Highly cited Harvard stem cell scientist retracts Nature paper

courtesy Nature

Amy Wagers, an up and coming stem cell researcher at Harvard who made a name for herself as a postdoc early by questioning the work of others, has retracted a January 2010 paper she co-authored in Nature. According to the retraction:

Three of the authors (J.L.S., F.S.K. and A.J.W.) wish to retract this Article after a re-examination of the publication raised serious concerns with some of the reported data. These concerns have undermined the authors’ confidence in the support for the scientific conclusions reported, specifically the role of osteopontin-positive niche cells in the rejuvenation of haematopoietic stem cells in aged mice. Although this matter is under further review, these authors wish to retract the paper in its entirety, and regret any adverse consequences that may have resulted from the paper’s publication. The retraction has not been signed by Shane R. Mayack, who maintains that the results are still valid.

As Technology Review reported when the study was first published:

In the experiment, Wagers and team surgically connected the circulatory systems of two mice, allowing older animals to be exposed to blood–and all the molecules and cells it carries– from young animals. They found that the procedure made the blood-forming stem cells in older animals act young again; the overall number of these cells decreased, and the cells generated different varieties of blood cells in more appropriate ratios. “In aged animals, many of the changes we see normally that are associated with age were reversed,” said Wagers.

The paper has been cited 13 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. The Boston Globe reports:

In a statement, Wagers said that she learned information that undermined her confidence in the conclusions and that she immediately notified Joslin, Harvard Medical School, and Nature.

“My primary concern has always been to ensure the integrity of the scientific process and my research, and I have taken all appropriate steps to make certain that any errors in the record are fully corrected,’’ wrote Wagers, a principal faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Wagers, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was The Scientist‘s Scientist to Watch in January 2008 thanks to three of her papers that had been cited 101, 446, and 624 times. The magazine — where one of us, Ivan, was deputy editor until February 2008 — highlighted her reputation as a rigorous skeptic:

As a postdoc in Irving Weissman’s laboratory at Stanford University, Amy Wagers earned a reputation for putting other people’s findings to the test. In 2002 Wagers published evidence contrary to claims that bone marrow-derived stem cells could transdifferentiate into brain, muscle, and other tissues. 1 In 2004, she found that hematopoietic stem cells could not repair damaged myocardium, 2 despite other evidence that it could (Nature, 410:701-5, 2001). In 2006, Wagers’ data countered claims that circulating progenitors could replenish oocytes. While she says she didn’t intend to develop such notoriety, she says that putting others’ results to the test is important, even if the outcome is a long list of zeros. “I’m glad the journals are willing to publish negative data like that,” Wagers says.

In fact, the profile went on:

Though Wagers isn’t currently working on testing others’ claims, the term “wagerizing” has stuck in Weissman’s lab. “If we want to test if something is true, we wagerize it,” says Weissman.

Thanks to Alexey Bersenev for alerting us to this retraction, which did not appear in the embargoed Nature press materials for this week. [see update below] Whether journals publicize retractions that way was a theme of our coverage of the recent retractions by Nobelist Linda Buck.

Update, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 10/14/10: Nature Publishing Group’s head of press, Ruth Francis, tells us that the journal doesn’t include retractions in press-released materials. Also: Corrected date of original study in the first paragraph, which was January 2010, not January 2009. We regret the error.

Please see an update about a second paper by the group now being questioned, and one involving another paper published by Wagers and Mayack in Developmental Biology.

14 thoughts on “Highly cited Harvard stem cell scientist retracts Nature paper”

  1. Whether or not journals publicise or press release their retractions and other corrections, what is important is for them to annotate the original publication and bidirectionally link it to/from the retraction or correction statement. This annotation should also be clear in databases such as Pub Med et al. (Nature does this, by the way, and I am sure other journals). The people who will benefit the most from knowing that a piece of work has been corrected or retracted are those who attempt to read it…..

    1. That’s certainly important, Maxine, and thanks for the comment.

      I would argue, however, that transparency is important enough that putting a notice in the press materials is worthwhile. After all, this paper was press-released when it was originally published. Shouldn’t the same standard apply to the retraction?

      I’ve contacted the NPG press office to ask what their usual practice is.

      1. I can only repeat that what’s important, in my opinion, is transparent scientific communication to anyone who tries to read the paper concerned.

        I don’t have much of an opinion on press releases one way or the other (whether they are of publications or corrected publications). I see some good, fair media treatment and some poor, unfair media treatment of science and scientists. I see some media stories written as a result of press releases, and some not.

  2. First up, credit to Wagers and her co-authors for apparently retracting a paper when they became concerned about its results rather than trying to pretend all was well until forced into retraction by the publication of incompatible results from other groups. A course many another author would have taken.

    It is also interesting to see that the retracted paper was cited only 13 times while other of her papers are in the hundreds and thousands (Google Scholar says the citations on the three papers mentioned by the Scientists have climbed to 131, 1095 and 1149 since the article was published). Despite the longer time those papers have had to accrue citations that still looks pretty significant. Even without the retraction it looks like the scientific effort has done a good job of self correction.

    1. In my experience, and according to other experts on ISI with whom I’ve worked, it does take a while for citations to accrue on papers and also for them to be noted by ISI itself. I believe, although I could be wrong, that citation counts were updated at regular but decently spaced out intervals (perhaps quarterly), so 13 times could be an underestimate of real time citations. A lot of F1000 faculty members saw this as a big deal. So, I’d expect that the retraction will surprise some. We’ll see. I’m glad Ivan picked up on this one.

  3. A cautionary tale:
    Years ago I was working on lipogenisis in rats. We were originally using a strain of rats closer to wild types and mesomorphic in build. Later the director of the department switched over to buying a strain that was elongated (extmorphic) The method used in converting fatty acid synthase to a mostly inactive form yielded only 1/3 of the former results; i.e; the method was almost non-effective. The director refused to examine whether the change was related to change in strain or rats rather than errors in the experiments and go back to the old strain of rats. The director died and the laboratory had to be closed because that was the government rule.

  4. The hallmark of a true scientist is to be skeptical of any single publication or author for purposes of personal evaluation cited over 100 times within less than a ten year period. Equally important is to be most skeptical about one’s own work, a characteristic that Dr. Wager has apparently, but belatedly achieved. TOP

  5. Utterly disgraceful conduct from these Harvard stem-cell people. Is this whole field full of frauds? Will the NSF / NIH cut off funds to these corrupt “scientists” or will the “Hahvud” name and cozy relationships with fund managers let them get away with it?
    The criminally incompetent editors at Nature who care far more about the “impact” of a paper rather than basic scientific integrity are as much to blame for this tragedy. You can bet that these manuscripts were ushered through by the Nature gate-keeping squad with minimal scrutiny.

  6. Look at Wager’s track record. Three publications from her lab since she became independent have come under strong suspicion or hav ebeen retracted (Cell, Nature and Blood). Those of you saying “well that dosen’t mean the idea is wrong” are living in some alternate reality. Assertion is different than discovery unless you work in some theoretical world.

    Much of Wager’s career was based on taking others to task about their work being “wrong”. This was coined by her former mentor as “Wagerizing”. Ironic isn’t it. So one must ask what has she actually done to earn such fantastic funding and such a stellar reputation as a “rising star”?

    It seems to me that the buck stops with Dr Wagers and she should be investigated, FULLY. Did this work from the basis of an NIH grant, her presidential award, HHMI funding? If so, the tax payers deserve their money back. Will Harvard investigate? I doubt it, just look at Luc vanParijs. He faked data, a lot of it, much of which was the basis for his thesis, but Harvard never revoked his degree. What a joke.

    1. I echo your frustration. With van Parijs, however, when he was at MIT, they instituted a full investigation and then NIH made its findings of research misconduct.

      But yes, there are a few people who have engaged in alleged misconduct at many prestigious schools who got away with it.

    2. To be fair, the Nature and Blood retractions were both the result of one data-faking post-doc (the now infamous Shane Mayack). The Cell paper was strongly criticized for some of its analysis, but the authenticity of the data itself was never in question (in fact the person who raised the criticism made the point that the data looked like typical noisy biological data, so in fact it was almost certainly real).

      I feel that in the case of the Nature and Blood papers Wagers is in many ways the victim of Mayack’s unethical practices. Considerable lab resources must have been invested in these projects. Even if alot of the data was falsified, just writing them up would have consumed a lot of time. Moreover, these retractions have most certainly generated negative publicity (in Science, unlike Hollywood there probably is such a thing). Given Wagers previous reputation as being particularly rigorous, this must sting all the more.

      I don’t think the evidence justifies investigating Wagers, but perhaps she needs to be a little more careful with who she hires in the future. Perhaps science job applications should include some sort of personality testing to weed out people with Mayack’s unethical tendencies.

    3. The greatest victims of misconduct are often the lab members and co-authors who are duped. In some labs there appears to be a culture of sloppy science, with many doing the dirty work for the PI who takes the credit and turns a blind eye. In other cases, it can be a dodgy individual who dupes his/her colleagues, and if they get caught, innocent parties get tarnished unfairly. What is needed is proper investigations and then, where needed, 1) correcting the scientific record by retracting the publication, and 2) some kind of sanction to those individuals who have committed misconduct. Justice demands that the reputations of innocent victims are not destroyed as collateral damage. That being said, institutions should carry out prompt and thorough investigations, and make the findings open, so it is clear to all who is and who is not to blame. Unfortunately, there are not many cases of institutions behaving in exemplary fashion…

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