Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Author of retracted gene editing paper alleges “bullying” by former PI

with 24 comments

In the fall of 2015, out-of-work stem cell biologist Mavi Camarasa decided she had waited long enough. It had been three years since she and a colleague were, best they could tell, the first to successfully correct the most common cystic fibrosis mutation in stem cells derived from a patient.

But her former lab director, Daniel Bachiller, had blocked her from writing even a short report, she told Retraction Watch:

He said we are not submitting at this time, wait until [the project is] complete. “Wait, wait,” is the only answer I’d had from him ever.

Though she’d left the Spanish regenerative medicine lab in 2013 to take care of an ailing parent and had mostly been scooped by another group in April of that year, Camarasa thought she still might be able to get something out of the project. She hatched a plan to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse — an already accepted manuscript where all he would have to do is attach his name at the last minute.

But this story didn’t turn out exactly how she’d hoped — and illustrates how the pressure to publish can affect researchers at different levels in the lab.

First, she tried to get a methods paper accepted at Genome Biology, but was rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t a “significant enough advance.” She then decided to submit it to Stem Cell Research & Therapy. She told Retraction Watch that in August 2015 she emailed Bachiller to let him know; he responded by asking her not to submit a methods paper and to start over and rewrite a more complete paper for a journal with a higher impact factor. She refused, and that was the last she heard from him, she told us.

She forged ahead, got the paper accepted, and published it in February 2016 (the journal even waived its usual fees); however, a fight began “the day [Bachiller] found out,” Camarasa told us.

Now, Stem Cell Research & Therapy has retracted Camarasa’s paper, saying she and her co-author published data that did not belong to them. 

Camarasa denies any wrongdoing, calling it “bullying” by her former boss. Bachiller — whose last-known position was at the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA), a marine biology-focused research institute on the island of Mallorca — has not responded to requests for comment.

On June 2, Stem Cell Research & Therapy issued the retraction notice:

This article has been retracted by the Editor because the authors do not have ownership of the data they report. A formal investigation conducted by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and Fundación de Investigación Sanitaria de las Islas Baleares Ramon Llull (FISIB) has concluded that the data reported in this article are the sole property of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and the Fundación de Investigación Sanitaria de las Islas Baleares Ramon Llull (FISIB). The authors do not agree with this retraction.

Robust method for TALEN-edited correction of pF508del in patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells” has been cited four times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

University of California, Davis stem cell researcher and blogger Paul Knoepfler told us the paper could have had a major impact: 

Correcting it in patient-derived stem cells is very cool and an important step, and it would have been big news in 2013.

We reached out to the CSIC to find out more about the investigation cited in the retraction notice. A spokesperson told us:

I can confirm that no researcher, either from within CSIC or from outwith CSIC, or from any other institution, has officially contacted us about the retraction of the article. Therefore, what I can tell you is that we have no more information on this subject.

Camarasa’s co-author on the retracted paper, Victor Galvez, who is currently a technician at a reproductive clinic, told Retraction Watch that he didn’t challenge the retraction to the journal but was sympathetic to Camarasa’s frustration:

She’s a good scientist. It’s a pity it ended this way.

 

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Comments
  • LadyProf June 12, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Camarasa had no right to publish that data without the PI’s permission. The PI sounds a bit foolish for not getting an important result out there, but acting as the principal investigator in charge of the project does not constitute bullying.

    • Cancer doc UK June 12, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      Blocking an important publication and therefore stifling a researchers career may be interpreted by some as bullying.

      The PI was well aware of the effect of blocking the researchers work from being published, and future grant applications and job opportunities arising from that publication.

  • H June 12, 2017 at 10:49 am

    What’s the PI doing blocking the publication of important, potentially life-saving, research? Shame.

    • Wim Crusio June 12, 2017 at 11:52 am

      Yep, that’s what he’s doing, obviously because he’s aiming for one of the high-impact journals, which demand “complete” stories. People often sit on data for years to get the story “complete” (and then write 3 page “articles” that are barely comprehensible…). And before we blame him, we don’t know as yet his job situation and whether he himself was actually being pushed not to publish in journals with a lower IF.

      • Shaila June 12, 2017 at 1:20 pm

        The paper retracted is a Methods one, so independent from publushing “part” or “full” story, which would have not been high impact factor after 2014 anyway…

  • Karen Shashok June 12, 2017 at 11:17 am

    A retraction because of a problem with data ownership? No evidence of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism? The journal’s decision to proceed with retraction seems a bit extreme under the circumstances. However, editors act on the basis of information from internal institutional investigations, and if the CSIC investigation concluded that the article should be retracted, then that’s what editors will do.

    It’s odd though that the CSIC spokesperson quoted here denies any knowledge of the retraction. Whatever information the CSIC provided to BMC Stem Cell Research & Therapy is likely to remain confidential, so we’ll probably never know what action they advised — if any.

    If the data were obtained by people who were funded by the CSIC at the time, yes, the data are probably the property of CSIC. But the CSIC code of conduct for researchers does advise them to publish promptly and transparently. Young researchers may be caught between the institutional mandate to publish and internal red tape or conflicts with coworkers.

    See the document titled Código de Buenas Prácticas Científicas del CSIC / Code of Good Scientific Practices of CSIC (Marzo 2010), section 1.3, second paragraph, p. 40 (English version): “The data remains the property of the Institution in which the scientific work has been carried out, so its source should be clearly cited” (available at http://www.csic.es/etica-en-la-investigacion).

    Note, however, that the original Spanish document, section 1.3, second paragraph, reads: “Teniendo en cuenta que la propiedad de los datos es siempre de la Institución en la que se ha realizado el trabajo, los materiales deben conservarse o cuanto menos, documentarse claramente su origen.” I’d translate this as, “In view of the fact that data ownwership always remains with the Institution where the work was done, the materials should be preserved or at least their source should be clearly documented.”

    • B June 13, 2017 at 7:06 am

      Id also like to point out that the original (now retracted) paper does acknowledge funding through the PI. Threfore it seems that the authors have indeed done due to “The data remains the property of the Institution in which the scientific work has been carried out, so its source should be clearly cited” (available at http://www.csic.es/etica-en-la-investigacion). Source clearly cited.

      If this is the author’s only requirement then they were within their rights to publish.

  • Bergmann June 12, 2017 at 11:57 am

    The PI has no right to block ‘indefinitely’ the dissemination of a research completed with public money. In addition, while he seemingly has a permanent position at the Spanish CSIC, he is shattering every job prospects of the people working in his lab after all these years without any related scientific publication.

    Likewise, it is certainly astonishing that any researcher or institution has not ‘officially’ contacted the CSIC, and the official retraction notice from the journal declares that the “…data reported in this article are the sole property of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)…” Who from the CSIC contacted ‘Stem Cell Research & Therapy’ then and there? Extremely weird!

  • B June 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    How exactly is ownership of data defined? Ive never seen anything about this in any journal submission guidelines.

    • Michael June 12, 2017 at 1:45 pm

      Hard to generalize, but in the US data generated via external sources are typically owned by the Institution, which then grants stewardship to the PI, who is in charge of direction, publication, and copyright of any research resulting from the data.
      As for this case, as much as I sympathize with Dr. (?) Camarasa, publishing data on her own is a complete non-starter. She doesn’t own the data.

      • B June 13, 2017 at 7:08 am

        I understand that each institution has its own policy, but shouldnt the journal also clearly define ownership of data? I see no mention of this in BMC authorship guidlines.

        • Michael June 13, 2017 at 10:56 am

          No journal is involved in data management so why should they define it?

          • B June 14, 2017 at 7:07 am

            Because in this case they (journal) made the decision to retract based on issues of data ownership.

  • hyd June 12, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    Never work in a lan like this!

    • Bobber June 13, 2017 at 7:42 am

      Agree – but how do you know this is what a lab/PI is like until it’s too late (in most cases)? PI’s can change as the demands placed upon them change too. This whole episode is a sad indictment of the pressures put upon scientists that world over; time for a major overhaul with regards to value.

  • Zach June 13, 2017 at 8:34 am

    The story here is unfortunate but not uncommon and without more details it’s impossible to know what fraction of fault lies with each party… but this article is not up to RW high standards. Using “bullying” as click bait but then only including a few quotes that are fragments, at best, and only a single word in the case of “bullying”… and an unattributed, fragment of a quote (presumably from Genome Bio rejection letter but who knows). Power harassment aka bullying is a serious charge; requires higher standard of evidence than this to publish IMO.

    • Cancer doc UK June 13, 2017 at 11:18 am

      The researcher that performed world class research wished to publish the research to inform other scientists, worldwide, and perhaps help others find a cure for disease.

      There should NEVER be reason for delay of publication of sound medical research that could help patients.

  • rfg June 13, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    Publishing a paper without the consent of the mentor/PI is never the right approach, and is itself an unethical act.

    The PI might well be a “bully” or might have other similarly stupid reasons for blocking or delaying publication, but publishing without informing and consenting is never the correct approach.

    One should perhaps start with the chairman of the PI’s department and move up the ladder from there. Usually, the head of the graduate program acts as the de facto arbitrator of post-doc issues. Every institution has a channel to file grievances if that route doesn’t work.

    • Hira kyiko June 13, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      Have you or anyone you know ever tried such an act?

  • blah June 13, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    rfg
    Every institution has a channel to file grievances if that route doesn’t work.

    While true, in practice a postdoc is almost always better off abandoning ship ASAP and finding a better mentor; file your complaint after you’ve found a boss that doesn’t suck if you want to get that paper out, want to stop others from running into the same problems you did, or just want justice in some sense… and probably get a lawyer if you don’t want to be ignored.

    Even when institutions do follow the correct procedures for investigating claims of misconduct (be it bullying or anything else), it’s never fast and I’m not aware of it ever resulting in a functional relationship afterwards. Luckily, institutions are moving to educate students and postdocs about reasonable expectations (for both mentor and mentee) so everyone involve can recognize potential problems before they become too big to fix.

  • Nitin Gandhi June 13, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    Generally, Science does not run with democratic conditions. When PI is not convincing the scientist why the paper should not be published, the only alternative left to the scientists are to go ahead publish and let it be….Scientist from USA will not understand how the science is conducted elsewhere…

  • oliver June 17, 2017 at 3:40 am

    A marine biologist…. there is a Seinfeld joke in here 🙂

  • Raymond Wan June 18, 2017 at 3:02 am

    As much as I would like the world to work like this, the fact is it doesn’t and there are good reasons for this.

    It would be chaotic if every junior researcher in the world took it upon themselves to decide when work is ready and published it without knowledge of not just the PI but everyone else who contributed…I presume it wasn’t just the 2 of them. Working under a PI isn’t just about doing research on cancer but also understanding the process. And sadly, one part of the process is patience. This is contrary to working in news where the writing cycle is usually much shorter.

    And let’s not fool us in thinking the only research that is important are medically related ones. Many such works rely on biological, computational, and physical (ie. microscopes) techniques too. If we rush out medically related work, shouldn’t we do the same for these too? Where does one draw the line?

    I do agree with the beginning of this thread. I’m disappointed RW chose to call this bullying, even if it was in quotes. In a company, an employee cannot do whatever he or she wants. Is that also bullying?

    • Lee Rudolph June 18, 2017 at 9:38 am

      I’m disappointed RW chose to call this bullying, even if it was in quotes.

      Despite their frequent (mis)use to indicate “emphasis”, the principal proper use of quotation marks is, precisely, to indicate that the matter they enclose was originally spoken or written elsewhere (most often, though not necessarily, by a speaker/writer distinct from the writer deploying the quotation marks); again, when properly used, the context should make it clear—and ideally explicit—who that previous speaker/writer is. Thus: “Camarasa denies any wrongdoing, calling it ‘bullying’ by her former boss”, according to Andrew Han, the retractionwatch reporter who wrote this post. As the matter I quoted from Han makes clear, Han used quotation marks entirely correctly.

      One way to frame my claims in the previous paragraph is to observe that “the principal proper use of quotation marks” is a signal that the writing deploying them is mentioning the enclosed matter, not using it. In that framing it’s clear that, contrary to your assertion, RW did not “choose to call this bullying”: rather, RW chose to mention that Camarasa called this bullying (using just that word).

      It is worth observing that there is at least one other proper use of quotation marks, the one instantiated in constructions like “the use-versus-mention distinction”, where they indicate a phrase that “everybody knows”.

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