Freedom from Information Act? Another JBC retraction untarnished by any facts

There’s helpful but uninformative:

Ivan: What’s the weather like today?

Adam: Sunny.

And then there’s uninformative as served up by the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

We’ve already recounted one teeth-grinding experience with the JBC, a publication of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The case involved two papers in JBC by Axel Ullrich, an esteemed cancer researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. According to Ullrich, one of his then-postdocs, Naohito Aoki, had manipulated figures that appeared in the papers, necessitating their retraction.

Round two involves another JBC retraction of a 2000 paper by Aoki and co-author Tsukasa Matsuda, titled ‘A cytosolic protein-tyrosine phosphatase PTP1B specifically dephosphorylates and deactivates prolactin-activated STAT5a and STAT5b.’ The paper has been cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

According to the notice:

This article has been withdrawn by the authors.

Whoa there! TMI! Don’t share so much!

Alas, that’s all she wrote. In fact, neither the abstract nor the article itself are marked as retracted, so it’s worse than useless.

We spoke — briefly — with Nancy Rodnan, director of publications for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Rodnan says it’s her group’s policy to provide brief retraction notices; readers who might want to know more can contact the authors involved. She wouldn’t say any more.

We’ll give them points for consistency. On the four JBC retractions for papers by Silvia Bulfone-Paus and colleagues, the notices said nothing, either.

Let’s get this straight: According to JBC, retractions are between the authors and, well, the authors. Curious readers — ahem, paying customers; society members get the journal through their $140 per year annual dues — who’d like to know more about the reason for a retraction have to contact the authors directly. How’s that working for you?

Of course, it’s ironic but hardly surprising that JBC has a high regard for its purpose in the publishing world. According to a note on the journal’s website, if a manuscript

is judged to be novel, important, of broad interest and technically sound, then it will be accepted and published in the JBC, an icon among scientific journals.

The publication also boasts about its “ongoing effort to improve our service to the research community” — a campaign that evidently does not include openness or transparency. (That kind of service reminds us of the “service fees” banks like to charge for the privilege of earning interest on our money.)

Ironically, the JBC fancies itself a catholic journal in its tastes and policies. In an editorial explaining its relatively middling impact factor, two associate editors wrote that the journal:

has been in existence since 1905 and has always been a repository for a broad cross section of research in the biochemical sciences. Like the New York Times, it publishes “all the news that’s fit to print,” without consideration of its relative trendiness.

Last time we checked, though, the Times had a corrections column, and a public editor who made it a point to explicate the paper’s misprints, missteps and other follies rather than leave its readers to hounds. Maybe it’s time the JBC paid a little more attention to its own promotional material.

Hat tip: Anonymous reader

15 thoughts on “Freedom from Information Act? Another JBC retraction untarnished by any facts”

  1. This is ridiculous. I bet that due to the low key manner in which this retraction has been dealt with, the paper will even continued to be cited! Something must be done about JBC.

  2. Twenty years ago JBC was really quite a prestiguous journal. Its impact factor has been in decline for a long time now and I hardly read it because the articles are often too chemical to be biologically interesting and because of silly things like these retraction notices.

  3. A pattern seems to be emerging. First one of the Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki papers retracted with an uninformative notice, then the 4 uninformative Bulfone-Paus retractions notices, and the second Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki papers retracted with an uninformative notice. Very similar wording in all of them.

    “This article has been withdrawn by the authors.”
    “This manuscript has been withdrawn at the request of the authors.”

    The Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki and the Bulfone-Paus retractions are in fact advertised as:

    “additions and corrections”. It is only when you go deeper than you discover that the articles have been withdrawn, perhaps for improvements? First I thought that such things would be against the “truth in advertising” laws, but perhaps this is what is going to happen.

    If, on the other hand, they really are retractions perhaps JBC shold be sued, and lose it tax status.
    That might be the issue the journal is trying to avoid. It is either a scientific journal, or it is not. If it is not really willing to clear up the mess you might start to form the latter opinion.

  4. I don’t know, Adam. You may be landing yourself in some deep . . . stuff. Are you sure you want to take on an icon among scientific journals? You may well ask, “How can we believe JBC when they say they’re an icon? Is it possible that this characterization is merely tone-deaf, self-congratulatory hand waving?” And I answer, we know it’s true, because JBC publishes all the news that’s fit to print, without regard to trendiness. Since they themselves described themselves as iconic, it must be fit to print, and therefore it must be true. QED.

  5. There is absolutely no excuse for not properly marking an article as retracted, and I think a journal should make this announcement publicly and also inform citing authors if possible.

    However, I understand to some extent why journals don’t want to give out specific information retractions. A retraction isn’t a trial or inquest to determine whether misconduct was involved or whether an error occurred. Misconduct investigations happen at the university, hospital or government level, not at the journal level, and they take much longer than a retraction.

    And, without a full investigation, a journal might be risking libel if they provided information that a retraction was one thing or another. Presumably they want to print true information about a retraction, rather than guesswork or allegations. They also might just want to pull a paper when doubts are raised, rather than perform an expensive investigation (and, without some sort of investigation, there can really be no conclusions about misconduct).

    Or, in the case of an author requesting the retraction, if the retraction notices repeat what the authors tell them, they might be just printing excuses or lies (if an author lied about their research they might also lie about their retraction).

    However, all of this leaves us with vague retractions that provide no information about how to avoid future problems. Universities who conduct misconduct allegations also have PR and legal reasons for keeping the results of their inquests secret.

    There does seem to be a gap in the information flow, and in particular I am concerned that vague retractions can prevent exposure of problems with the peer review process. I am not sure what the solution is.

  6. There are a few problems with the figures that stand out. You’d think it would have raised alarm bells during peer review to see lanes on a single blot running vertically, tilted to the left, and tilted to the right…

    Lanes of the blots in Figures 1A, 1C, 2A, 2B, 3A, and 8A were pasted together so as to appear as if they were performed on a single gel. We all know you shouldn’t do this, but that alone likely wouldn’t trigger a retraction. However…

    Figure 2B: aPY blot under STAT5b is the same as that under STAT5a only flipped vertically. The same is true for aHA blot.

    Figure 4A: STAT5a aPY blot lanes 0 and 2 min (mock) are the same as in the right hand blot PTP1B lanes 30 and 60 min. Also for this figure,STAT5b aSTAT5 loading control blot 0-60 min (mock) is the same as PTP1B flipped horizontally.

    Figure 5: PTP1B (0-30 min) cytoplasmic extract is (at least partially) the same blot just flipped horizontally.

    Figure 7B: aSTAT5 blot under PTP1B is the same as Figure 4A STAT5a mock aSTAT5 blot while the mock lanes in the aPY blot are the same as Figure 2C aPY blot mock lanes

    Did I miss anything ?

      1. I looked at one of the only figures you didn’t note (8B) and found that for STAT5b, aPY and aSTAT5 bands for C/S and D/A are copies (and look to be pasted in from a different blot altogether). This may also be the same for STAT5a.

    1. Wow, you are right! I had some trouble seeing what you saw in the earlier figures, it took me a while. Figure 5 is the absolute most shameless and obvious.

      The data manipulation was pretty slick and pretty shameless. I can understand how the reviewers might have missed it, although maybe people who look at gels all the time could have / should have spotted it?

      If they printed out the MS to review, that would have made it harder to catch as well. I really had to zoom in to see it, even when I knew what I was looking for.

  7. So the Materials & Methods should have read “The protein bands were visualized with an enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL) detection kit (Amersham Pharmacia Biotech) and Adobe Photoshop (Adobe Systems)”.

  8. Why does it seem that a preponderance of Japanese and Chinese researchers are having papers retracted lately? Just a question, I am not trying to paint anyone with the same brush, nor am I a scientist (or related to Clare Francis). Thank you.

    1. Dear Ciara,

      I was not implying that there was a preponderance of Japanese or Chinese researchers having papers retracted.

      What I meant by writing on March 21, 2011 at 6:14 :

      A pattern seems to be emerging. First one of the Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki papers retracted with an uninformative notice, then the 4 uninformative Bulfone-Paus retractions notices, and the second Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki papers retracted with an uninformative notice.

      was that there is a pattern of non-informative retraction notices appearing in JBC, as the Axel Ullrich/Naohito Aoki and the Bulfone-Paus retraction notices were uniformative and appearing in JBC.

      I believe that Axel Ullrich and Bulfone-Paus are based in Germany, and that Naohito Aoki is now based in Japan, and that his retracted papers were done in Germany.

      I did not in any way to say that the Japanese of Chinese were having more retractions. The Chinese were not even mentioned. The location of where authors were based when they did the retracted work if anything it seems to be more of a problem in Germany.

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