Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Drip, drip: UCLA investigation finds more image duplications

with 9 comments

Image duplications and unsupported data continue to plague a network of cancer researchers that includes the former vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, James Economou.

On July 2, the editors at Cancer Research retracted a 2011 paper that Economou published as last author, saying it suffered from image duplication and unsupported figures. This is the second retraction we’re aware of to come out of an investigation by UCLA’s Office of Research Policy and Compliance that has touched this group of scientists.

Here’s the notice for “Molecular Mechanism of MART-1+/A*0201+ Human Melanoma Resistance to Specific CTL-Killing Despite Functional Tumor–CTL Interaction,” which says the retraction comes at the request of UCLA:

Following an institutional review, it was determined that data used in some of the figures cannot be supported; specifically, the 3- and 6-hour bands in Fig. 4C are duplicates of the M329-actin bands in Fig. 4A. To ensure that the research record is correct, the institution has requested that the article be retracted. The authors have been made aware of this retraction.

The 2011 paper has been cited 23 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Economou — who stepped down as vice chancellor in 2015 but remains chief of the division of surgical oncology — now has two retractions and they’re closely connected. His first retraction appeared earlier this year, in May, in another journal published by the American Association for Cancer Research. He and UCLA requested that Molecular Cancer Therapeutics retract one of his papers, because it contained an image also found in the 2011 Cancer Research article. Both papers listed Economou as last author.

Economou did not respond to our requests for comment, which we issued directly and through UCLA’s press office.

Co-author Benjamin Bonavida, also of UCLA, told Retraction Watch that by the time he found out about the retraction on June 9, in an email from an editor at the journal:

 It was already fait accompli.

Cancer Research declined to provide more information on the retraction process. A spokesperson told Retraction Watch:

Given that the article in question has already been retracted, any shareable information relevant to our correction of the literature is included in the published retraction notice.

All but one of the five co-authors on the 2011 Cancer Research paper have had papers retracted for image issues — papers they’ve often published with each other.

The paper’s first author, Ali Jazirehi, a research faculty member in UCLA’s department of surgery, was also first author on the paper retracted by Molecular Cancer Therapeutics in May. This is his third retraction. He did not respond to Retraction Watch’s request for comment.

Bonavida, who has retired from running a lab at UCLA, now has four retractions. In December 2016, two papers listing Bonavida as last author were retracted, also for image duplication. Jazirehi was a co-author on one of those two papers. Bonavida told Retraction Watch that his involvement in the Cancer Research paper was only as a “consultant” who looked it over before it was submitted:

All the work was done in Economou’s lab, not mine. I have no idea what exactly took place.

The original findings, they were all prepared by Ali Jazirehi.

Bonavida added that he knew Jazirehi well, as Jazirehi had worked in his lab “many years” before.

Second author Stavroula Baritaki, whose LinkedIn page says she’s a cancer researcher at UCLA’s medical school, has now been involved in three retractions — all written with Bonavida, and two with her as first author. She was co-first author on a now-retracted paper in the Journal of Immunology. The other lead author on that paper was Eriko Suzuki, who in 2014 confessed on PubPeer that she asked Oncogene to retract another paper she co-authored with Bonavida after discovering image problems; she later told us that because the paper was part of her PhD, her degree had been rescinded.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Comments
  • fernandopessoa July 20, 2017 at 8:35 am

    http://people.healthsciences.ucla.edu/institution/personnel?personnel_id=8283

    ” Dr. Economou has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since joining the faculty and has chaired two NIH study sections.”

    How come the NIH did not spot any of the duplications?

    • Volga Tronovic July 20, 2017 at 10:45 am

      Way to go NIH!! Let’s keep pouring in tons of money into “productive” investigators with suspect scientific practices, while honest scientists are being starved. Is it a surprise that public trust in NIH funded research is fast eroding? In light of such gross misappropriation of public funds for so-called research that isn’t worth the paper it is published on, why would the public oppose Trump’s cuts to the NIH budget?

      • fernandopessoa July 20, 2017 at 10:48 am

        “why would the public oppose Trump’s cuts to the NIH budget?” that is an uncomfortable message for swathe of the professional middle-class who did not keep its house in order.

  • Jeff July 20, 2017 at 10:58 am

    many were willing to cheat in order to get funded and published… However, the punishment for this kind of conduct did not work very well for preventing this

  • Regret July 20, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    I’m not in the scientific research field, but it seems odd that an “author” can just say “I have no idea what exactly took place” and wash their hands of any problems. Maybe the roles need to be more clearly identified: authors (take full responsibility and credit), colleagues (lab associates or advisors who helped in a materials but limited way, but do not take full responsibility or get full credit) and consultants (who provided specialized advice in one area, like stats).

    • Regret July 20, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      typo: materials s/b material (but I have not idea what exactly took place).

  • Morty July 20, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    Will the investigation report be available?
    It could be interesting to see how serious UCLA is in their investigation of these guys. There seems to be a long list of highly problematic issues with papers from this group of researchers:

    https://pubpeer.com/search?q=ali+jazirehi
    https://pubpeer.com/search?q=stavroula+baritaki

    Time to clean up the literature.

  • Tim July 21, 2017 at 9:49 am

    As one who has conducted multiple inquiries and investigations, my experiences have revealed some things regarding misconduct. Currently, the potential punishment for cheating/research fraud is essentially the same as not cheating: loss of career. This is one of the main reasons that research misconduct is so common – much more, even, than reported. To clean up the research enterprise ABSOLUTELY requires imposition of real risk, i.e., civil and criminal actions. There’s no other way around it. Impose these risks and misconduct/fraud by these people will diminish greatly.

    Another reason (or set of reasons) is mental illness. I believe this is a more important factor than most people realize. Clearly, this issue is more resistant to solutions.

  • fernandopessoa July 22, 2017 at 5:36 am

    “Bonavida told Retraction Watch that his involvement in the Cancer Research paper was only as a “consultant” who looked it over before it was submitted”. That is not enough to warrant authorship.

    http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

    “2. Who Is an Author?
    The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

    Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

    Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
    Final approval of the version to be published; AND

    Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. “

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