investigate the papers. The panel produced a report, which UCL declined to release but which has been leaked to Nature anonymously. The report states that a ‘screening panel’ looked into 28 papers on which Latchman was a co-author, 14 of which were co-authored by Stephanou.
    The panel found evidence of misconduct in eight of those papers and recommended they be retracted. Of those eight, two have been retracted and five corrected; three of the corrections came last week. The papers were published between 2001 and 2010 and are on a range of subjects, including cardiology and human genetics.”

  • phil April 27, 2017 at 12:08 am

    Total agreement with Michael. Unhealthy publication from those sicker scientific celebrities are not only destroying basic science but also making peril and perish situation of preclinical research. To avoid that, there must be some strict rule of punishment federal/ state/ university level. In addition, research institution (university or other) should not lure themselves a lot for grant money of researcher. Instead, they should have authority to flag red signal or dismantle researcher’s tenure/ contract immediately in extreme case if datas are manipulated or cannot reproduced / replicate. Currently, it looks like the University is just trying to save their face from firing such sick researcher and hope those practices will be changed in days to come. Otherwise, preserving and prevailing ill mentality in science will take us long road to reach our destiny.

    • fernandopessoa April 28, 2017 at 6:56 am

      “Otherwise, preserving and prevailing ill mentality in science will take us long road to reach our destiny.”
      Please do not use mental illness as a term of abuse.

  • phil April 27, 2017 at 12:12 am

    In addition, we must have indicator of data reproducibility rate of researcher to some degree. Current citation looks just political to publish article.

  • Sharon Ahmad April 27, 2017 at 4:15 am

    Thank you for this article – it raises some important issues. From the perspective of Journal of Cell Science, we could certainly publish a retraction fairly quickly (depending on where in the schedule we can fit it in), but we aim to provide informative, detailed retractions, as campaigned for by Retraction Watch. This sometimes involves considerable time liaising with all the authors on the paper(s) in question, and the institution, to ensure that everyone is informed and aware of the details of the retraction(s). Some authors can be difficult to contact, if they have moved on, and some raise additional queries that we feel are necessary to address. All of this takes time.

    We have taken lessons from each instance like this, however, and now will publish an Expression of Concern if we think that a case will not be resolved quickly.

  • Morty April 27, 2017 at 9:24 am

    The investigation process does not need to be that long.
    The Jon Sudbø case in Norway is a good example:
    Sudbø was revealed in Januar 2006, and in June 2006 a report from the investigation was published.

    This case has been called the largest research fraud scandal ever, but the number of articles affected were not of the same magnitude as the Jaiswal case. However, over three year for an investigation is far too long.

    • rfg April 28, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      I agree that three years is way too long. Perhaps, if universities that drag their feet on misconduct investigations are hit with enough 3X fines through qui tam proceedings, they’ll speed the process up instead of defaulting to the opposite approach.

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