Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Carlo Croce, facing misconduct allegations, accuses former colleague of misconduct

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Carlo Croce

Carlo Croce, a cancer researcher who has faced numerous research misconduct allegations, recently accused a former lab member of misconduct. Although an institutional probe did not support that allegation, Croce’s efforts have led to a retraction.

In November 2015, Croce and another cancer researcher at Ohio State University (OSU), Ramiro Garzon, contacted PLOS ONE, alleging that the paper’s corresponding author, Stefan Costinean, published data without their knowledge or permission and without “accurately acknowledging their contributions to the research.” Although the PLOS ONE paper mentioned Croce’s and Garzon’s contributions in the acknowledgements section, the two were not included as co-authors. We have obtained a copy of the report describing OSU’s preliminary probe; it did not find evidence of misconduct, but recommended the paper be retracted for using data without permission. Although Costinean disagreed, the journal has since retracted the paper.

Croce has been on the other side of this process: Seven of his papers have been retracted for issues including manipulation and duplication. After a New York Times article, published in March, explored misconduct allegations against Croce, OSU said the university is “instituting an independent external review.” Croce is currently suing the New York Times, alleging that the newspaper defamed him in the story.

Conflicting testimonies

Croce and Garzon first brought their accusations to PLOS ONE, saying Costinean used their data without permission. Unable to resolve the dispute, in February 2016, the journal asked OSU to take over. OSU’s research integrity officer, Jennifer Yucel, initially said Croce’s allegations against Costinean did not warrant an inquiry because they represented an authorship dispute, not research misconduct. She forwarded the matter to the College of Medicine.

But Robert Bornstein, vice dean for academic affairs in OSU’s College of Medicine, had a different take: In April 2016, Bornstein recommended the paper be retracted and that the university conduct an inquiry to explore the allegations.

In May 2016, OSU began its inquiry. According to the inquiry report, the plagiarism allegations amounted to “intentionally and knowingly publishing data belonging to” Croce and Garzon without “permission or proper acknowledgment.” Croce and Garzon also said “Costinean made false statements to the journal regarding the knowledge of and approval of the submission of the manuscript by the other co-authors,” what they claimed constituted “falsification.”

As detailed in the report, Croce and Garzon wanted to take over the project, about the role a family of molecules, called miR29, potentially plays in replenishing and depleting bone marrow cells. According to Costinean, they offered him co-first authorship on future work if “I did not interfere.” Costinean, who had presented his initial findings at a meeting in 2012 and included Croce and Garzon as authors on that abstract, told OSU:

This struck me as odd…

Costinean explained that he declined Croce’s and Garzon’s offer, but:

That, of course, did not imply that I would be recusing myself from my own project. I made clear to both Croce and Garzon my intention to publish.

Garzon and Croce contended that “Costinean had been told that he was off the project and could not publish.” However, in their interviews with OSU, Croce did not remember these communications, and Garzon admitted he did not tell Costinean “he could not publish and he didn’t know if Dr. Croce had.”

Thus, “based on the evidence and conflicting testimonies,” the committee found:

the expectations regarding authorship and publication were unclear and it is possible that Dr. Costinean believed he was still able to move forward with a separate, parallel publication for the work that he had previously completed.

In August 2017, the committee dismissed the allegations against Costinean, finding that none should move forward to a formal Investigation, but ruled the paper should be retracted.

“Does not agree”

Here’s the notice for the PLOS ONE paper, “Gradual Rarefaction of Hematopoietic Precursors and Atrophy in a Depleted microRNA 29a, b and c Environment:”

The PLOS ONE Editors retract this publication, as we have been advised that the authors did not have appropriate rights or permissions to publish the data.

After publication, concerns were raised about the ownership of data reported in this article. This matter was reviewed by the Office of Research Compliance at Ohio State University, where the research took place. The Office of Research Compliance advised that the data were generated in laboratories at Ohio State University and were published without permission of the principal investigators, in breach of the University’s Research Data Policy.

In the light of the recommendation of the Ohio State University, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this publication.

The corresponding author, Stefan Costinean, does not agree to this retraction.

The paper, published in July 6, 2015 and retracted on Oct. 30, 2017, has been cited one time, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Costinean, who left Croce’s lab in December 2010 to start his residency, disagrees with the retraction and the committee’s assessment about who owned the data.

Costinean told OSU that he had “exclusively generated the hypothesis and designed the experiments” for the project and that Croce had “agreed that I would continue my project using the infrastructure and researchers in his lab.”

According to Costinean and the inquiry report, Croce sent Costinean an email in June 2014 (in Italian, which the committee translated with Google translate), affirming that the project in question, the mir-29 project, “is and was yours.” Croce also told the committee that it “was his normal practice to allow postdoctoral fellows to take their research with them.”

Costinean told OSU that Croce only “helped with the housing of the experiments and paying for reagents,” and Garzon helped “mostly by putting me in contact with the researchers” who performed some of the experiments.

Ultimately, OSU decided Croce owned the data.

Croce did not respond to our request for comment.

Costinean left his residency at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in 2014 for a fellowship at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha. He said that Croce sent a letter to his boss at UNMC in November 2015, accusing Costinean of academic misconduct. And when Costinean was trying to get a job, he said Croce contacted the person interviewing him and said OSU was going to request the retraction of the PLOS ONE paper. Costinean did not get the job.

Costinean, who now works as a clinical pathologist in Arizona, says the whole ordeal “disgusted me enough to decide to give up research altogether:”

My dream towards which I worked for the past 10-12 years, was to find a position in the academia that would allow me to do 80% research and 20% clinical work. … I decided to give up that dream after seeing how powerless I was in front of the academic hierarchy.

Costinean added:

Is it surprising that after all this, I decided to move away from the academia and dedicate myself entirely to patient care?

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Comments
  • Fom November 9, 2017 at 11:51 am

    The data belongs to the people, to the research community!

  • rfg November 9, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    “Costinean told OSU that he had “exclusively generated the hypothesis and designed the experiments” for the project and that Croce had “agreed that I would continue my project using the infrastructure and researchers in his lab.”

    Given the NYTimes article and lawsuits it’s hard to look at this issue in isolation. However, in an attempt to do so it seems to me that Croce was correct to question a publication that had been based “using the infrastructure and researchers in his lab.”

    In case you are someone who hasn’t noticed it’s hard to win grants and contracts even for an accomplished scientist like Croce, and that money should be used to support the projects it was originally intended to support.

    The granting agencies didn’t agree to support the post-doc’s project.

    Given the background of the lab and Croce’s considerable impact on the role of mirs in cancer it seems implausible that Costinean as a post-doc “exclusively generated the hypothesis and designed the experiments.” Even in the unlikely scenario that this is true and that Costinean’s salary was being paid by a source not involving a Croce grant or contract, the fact that Croce provided “infrastructure and researchers in his lab” is traditionally and also sufficient in my view to qualify for authorship. The fact that the post-doc did not inform Croce of the manuscript/data generated while in Croce’s lab is a serious ethical breach. While OSU found it’s not scientific misconduct per se [setting the bar rather high], I personally would not advise any post-doc to follow this rather reckless course.

    • Looking Closer November 10, 2017 at 4:19 am

      “In case you are someone who hasn’t noticed it’s hard to win grants and contracts even for an accomplished scientist like Croce”

      Irony?

  • Fom November 9, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    rfg Even in the unlikely scenario that this is true and that Costinean’s salary was being paid by a source not involving a Croce grant or contract, the fact that Croce provided “infrastructure and researchers in his lab” is traditionally and also sufficient in my view to qualify for authorship.

    In the view of NIH it certainly is not:
    https://oir.nih.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/sourcebook/documents/ethical_conduct/guidelines-authorship_contributions.pdf

    • Nereo Preto November 10, 2017 at 4:29 am

      Great link, thanks!

  • rfg November 10, 2017 at 10:06 am

    “In the view of NIH it certainly is not:
    https://oir.nih.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/sourcebook/documents/ethical_conduct/guidelines-authorship_contributions.pdf/

    I stand by what I wrote. On the contrary – this is NOT the view of NIH as it applies to post-docs directly under the supervision of a PI.

    A word of caution about this chart is in order. It specifically applies to the NIH INTRAMURAL research program, and is from the Office of Intramural Research (OIR).

    You can learn more about NIH intramural research organization here:
    https://irp.nih.gov/about-us/organization-and-leadership

    The key is who is a Principal Investigator [PI] and who’s not:
    “Intramural researchers are part of individual Laboratories, Branches or Centers, which are organized around common thematic research goals and approaches, much like a department or center at an academic institution. Within these larger structures, Principal Investigators run Sections or Units devoted to their independent research aims.”

    A LABORATORY in the NIH Intramural program can have a Chief and several other PIs that head up sections or units within the LABORATORY.

    Here’s a good example:
    https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/lab-viral-diseases

    With that background go back and look at the OIR chart – a major function is to ensure that Lab Chiefs, which are like Department or Center Chairs (see above), are not given honorary authorship on papers coming from other PIs or their students.

    Lab Chiefs like other PIs directly supervise a stable of post-docs, graduate students and techs. They will always have a role in design and interpretation of the results of the post-docs or at the very least a supervisory role – hence authors on all the papers of THEIR post-docs according to the OIR Table.

    The Lab Chief will not be an author on the papers of post-docs directly under the supervision of other PIs in the Lab, UNLESS they specifically meet one of the other criteria in the OIR Table.

    Croce is Department Chair, Director of Institute and a PI., the equivalent of a Lab Chief at NIH. It’s important that Costinean was NOT a PI, but was a post-doc DIRECTLY under the SUPERVISION of Croce. That’s a fact, irrespective of how good or bad the supervision was. It’s inconceivable to me despite the protestation of Costinean that Croce allowed one of the post-docs in his lab to operate completely unsupervised or that Croce had no role in planning the work on a mir in his lab, while at the same time providing salary, infrastructure and [apparently] technical help from other researchers in the lab. Did Costinean not present his work in lab meetings or get input from other researchers in Croce’s lab? Garzon’s case for authorship (providing a unique animal) is also strong.

    • Looking Closer November 10, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      PhD students have been known to publish without any of their supervisors named as authors.

    • mkd November 10, 2017 at 3:38 pm

      I feel compelled to comment on this posting, because the story as it unfolds follows a pattern which is familiar to me. First of all, I should mention that my scientific field is not medicine. I would like to first address the statement, that authorship should be warranted to the PI i.e. the ‚professor‘ as per se. The standard of good scientific conduct stipulates that the administrative role or the function as laboratory head (or PI) by itself does not merit the authorship on a publication. Therefore, I would think it to be fully justifiable for Costinean not to warrant authorship to his boss Croce if the facts would not provide sufficient ground to do so.

      This brings me to the second point: I found it odd, that in light of the severity of accusations of misconduct brought forward towards Mr. Croce, a big issue was made about the question of authorship of Costineans paper. Of course, the question of authorship is significant. But, at least in the field I am working in, there are no clear cut rules on whether a contribution is praised in the acknowledgment or merits authorship. A junior researcher then needs to manage a balancing act in which he or she is totally vulnerable to two opposing fractions: One fraction might raise the accusation that authorship was not granted. This happened to Costinean in the present case where the contribution by the PI only appeared in the acknowledgements. The other fraction – when the PI appears in the author list – might consider the authorship to have been warranted purely for reasons of prestige, or to bolster the paper on its way through the review process, etc… And if things turn out badly, one or the either action can be raised to a compliance issue with dire consequences for the junior researchers. Whoever raised the accusation will probably be judged more mildly in referral to the difficult grey zone of the authorship/acknowledgement ambiguity.

      I believe this is a real issue and unfortunately the present hierarchical structure strongly favors the top, and not the bottom. The way this story unfolded, it appears as if the issue of authorship happened out of wounded pride and the re-establish the hierarchy.

  • zmudzka November 10, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Important to acknowledge that Costinean published more than 30 papers with Croce. He should have known the lab politics and get permission for paper submission.

  • Fom November 10, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Why there are no opinions from the other six authors?
    Despite his contributions and writing Constinean chose to be the last author.

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