Blood retracts stem cell paper from Amy Wagers’ Harvard lab after 14 months of concern

More than 14 months after Blood issued a notice of concern about a paper by a Harvard stem cell scientist and her former post-doc, the journal has retracted the article.

Here’s the notice for the paper, “Osteolineage niche cells initiate hematopoietic stem cell mobilization,” by Shane Mayack and Amy Wagers:

The corresponding author (Amy J. Wagers) and the journal wish to retract the 1 August 2008 paper cited above. Based on information discovered by the corresponding author after publication and reported by her to the journal in August 2010, which is now confirmed by a subsequent institutional investigation, this paper was found to contain duplicated data and other inappropriate manipulations. The corresponding author requests retraction of the paper in its entirety and apologizes to the reviewers, editors, and readers of Blood for any adverse consequences that may have resulted from the paper’s publication. This retraction has not been signed by the first author (Shane R. Mayack), who maintains that the results are valid.

The article has been cited 38 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Interesting to note that when we first reported on the expression of concern back in October 2010, the number of citations was 24. In other words, the number of citations has risen by nearly 50 percent since then.

That Mayack refused to sign on to the retraction notice follows form; she did not agree to the Nature retraction. According to Mayack, the issues involving her work in the lab involved what boil down to organizational problems or, perhaps more accurately, disorganizational problems. She called them “mistakes made in data retrieval that were a cause of a poor, but not a unique, data management and archiving system” — but not fraud.

As the latest retraction notes, Harvard has been conducting an internal investigation of the matter — for years, it seems. We attempted to pry a few facts from the university back in October, on the anniversary of the Nature retraction, but our entreaty went unanswered.

We have attempted to reach Mayack and Blood and will update this post if we learn anything more.

19 thoughts on “Blood retracts stem cell paper from Amy Wagers’ Harvard lab after 14 months of concern”

  1. Are Harvard actually conducting an investigation – or are they hoping that by keeping as quiet as possible they will minimise any negative reflection on their esteemed institution?

  2. If Mayack chalked up the image duplication to poor data handling, organization, and/or whatever, then why didn’t she just inform the journal of the mistake and then issue a correction with the new image?

    Seems like a whole lot of malarkey if there were truly a mistake involved.

  3. I wonder how many journalists without actual, long-term, research experience realize the pressure that places like Harvard (but most other Universities as well) place on faculty these days. Lack of resources (time and personnel) are chronic. Yet, people are still expected to produce the same amount and more. Putting all the blame on individual investigators is a bit naive. People take shortcuts merely to survive, in my experience. Most of the times these shortcuts are inconsequential (e.g., instead of triple checking, one double checks or merely checks; instead of going over all the work done by an assistant, one may just look at a small random sample, and so on). Sites such as this one should start making the point that our Universities are dysfunctional and that they have unreasonable expectations (driven in large part by career administrators who do not care about knowledge and science, but only about money and career ladder climbing). I agree, people like Hauser and Stapel have contributed to generating such expectations. Now, even if they are down, people still think that their levels of productivity are feasible, if you are REALLY good. The damage is done, and it needs to be fixed by recalibrating expectations. You simply CANNOT do great science, and a lot of it, and at the same time have to teach a lot and have a lot of admin duties…

    1. Or perhaps you could start a Dysfunctional University Blog? Or maybe a “I can’t get the Data my PI wants so will make it up and blame the “System” if I get caught” blog?

      The purpose of this Blog is clear. It highlights Journal Retractions and tries to hold Journals to a high standard.

      1. SG, thanks for the friendly and constructive feedback. Keep up the good work, perhaps one day you’ll finally get into Harvard and so you won’t need to bitterly envy it anymore! 🙂

  4. I agree with Brad – if it was established that there was a mistake (caused by poor data handling), then everyone would likely agree that a correction would be most appropriate. However, there seems to be a lot more going on than an innocent mistake.

    I think Jon’s comment gets to the systemic problems of retractions. The pressures on scholars – for tenure and promotion, grants, etc. – make shortcuts more appealing. As our ability to catch more cases of misconduct increases (through detection software, having more eyes on papers as promoted by venues such as Retraction Watch, and so forth), will scientists evolve to find new shortcuts? What will scientific misconduct look like in 5 or 10 years?

    1. Dear Jon,

      I was at Harvard. Yale was better. That’s just my experience. At one place real results in that cells were altered and could be given to others to verify, in the other western blots until the end of time. It think it is lab-specific.
      On reflection I probablly did come across some “wishful thinking” in that I could never reproduce certain results, but was told that I didn’t “understand”. A bonehead lab head who fitted certain stereotypes about which races are clever and hard-working, but who are just like everybody else. He blamed his being asked to leave the main Harvard campus on not being a Jew, which I found quite distasteful. It is not O.K. for one minoirty to blame another minority. Boston and Cambridge, Mass, are boring. People shold not make it their aim. Again, just my opinion.

      1. While I have never been at Harvard or Yale, and I don’t really desire to, I think it is like this at a lot of places. Even different labs in different departments can be vastly different in their methodologies and, yes, principles.

        I can understand the failure ‘to understand.’ There were times when I couldn’t reproduce something, and I was told I was doing something wrong. Of course, I wasn’t, but people would rather have the wool pulled over their eyes than the alternative.

        While the antisemitism rightfully bothers me, I have seen and heard similar things. Ignorance is rampant, unfortunately.

  5. Dear Sue Lopez,

    That Harvard is not the be all and end all.
    It sounded like Jon Beckman was teasing SG about not being at Harvard.

  6. @Beckmann: Why should people want to be at Harvard? Contrary to popular belief, good science comes from even the lowliest of places (that is, those places that don’t have Harvard plastered on them).

    1. @Brad Casali:

      You’re absolutely right about high-quality science coming from lowly places. There are reasons that people want to be at Harvard and other top schools, though.

      First, the quality of your colleagues is consistent and quite good at a top school like Harvard. Lower tiered schools have good students and postdocs, but the variation is much larger.

      Second, the faculty at top-tier schools tend to have top reputations. Some of the work done at Harvard is quite amazing, and students and postdocs can find truly exciting projects there.

      Third, academic pedigree does matter to many academic search committees, as does the reputation of those who write your letters of recommendation.

      1. @David Hardman:

        I have no love of Harvard, and have spent no time there. I was simply pointing out that there are legitimate reasons that people want to attend top schools. Despite its own hype, Harvard is not unique at being “top.” It has plenty of peers in the US and abroad.

        And, while I don’t think these search committee biases are fair, they do exist. That is the *reality* of applying for a faculty position. A strong letter from a respected member of the National Academy can make up for a mediocre publication record.

      2. I agree with most everything you have written.

        But I think it’s rather difficult for other institutions, that have just as reputable work, to get grants versus someone coming from top-tier schools. Just by the very fact that the top-tier is the top-tier translates to more money to begin with, and more publications, and more money later, compared to other places that may not enjoy said reputations.

        I am simplifying, of course, but I’ve observed it and experienced it indirectly many times.

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