Journal retracts heart stem cell paper (and pulls no punches) over image fraud

Some retractions beg for a kick of sand in the face, and others do the kicking. Here’s an example of what Charles Atlas might have written had he been a journal editor concerned with research integrity.

Experimental Biology and Medicine, the official journal of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, has retracted a 2010 article by a group of stem cell scientists in China with an unfortunate affinity for a particular figure—one they’d used in a previous publication, only with a different description.

Here’s the notice for the paper, “Isolation and characterization of multipotent progenitor cells from the human fetal aorta wall,” which was cited five times before it was retracted, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge:

One of our readers contacted us to indicate that an article by Fang et al. (EBM 235:130-138, 2010), published in Experimental Biology and Medicine (EBM), contains a figure (Figure 3) that had previously been published in Biotechnology Letters (31:929–938, 2009, Figure 3).

Inspection of these figures by Steven Goodman, Editor-in-Chief of EBM, the handling EBM Associate Editor (Mark Magnuson), the Editor of Biotechnology Letters (Colin Ratledge) and the EBM Asian Editor (Huan Yao Lei) all concluded that the problem went beyond redundant publication as the labels in Figure 3 within the EBM and Biotechnology Letters publications had been changed on micrographs that are otherwise identical.

As this was potentially a case of research misconduct the EIC referred the case to the authors’ Institutions for their review. President Depei Liu, of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College, wrote to Dr Goodman on June 3, 2011, after several months of internal investigation. The investigation determined that this is a case of scientific misconduct and recommended that EBM should retract the paper.

In the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, formulated by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) it is stated: ‘If substantial doubt arises about the honesty or integrity of work, either submitted or published, it is the editor’s responsibility to ensure that the question is appropriately pursued, usually by the authors’ sponsoring institution. Ordinarily, it is not the responsibility of the editor to conduct a full investigation or to make a determination – that responsibility lies with the institution where the work was done or with the funding agency. The editor should be promptly informed of the final decision, and if a fraudulent paper has been published, the journal must print a retraction.’

EBM conforms to the ICMJE Uniform Requirements and, therefore, at the request of the President of the Peking Union Medical College, we formally retract the article by Fang et al. (EBM 235:130-138, 2010).

We have sent correspondence to all authors, the Editor of Biotechnology Letters – where prior publication of the figure took place – the President of the Peking Union Medical College, and the President of Zengzhou University to tell them in advance of the action that was being taken by the journal.

Such an exhaustive notice could well have carried the subhead to readers: “It IS Your Damn Business, and We’re Going to Let You Know About It.” To which we say, well done!

0 thoughts on “Journal retracts heart stem cell paper (and pulls no punches) over image fraud”

  1. Since ICMJE and COPE have flowcharts for handling potential misconduct, perhaps the time has come for a template for the harried editor to complete that is modeled on this excellent announcement by EBM?

  2. A somewhat ambivalent Charles Atlas, I’d say. The notice starts out strong, with four editors examining the photo and referring the matter to the sponsoring institution. That institution reports back that misconduct has indeed occurred and recommends a retraction. Then Charles Atlas turns back into a 90-pound weakling. It takes a full five months, from early June to early November, for the retraction notice to appear, and the editors make sure everybody knows that they are doing this at the behest of the sponsoring institution, not on their own say-so. It’s not their initiative, not their decision, not their responsibility, not on their heads. They might at least have said they concur.

    1. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable policy – the journals should not be the sole arbiters of scientific results, and the institutions and funding agencies have far more to lose by publication fraud. Additionally, the journal editors are not the best equipped to conduct a full investigation, since they do not have direct access to notebooks, etc. All that aside, I also think five months isn’t a particularly long lag time, considering that Nature has yet to retract an article two years after the senior author’s former employer determined (and publicly announced) that it was fraudulent, and more than four years after questions were originally raised about its validity. (PMID 17051152, for the curious.) The EBM editors were exceptionally pro-active by comparison.

    2. I agree with JudyH on this. The announcement sounds very good at first read, but the implications are clear: there would have been no retraction without positive action by the College. If the organization had stonewalled, covered-up, or passed-the-buck (all very common) the article would stand regardless of how obviously bogus it was. This appears to be institutionalized see-no-evilism.

      The policy appears to assume the existence of a uniform system of internal investigation into claims of misconduct among universities, research institutes, industry and government. It goes without saying that no such system exists or is ever likely to.

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