Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“My dog ate the data:” Eight excuses journal editors hear

with 13 comments

As a journal editor, are you tired of hearing the same excuses from authors who are facing allegations of problematic data? If so, you’re not alone.

Recently, an editor of the journal Oncogene co-authored an editorial in the journal listing the types of excuses he often hears — and why none of them is valid. Writing the article with editor Justin Stebbing of Imperial College/Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust is David Sanders of Purdue University. Sanders himself has raised allegations of misconduct against a cancer researcher (and is currently being sued for defamation as a result).

Here are the problematic excuses they encounter:

  • Nothing to see here. Move along.’ This excuse comes from authors who can’t stop denying there are problems with their paper, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
  • My dog ate the data.’ The “missing data” excuse makes more sense once a significant amount of time has passed since the paper was published, Stebbing and Sanders write.
  • If you look hard enough, you can find a trivial difference between two supposedly duplicated images.’ Um, not really, say Stebbing and Sanders — image processing can introduce artifacts, for instance. And even if there are minor differences, how can images with distinct origins be so similar?
  • It was the fault of a junior researcher.’ This could be true — but if so, why didn’t anyone else notice?
  • The responsible researcher is from another country and therefore unfamiliar with the standards expected in scientific publications.’ This excuse is “highly insulting” to researchers from other countries, Stebbing and Sanders note. And if the practices are so problematic, why didn’t the researcher’s supervisor school him or her on proper procedures?
  • It was only a control experiment.’ The authors note: “How many scientists have not had an unexpected result in a ‘control’ experiment that actually led to some insight? If control experiments were unimportant, why were they included in the article in the first place?”
  • The results have been replicated by ourselves or others, so the image manipulation is irrelevant.’
  • Someone is out to get me.’ Stebbing and Sanders write: “Perhaps true but irrelevant.”

We contacted Sanders to ask more about what prompted the editorial. He told us they wrote the article together after Sanders approached Stebbing about the idea:

It appears that many journals are facing issues of problematic images and plagiarism. We wanted to assure editors at other journals that these are shared experiences and to fortify them in their confrontations with authors who engage in specious reasoning.  

We asked about the types of responses that all seemed to suggest the problems didn’t matter. For instance, Stebbing and Sanders said they hear authors argue “The results have been replicated by ourselves or others, so the image manipulation is irrelevant,” or “It was only a control experiment.” We asked Sanders why such logic is problematic:

Some researchers are product oriented. The ends justify the means. If overall the article is correct, the fact that details are flawed is irrelevant. The career reward system (grant funding, promotion, awards, etc.) favors productivity at all costs rather than solicitousness. If you have succeeded by ignoring the norms of scientific practice, you will minimize their importance.

This attitude is problematic, because the details are critical in scientific endeavor. Control experiments ARE experiments and are therefore important. Furthermore, knowingly falsifying data undermines confidence in the scientific enterprise. The ends do not justify the means. Finally, researchers who are violating scientific norms are receiving resources that are thereby being denied to those who adhere to those norms. It is a natural expectation, for example, that authors have written the text of an article and have not recycled it from one of their own articles or from that of someone else. It is unfair to those who expend the effort to follow the rules to allow those who find it expedient to violate them to benefit from their infractions.

Sanders has also raised concerns about other researchers’ work; he’s called for the retraction of a prominent paper in Science that suggests bacteria can live off of arsenic.

Sanders declined to comment on whether his experience with sharing his concerns about data from other scientists — such as cancer researcher Carlo Croce, now suing him for defamation — had informed this list of responses from accused authors.

He added that Oncogene, like many journals, adheres to the editorial guidelines established by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). The journal has had to retract multiple papers — for instance, earlier this year, we covered a puzzling instance where researchers asked to retract a paper from the journal after correcting it, based on additional questions raised about the corrected images.

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Written by Alison McCook

October 26th, 2017 at 9:27 am

Comments
  • fernando pessoa October 26, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Justin Stebbing as senior and corresponding author.
    https://academic.oup.com/nar/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/nar/gkp136

    CK1δ modulates the transcriptional activity of ERα via AIB1 in an estrogen-dependent manner and regulates ERα–AIB1 interactions
    Georgios Giamas, Leandro Castellano, Qin Feng, Uwe Knippschild, Jimmy Jacob, Ross S. Thomas R., Charles Coombes, Carolyn L. Smith, Long R. Jiao, Justin Stebbing
    Nucleic Acids Research, Volume 37, Issue 9, 1 May 2009, Pages 3110–3123, https://doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkp136
    Published: 01 April 2009

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/1CCAC58543784D1B17C8416A6D97C2

  • anon October 26, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Some journals require a supplement with untrimmed “raw” gel images. I love this for multiple reasons – it discourages the truly dishonest, it leaves a paper trail for those who do cheat, and it allows me to breathe a little easier about my own decades-long battles with entropy in data storage. I hope that as storage space because cheaper, all journals will require this.

    • fernando pessoa October 29, 2017 at 7:23 am

      I believe you expect a technical fix for the human condition. It will unlikely reduce the need to be vigilant at all times.

  • fernando pessoa October 26, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    https://www.nature.com/onc/editors

    Deputy Editors
    Leandro Castellano, Imperial College London, UK
    Georgios Giamas, University of Sussex, UK
    Kristian Helin, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
    Michael Karin, University of California San Diego, USA
    Guillermina Lozano, University of Texas, USA
    Donald McDonnell, Duke University School of Medicine, USA
    Kevin Ryan, Cancer Research UK, UK
    Jacqui Shaw, University of Leicester, UK

    Georgios Giamas, University of Sussex, UK, as first author.
    https://academic.oup.com/nar/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/nar/gkp136
    CK1δ modulates the transcriptional activity of ERα via AIB1 in an estrogen-dependent manner and regulates ERα–AIB1 interactions
    Georgios Giamas Leandro Castellano Qin Feng Uwe Knippschild Jimmy Jacob Ross S. Thomas R. Charles Coombes Carolyn L. Smith Long R. Jiao Justin Stebbing
    Nucleic Acids Research, Volume 37, Issue 9, 1 May 2009, Pages 3110–3123, https://doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkp136
    Published: 01 April 2009

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/1CCAC58543784D1B17C8416A6D97C2

  • rfg October 26, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    Yes indeed! The requirement to post raw gel images, which adds essentially no significant burden to the authors, would greatly reduce the issues discussed most frequently on PubPeer.

    It would also reduce the burden on editors forced to address possible misconduct, and improve the integrity of and trust in the scientific literature.

    It’s a simple winning solution all around.

    • fernando pessoa October 29, 2017 at 7:25 am

      Alternatively, the publishing houses might employ image editors, but that would make the publishing houses conflicted as it would eat into their more than healthy profits. The solution is going to cost the publishing houses either money, reputation, or both.

  • Steven McKinney October 26, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    The Oncogene advance online journal article

    “The breast cancer susceptibility FGFR2 provides an alternate mode of HER2 activation”

    doi: 10.1038/onc.2014.440

    https://www.nature.com/onc/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/onc2014440a.html

    contains inappropriate images as documented on the PubPeer page

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/BBC278257761C0C12E5D38844873DF

    Paul Brookes notes that he contacted the journal two years ago.

    Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines state

    Journal editors should consider issuing an expression of concern if:
    • they receive inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors
    • there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case
    • they believe that an investigation into alleged misconduct related to the publication either has not been, or would not be, fair and impartial or conclusive
    • an investigation is underway but a judgement will not be available for a considerable time

    This paper clearly contains unreliable evidence (identical partially overlapping photos claimed to describe dissimilar experimental conditions), the institution is investigating, but a judgment will not be available for a considerable time because the authors keep filing legal challenges

    https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onscdc/doc/2015/2015onsc5389/2015onsc5389.html
    https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2016/2016onsc439/2016onsc439.html
    https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onscdc/doc/2017/2017onsc4287/2017onsc4287.html

    http://retractionwatch.com/2017/07/28/toronto-wife-husband-research-team-lose-bid-re-open-labs/
    “Indeed, Asa told us that she and Ezzat are planning to file an appeal soon.”

    Thus COPE guidelines indicate that an Expression of Concern should be issued.

    This editorial gives me some hope that we may yet see an Expression of Concern for this paper that has remained on the Advance Publication list for two years. While nothing is done to alert other researchers, this paper garners additional citations; the Oncogene web page suggests 3 other papers have cited this paper e.g.

    cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/77/8/1842

    I am encouraged by this editorial that the editors will adhere to the COPE guidelines that Oncogene purports to support, and issue an Expression of Concern for this paper containing dubious evidence from a lab known to have considerable problems with such issues over many years, with other retracted and Expression of Concern papers.

    EOC:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002944010634773

    Retractions:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002944010600296
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002944010629148
    https://www.jci.org/articles/view/83399

    http://retractionwatch.com/2015/08/04/canadian-researchers-in-legal-battle-over-investigation-object-to-third-retraction/

    • Steven McKinney December 12, 2017 at 4:52 pm

      Eight weeks after reading the editorial, and writing to Justin Stebbing about issuing an Expression of Concern for article doi: 10.1038/onc.2014.440 showing problematic images, I have heard nothing. Sadly the editorial referenced above has been all show and no substance.

      Meanwhile, the Oncogene website now suggests four citations for this problematic paper, which still sits unpublished and without an EoC three years after submission.

  • fernando pessoa October 27, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    https://www.nature.com/onc/editors
    Deputy Editors
    Leandro Castellano, Imperial College London, UK
    Georgios Giamas, University of Sussex, UK
    Kristian Helin, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
    Michael Karin, University of California San Diego, USA
    Guillermina Lozano, University of Texas, USA
    Donald McDonnell, Duke University School of Medicine, USA
    Kevin Ryan, Cancer Research UK, UK
    Jacqui Shaw, University of Leicester, UK

    Michael Karin, University of California San Diego, USA
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/549ECA180E3177C27CEF1A5B29186B

  • Steven McKinney October 27, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    As a journal author, are you tired of seeing the same excuses from editors who are facing allegations of problematic data? If so, you are not alone.

    https://pubpeer.com/topics/1/631E6AF6F96933B7B9946C90F1D23B

  • fernando pessoa October 28, 2017 at 3:57 am

    https://www.nature.com/onc/editors
    Deputy Editors
    Leandro Castellano, Imperial College London, UK
    Georgios Giamas, University of Sussex, UK
    Kristian Helin, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
    Michael Karin, University of California San Diego, USA
    Guillermina Lozano, University of Texas, USA
    Donald McDonnell, Duke University School of Medicine, USA
    Kevin Ryan, Cancer Research UK, UK
    Jacqui Shaw, University of Leicester, UK

    Kristian Helin, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/9A451A7377EAC233AAC06362DA1640
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/072E660F06F1018E0B12FF7DA9D7D4

  • fernando pessoa October 28, 2017 at 4:03 am

    https://www.nature.com/onc/editors
    Deputy Editors
    Leandro Castellano, Imperial College London, UK
    Georgios Giamas, University of Sussex, UK
    Kristian Helin, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
    Michael Karin, University of California San Diego, USA
    Guillermina Lozano, University of Texas, USA
    Donald McDonnell, Duke University School of Medicine, USA
    Kevin Ryan, Cancer Research UK, UK
    Jacqui Shaw, University of Leicester, UK

    Guillermina Lozano, University of Texas, USA
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/36530039510359A3511F7788F0AF03

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