Take the case of Hung-Shu Chang. Last week, the the federal Office of Research Integrity announced that it had closed its investigation into the scientist’s misdeeds. Chang was a visiting postdoctoral researcher from Taiwan who in 2005 had come to the renowned Skinner Laboratory at Washington State University to study the effects of endocrine disruptors — a class of compounds that includes BPA and which have been shown to disrupt the action of hormones — on sex cells.
Chang was accused of falsifying data in a 2006 paper in Endocrinology — later retracted — reporting the damaging effects of vinclozolin, a fungicide used to protect vineyards, on the genetic integrity of sperm cells.
According to federal and university investigators, Chang, who has since returned to Taiwan, “fabricated and falsified data” central to the authors’ claim that vinclozolin could alter sperm in such a way that the mutations could cause disease in future generations. Such mutations are referred to as epigenetic changes.
As a result of the findings, he agreed “to exclude himself from serving in any advisory capacity to the [Public Health Service], including but not limited to service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee” and that he would need supervision if he became involved in any PHS-funded research. (The PHS is technically the parent organization of the NIH and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), both of whom funded the work.)
In a June 2009 retraction letter, Endocrinology explained that:
The authors of “Transgenerational Epigenetic Imprinting of theMale Germline by Endocrine Disruptor Exposure during GonadalSex Determination,” Hung-Shu Chang, Matthew D. Anway, StephenS. Rekow, and Michael K. Skinner (Endocrinology 147:5524–5541)are retracting the manuscript because of the inability to locatethe majority of the original DNA sequence data or analysis recordsand the inability to confirm the DNA sequencing results performedby the first author, Dr. Hung-Shu Chang.
Leaving no doubt about who to blame for the deceit, the journal editors wrote:
This retraction isbased on the inability to locate and confirm the data generatedsolely by Dr. Chang. The coauthors were not aware of this falsificationof data. We sincerely regret if this has caused problems withinvestigators that have used this information experimentally [italics in the original].
Prior to its retraction, the journal article had been cited 43 times. Since June 2009 the citations continued, with at least 16 more to date, according to Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science. However, a spot-check suggests that those citing papers also noted the retraction.
We tried to raise a comment from the journal editors Wednesday evening but were unsuccessful. We’ll update this post when we hear from them.
Michael Skinner, Chang’s supervisor at Washington State, told Retraction Watch that the retraction did not affect the fundamental validity of the lab’s findings. In an e-mail interview, Skinner said:
This epigenetic transgenerational inheritance is a significant advance in science that impacts areas such as development, evolutionary biology and the etiology of disease. Therefore, this new concept for epigenetic inheritance is being heavily cited. The paper retracted provided a hypothesis that epigenetic reprogramming of the male sperm was the mechanism for this epigenetic inheritance, so suspect some of the referencing is not due to the data but general concepts.
We have just repeated the entire study with more advanced and quantitative technology to measure changes in epigenetics, DNA methylation, and confirmed the original hypothesis and now provide insight into why certain sites may be sensitive to permanent epigenetic change. This new paper is now in press in PloS ONE and should be out in the next couple weeks online. I suspect this new paper will now become heavily cited and replace the original retracted article.
Of course this is just my speculation, and I am now delighted the new study is out and may become the predominant reference for the topic.