Cryptic “legal issues” lead to retraction of paper about potential Novartis alcohol abuse drug

Readers of this blog by now know that if there’s one thing that really gets us going, it’s obfuscation. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the following retraction notice from the journal Psychopharmacology, made us particularly batty:

This paper has been retracted by the author because of legal issues.

The notice refers to  “Selective activation of the metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 7 “mGluR7” attenuates acquisition, expression, and reinstatement of ethanol place preference,” was published online in late June by Amine Bahi under the heading “Original Investigation.”

Bahi is in the department of anatomy at United Arab Emirates University. He has also held positions at Yale and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Among his publications is one that involved a collaborator from Novartis (more on that in a moment).

Trevor Robbins, the editor of Psychopharmacology, seemed apologetic enough when he responded to our emailed request for comment. But he didn’t add anything:

 This is a confidential matter which the publishers have dealt with, not involving myself.

The publisher in this case is Springer. We emailed the journal rep for Psychopharmacology, who told us she passed our questions along to someone else from the company. We’ll update the post if/when we hear anything, which, we’re told, won’t be until next week.

Meanwhile, we took a moment to compare Bahi’s Psychopharmacology paper and the other article, which appeared in Addiction Biology.

Some interesting similarities, to be sure. Same dosages, same effects, same conclusion, more or less: namely, that one of the compounds tested, AMN082, could be a treatment for alcohol abuse.

From the retracted article, which appears to have been yanked:

More interestingly, the efficacy of AMN082 on the various phases of alcohol CPP [a measure of preference] could represent an interesting pharmacological approach and could open a new line of research for the development of therapies, using AMN082-like compounds, to reduce ethanol intake in patients.

From the prior publication:

In conclusion, these findings support a specific regulatory role for mGluR7 on alcohol drinking and preference and provide evidence for the use of AMN082-type drugs as potential new treatments for alcohol-use disorders in man.

Key difference: Only one author on the first. Oddly, in the Psychopharmacology paper Bahi writes about “our” results — save the royal we jokes for later — despite being a lone author, which ought to have raised red flags at the journal that something was amiss.

Now back to that Novartis connection. The main figure here is Peter Flor, the senior author of the Addiction Biology paper, who with colleagues at the drug maker created AMN082.

It turns out that Flor and Novartis didn’t take too kindly to seeing proprietary work appropriated. (Although Bahi did cite the Addiction Biology paper, because the retracted article doesn’t appear to be available, we can’t tell if he specifically credited Flor et al in the text. If anyone happens to have a copy of the paper, we’d love to know the answer.)

Flor responded tersely to our request for an explanation:

[Bahi] had no permission to submit the paper.

That’s not Bahi’s interpretation, however.

I retracted this paper because I used the AMN082 compound from Novartis. The problem is that this company did not allow legal release of the paper.

Of course I sent the paper with the agreement of my PI (we signed the [material transfer agreement] with Novartis). But because I left his lab with a big conflict of interest he contacted Psychopharmacology claiming that he never allowed submission. Of course I could not prove that as I had no written Email from him allowing submission but got it while discussing data in a lab meeting.

Then together with Springer I decided to retract the paper in order to re-do the experiments with a purchased drug (AMN082 is available in the market) and send it back.

We were curious about the timing of all this: a late-June publication and an early July retraction. Flor told us that the journal “figured out very quickly what was going on.”

We haven’t yet, however. Hopefully Springer can explain next week.

9 thoughts on “Cryptic “legal issues” lead to retraction of paper about potential Novartis alcohol abuse drug”

  1. No reason to get snarky about the us of (e.g.) “our results” in a single-author paper. This is not uncommon. In fact, your own post is replete with the use of “we” despite there being only a single author credited (“amarcus41”). Such editorializing does not belong in your reporting; you do a disservice to the community and denigrate the value of this blog.

    1. Mario – Thanks for your comment. However, I (we) respectfully disagree.
      We made it clear in our first post that we would use the pronoun “we” because Ivan and I collaborate on every post. I’m not sure journal editors have that understanding when they consider manuscripts for publication. And the fact that Dr. Bahi found himself in legal trouble would suggest that his collaborators weren’t keen on his publishing without them, either.

      Thanks for reading.


  2. It’s interesting… I recently submitted a paper where I am the sole author, and I had a very hard time not writing “we found xxx”. It’s the nature of what we do. So rarely do we work alone, it’s hard to say “I”.

  3. From the information given, it seems possible that Novartis’ publication authorisation procedure wasn’t followed. When I worked for Synthelabo then Sanofi-Synthelabo you needed a series of signatures going up more layers of hierarchy than I knew existed. Like other high tech industries, pharmaceutical companies don’t publish much.

  4. It seems that Dr. Bahi is a very, very fast scientist…. He just started a new lab and a new paper on the same subject (with a commercial AMN082 this time) is already in press in Neuroscience….. and as a single author! Impressive….

  5. Wait a minute here…. so…… Mid-July, he says he will order a commercial compound to redo the experiments… His new paper is now in press as of October 17th, meaning it was probably sent in September…. And as a single author, apparently in a new lab, he was able to perform all the notoriously difficult experimental paradigms, with different concentrations, in 2 months??!! Come on…..

  6. “We were curious about the timing of all this: a late-June publication and an early July retraction. Flor told us that the journal “figured out very quickly what was going on.”

    “We haven’t yet, however. Hopefully Springer can explain next week. [July 15, 2011]

    Adam, did Springer ever get back to you with any info?

    1. Karen – Thanks for your message. This is the last I heard from Springer:
      “The author wanted the paper retracted, so the journal acted immediately. (As mentioned previously, the paper was retracted because the author had not requested permission from Novartis to publish a study on AMN082.)”
      Now, as we know, the simple fact that an author wants a paper retracted doesn’t necessarily — or even usually — result in such rapid action.


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