“Representative” image in liver paper leads to retraction

The journal International Immunology has retracted a 2007 article, “Amelioration of hepatic fibrosis via beta-glucosylceramide-mediated immune modulation is associated with altered CD8 and NKT lymphocyte distribution,” by a group of Israeli liver researchers whose manuscript included a composite image that didn’t quite call itself such.

The study, by scientists at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, purported to show that a soy-derived compound could reduce liver disease in mice. It has been cited 17 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. The journal is published by Oxford and the Japanese Society for Immunology.

From the notice:

The Editor-in-Chief, the Publisher and two of the authors (Rifaat Safadi and Orit Pappo) have retracted this paper because it has been brought to our attention that there are problems with the way in which Figure 3 was compiled and presented.

The lanes of the western blot depicted in this ‘‘representative’’ figure were derived from different experiments and subsequently compiled for the figure.

We do not think that the paper stated clearly enough how Figure 3 was compiled and we consider that cutting lanes from different gels and pasting them together in this way invalidates any conclusions that may be drawn from it.

We would like to apologize for any inconvenience this causes to readers of the journal.

Here’s the offending figure, along with the caption:

Fig. 3. Whole-liver protein lysates were extracted and 30 lg of total proteins were loaded per lane and analyzed for aSMA and b-actin expression. b-Actin expression was similar in all tested wells (lower panel). Decreased aSMA expression was found in lysates from GC treated mice compared with untreated mice receiving CCl4 (middle panel). Bands from three different membranes were scanned and quantified and final result was calculated as a ratio of each protein examined to the amount of protein loaded on the electrophoresis gel (upper panel). Findings are representative of four different experiments with 8–10 animals in each group.

We have questions about all this, but setting them aside for a second, there’s a basic principle here. If reporters can’t get away with making composites of their sources and not telling their readers, neither should scientists.

Which brings us to the researchers, and the retraction notice. Safadi, the first author, and Pappo, are seasoned investigators with long publishing histories, according to Medline. (The senior author, Yaron Ilan, is an internationally recognized scientist and chief medical officer of the Australian biotech company Immuron, which is developing oral antibodies for a variety of conditions, from HIV to liver cancer.)

The wording of the notice suggests that Safadi and Pappo were unaware of how the figure was cobbled together. But they acknowledge that it was intended to be “representative” — as the manuscript stated, which seems to undercut that impression.

And why not mention the other authors, Zigmond, Shalev and Ilan? Did they not agree to the retraction?

Finally, was retraction the best — or only — option? Why not some form of correction?

We tried to contact Safadi and the editor of International Immunology, but haven’t heard back.

0 thoughts on ““Representative” image in liver paper leads to retraction”

  1. Wow! If this is cause for retraction… I see this type of thing weekly when reading papers (i.e. gel lanes pasted together without acknowledging so). I imagine there are a lot of worried authors out there.

  2. The photographic composition in this case looks particularly “complete”, as it seems that each lane is pasted together in one photo. But pasted/composite gels are fairly common, I have to agree with Klaus. What does this kind of image add to an experiment, specially if the authors are providing a quantification in the form of a density plot, which is expected to be more accurate?. I think that the important aspect in this kind of studies is reproducibility. Given the need to produce such a composite (=artificial) image probably suggests that the results are hardly reproducible.

  3. Many biology journals (but not yet International Immunology) state in their instructions to authors that if a figure is composed from separate images, or parts are cut and pasted together, a line or gap should be included so that what has been done is apparent to the reader. This change was in large part due to the efforts of Mike Rossner and Ken Yamada from The JCB: 166: 11–15 2004.

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