Japanese virologist hit with publishing ban after widespread data manipulation

A leading Japanese virologist has received a 10-year publishing ban from the American Society of Microbiology after many of his published articles were found to have evidence of data manipulation.

In its January 2011 issue, Infection and Immunity, an ASM title, is retracting five articles by the researcher, Naoki Mori, of the University of Ryukyus in Okinawa. The articles, published between 2000 and 2009, involve work on Helicobacter pylori which Nori conducted with co-authors from the United States and elsewhere. Some of the studies listed co-authors from drug companies, including Merck and Boehringer Ingelheim, although it’s not clear whether the companies helped support any of the research.

Despite the impending holidays, Ferric Fang, editor of Infection and Immunity, graciously and quickly replied to our request for comment yesterday (as he has before, about another paper in Nature involving fraud):

Earlier this year, a reviewer for another journal noted that a manuscript submitted by Dr. Mori contained apparent instances of improper image manipulation involving gels (e.g., RT-PCR, EMSA, Western blots).  The Editor-in-Chief of that journal then contacted the Dean of Dr. Mori’s institution, the University of the Ryukyus, who formed a committee to review all of the manuscripts published by Dr. Mori during his tenure at the university.  Following this review, Infection and Immunity (IAI) was contacted by the Dean to notify us that certain IAI papers authored by Dr. Mori contained similar irregularities suspicious for image manipulation.  This prompted ASM Journals to perform their own review of Dr. Mori’s publications in IAI (as well as in the Journal of Virology), a process in which I participated as the Editor-in-Chief of IAI.  The careful review performed by Dr. Mori’s institution greatly facilitated our analysis, as one could readily see that identical bands had been cut and pasted into figures in different publications and misrepresented as products from different reactions in various experiments.  In some cases, the replicated images were claimed to represent control lanes.  After the findings of the institutional committee were corroborated, Dr. Mori and his co-authors were contacted and given an opportunity to respond to these concerns.  After receiving Dr. Mori’s response, a decision was made to retract the papers that were found to contain manipulated data.  In addition, Dr. Mori was prohibited from publishing in or reviewing for any ASM journal for a ten-year period.

The earliest of the papers has been cited 26 times, while the most recent has been cited 5, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Mori was also co-author of a 1999 paper in Infection and Immunity, which has not been retracted.

Although the damage to Mori’s reputation and career likely will be substantial, Fang downplayed the impact on the scientists’ field, which has been exploring viral causes of leukemia.

Many of the central conclusions of the retracted papers (e.g., induction of chemokines by Helicobacter pylori) have also been demonstrated by other groups.  Incorrect scientific findings may eventually be discredited when they cannot be confirmed by other investigators, but correct findings supported by inappropriately manipulated data are more likely to escape notice.

We e-mailed Mori for comment but have not heard back yet. We also reached out to one of his co-authors, Alan Krensky, a top official at the National Institutes of Health, and will update this post if/when we hear from him.

Meanwhile, Fang said the Mori episode offers a few critical lessons about scientific publishing.

This case underscores how science is dependent on the integrity of individual investigators, and that it can be extremely challenging to detect fabricated data.  Once the problem was pointed out, it was not difficult to see the irregularities in Dr. Mori’s papers.  However, since the figures in question were contained in different papers in different journals over an extended period of time, the irregularities would not be apparent to readers of a single paper.  This egregious example of image manipulation was only detected thanks to a very attentive reviewer as well as a diligent Dean and institutional review committee.

Update, 10:30 a.m., 12/25/10: See comment below for two more papers by Mori that have recently been retracted, by Blood.

Hat tip: Willem van Schaik

0 thoughts on “Japanese virologist hit with publishing ban after widespread data manipulation”

  1. These papers in Infection and Immunity authored by Dr. Mori are not the only manuscripts which have been retracted due to data manipulation.
    Two manuscripts in Blood have recently been retracted too (http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/full/116/8/1386 and http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/full/116/8/1386-a). I am starting to wonder if other manuscripts by Mori with contain RT-PCR data are OK (see for example, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2180/9/36: RT-PCR on actin looks very similar to gels in the retracted papers).
    I also have a hard time believing that Dr Mori did this all by himself (as is claimed in the Blood retraction notice). Did he really change the data that was delivered to him by students/post-docs/techs without anybody noticing or protesting?

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