ME-Coli: Germ paper retracted after mentor accuses authors of idea theft

Plagiarism can involve the theft of words, and we’ve covered plenty of such cases (like this one). But here’s a case of what appears to be more wholesale lifting of everything from ideas to assays.

The Journal of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology (JMMB), a Karger title, has retracted an October 2010 paper, “Characterization of Methyltransferase Properties of Escherichia coli YabC Protein with an Enzyme-Coupled Colorimetric Assay,” by Jingsong Gu and Chunjiang Ye. Both of those scientists are in the department of biotechnology at the University of Jinan in China.

Gu had trained as a postdoctoral research in the laboratory of biologist Elaine Newman, of Concordia University in Montreal who describes herself as a “long time friend” of E. coli. (As they say, with friends like that, who needs enemas?)

The retraction notice — a trio of remarkably revealing letters — begins with an apologia from the authors:

Dr. Elaine Newman, with whom Dr. Gu served as a postdoctoral fellow, has pointed out to us that a part of the contents of our paper, specifically that dealing with the functional assignment of the yabB gene product, was her idea and hypothesis. Although our paper focused on aspects that differed from those proposed by Dr. Newman, we acknowledge that a significant part of the intellectual material presented stemmed from her. Further, preliminary experiments that led to the results reported were conducted in Dr. Newman’s laboratory. We did generally acknowledge her support of the work in the Acknowledgement section of our paper, but we want to apologize for not adequately citing the scope of her contribution. While the publishers, editors and reviewers have been in agreement that our paper represents a significant contribution to the scientific literature, we have now decided to comply with Dr. Newman’s request that our paper be retracted. We are doing this in order to avoid further argument about this issue. We sincerely appreciate the efforts of the publishers, editors and reviewers and wish to apologize, particularly to Dr. Newman, for the inconvenience and frustration caused by the publication of our paper.

In other words: The concept for the paper was Newman’s. So were the research materials.

The authors somewhat lamely then state that although the paper was a “significant contribution” to the field, they’re retracting it to pacify and evidently irate and insistent Newman.

Newman’s wry response follows:

It is flattering to hear that the publishers, editors, and reviewers are in agreement that this paper, most of which derives from ideas and experiments from my lab, represents a significant contribution to the scientific literature. My long-standing policy, however, has been to publish my work and ideas under my own name and those of my collaborators when we collectively decide that this would be appropriate.

Neither Dr. Gu, who was a postdoctoral fellow in my lab in 2005 at Concordia University, nor Dr. Ye, has ever asked me for strains or chemicals, nor have I sent them any, metK84 included, although all the strains mentioned in the paper are in my collection.

We think the essence of Newman’s letter is damning enough: You stole my concepts and misrepresented my experimental work as your own. And at Retraction Watch, we commend the JMMB for juxtaposing the two letters in the retraction notice.

But then the editor, Milton Saier, weighs in with a final word, which leaves us scratching our heads.

Journals serve as a forum for debate. No journal can claim that every detail of every publication is correct, nor that everyone involved has been adequately acknowledged. However, by publishing these results, Karger has fulfilled their responsibility to the scientific community. In a process of trial and error, the scientific method can correct any mistakes that have been published. It is a time-consuming process, but the only one we have.

Um, yes, that’s seems fair enough — and fairly meaningless. All it really says is that the journal did nothing wrong (or, more precisely, it did everything right), which was never the issue. It’s the equivalent of a place kicker taking credit for the win in a 31-0 blowout.

Still, on the whole we’d rather see more of this treatment of plagiarism than less.

We’ve tried to contact Newman for more of her perspective on this case and will update the post when we hear from her. Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 1/22/11: Please see Newman’s comments below.

4 thoughts on “ME-Coli: Germ paper retracted after mentor accuses authors of idea theft”

  1. So what happens to the data now? Is it any less valid? No, but it now may never see the light of day in a publication, which may mean the field suffers as a result because of one fully-tenured professor’s bruised ego.

    I have seen this scenario multiple times, where junior investigators tried to get themselves started using reagents and materials they ‘helped themselves to’ before they left a mentor’s lab. While I don’t condone it, I understand it – but I never saw a fully-tenured prof so ticked about it that they demanded a paper retraction

    1. I think because this post-doc didn’t simply “help themselves to the reagents and materials”. The ideas for the experiments – and perhaps intellectual guidance for them – were taken from Dr. Newman’s lab. If that isn’t a criteria for authorship, I don’t know what is!

  2. I very much appreciate the fact that Retraction Watch found this retraction,and reviewed it with accuracy and sympathy. It has taken me until now to figure out how to add further comment which I will now do.
    Dr.Gu was a postdoc in my lab and left without finishing the project. Two years later he sentme a draft with Gu and Newman as authors. I would have loved this to be published- from the point of view of renewing grants, and for thepleasure of reporting new insights. However the data did not support a paper – was not well analyzed- had procedural problems such as claiming to have filaments when he did not, and nfurther, plagiarizing from Dr.Zhou’s paper. I asked him to reconsider this, analyze all the date,present the analysis to me,and we would see what could be done. I got another draft with very little change other than removing the word ‘novel” from the title.
    That was also notpublishable.I heard nothingmore until
    a friend toldme to look at the published paper.
    It worriedme that Dr.Ye might have been conned into thinking this paper represented purely Gu’s work so I wrote to point out that his knowledge of the situation came entirely from Gu. He wrote back that he was in agreement with Gu.

    I suggest that Chris find the corresponding paper of zhou ‘s which is referenced in the Gu Ye paper and look for similarities/plagiarism instead of leaping to the conclusion that I would refuse to publish good data. Perhaps he will report to us on what he finds.He should also keep in mind that thefact that peoplesay they have done experiments and used particular strains does notin itself prove they have done so.

    I intend to continue my view on the reviewers,journal and the university involved under the blog on scientific fraud increases. However I will answer anything further which is published here now that I have figur3ed out how to do it. EBNewman

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