Should journals always take authors at their word?
Take the case of a recent expression of concern in the Journal of Cell Science following concerns about image manipulation in a 2006 paper, “Inhibition of TPO-induced MEK or mTOR activity induces opposite effects on the ploidy of human differentiating megakaryocytes.”
Here’s the notice:
Journal of Cell Science was informed that several bands in each of the ERK1/2, P-AKT, AKT and p70S6K blots in Fig. 5 look very similar. After discussions with the first author, Raffaella Guerriero, who was unable to locate the original data, the journal referred this matter to the Istituto Superiore di Sanità. As the institute does not have a suitable body to investigate this matter, the journal is publishing this Expression of Concern to alert readers to issues with the western blots shown in Fig. 5. Without the original full blots and an impartial investigation by the institute, the journal cannot determine whether the results and conclusions reported in the paper are compromised.
The authors apologise to readers for any inconvenience caused.
But Carlo Petrini, the director of bioethics at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), told Retraction Watch that the institute does indeed have a body that investigates such allegations, the Research Ethics Committee of the ISS (ISS-REC). The authors never told the ISS-REC about the allegations, nor about the expression of concern, said Petrini, who also serves as president of the ISS-REC. Our questions were the first they had heard about the case, and
[I]n agreement with the ISS Commissary, Prof. Silvio Brusaferro, the ISS REC will set up an investigation in order to identify responsibilities in publishing misleading information.
Raffaella Guerriero, the corresponding author of the paper, has not responded to a request for comment from Retraction Watch.
The paper has been cited 39 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Lots of dead ends
Sharon Ahmad, the executive editor of the journal, told Retraction Watch that
It was a difficult case to deal with as over time, some authors had retired, some passed away (the senior author) and some moved to new institutes, and the original data that we requested was no longer available.
Ahmad said that Guerriero told the journal that the institute
has no research integrity officer or people who handle such cases, which did seem to be true…
And the trail appeared to have come to an end:
In addition, the department in which the work had been carried out no longer exists. We did contact the current head of department of the corresponding author, although she was not involved in the work in question, but she had recently retired, so she referred us to the new director of the department, who turned out to be a co-author on the paper. We seemed to have run into a dead end, which is why we published the expression of concern.
Ahmad said that the journal would contact Petrini and would update the expression of concern once it had more information.
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