FASEB J retracts 15-year-old study after author comes forward, but universities decline to investigate

The FASEB Journal — FASEB stands for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology — is retracting a 15-year-old paper without the consent of all of the authors, despite what seem like valiant attempts to figure out exactly what went wrong.

Here’s the notice for the University of Bern-University of Urbino paper:

The publisher of The FASEB Journal is administratively retracting S. E. Spycher, S. Tabataba-Vakili, V. B. O’Donnell, L. Palomba, and A. Azzi, “Aldose reductase induction: a novel response to oxidative stress of smooth muscle cells,” FASEB J. 1997 Feb. 11:181–188 at Valerie O’Donnell’s request and with the consent of Angelo Azzi.

On November 7, 2011, an author of the article, Valerie O’Donnell, sent a communication to the The FASEB Journal’s Editor-in-Chief indicating that data in The FASEB Journal article overlapped with an article that may have been simultaneously submitted to Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications and was previously published as S. Spycher, S. Tabataba-Vakili, V. B. O’Donnell, L. Palomba, A. Azzi, “4-Hydroxy-2,3-trans-nonenal Induces Transcription and Expression of Aldose Reductase,” Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 1996 Sep. 13;226(2):512–6., doi: 10.1006/bbrc.1996.1386.

The journal made several attempts to locate all of the other authors on the article published in The FASEB Journal, and established contact with Angelo Azzi and Letzia Palomba. The journal requested misconduct reviews from each author’s institution, but each request was declined. The journal also made additional attempts to locate and contact the remaining authors on the article, but was not successful. If any of the authors’ institutions conducts a misconduct review, the journal reserves the right to follow the recommendations made by that institution, which may or may not include reinstating the full article.

O’Donnell tells Retraction Watch:

I became aware of it after the BBRC paper was accepted for publication.  I had already left Switzerland and was working in the USA.

I did not act on it at the time because I was a junior fellow and worried about the implications of raising the issue.

While we’re sympathetic to the concerns of a junior member of the team — and cheer O’Donnell’s willingness to acknowledge such realities, which seem to allow a lot of senior faculty to get away with less-than-admirable behavior — we should note that in the 15 years since the paper was published, it has been cited 124 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The level of detail and transparency in the notice — not to mention the thinly veiled expressions of exasperation — should be applauded, and held up as a standard, just as a notice earlier this year by Steven Goodman, editor in chief of Experimental Biology and Medicine, should be a model. In both cases, the editors demanded more accountability from institutions — a role we wish more editors would play.

And this isn’t the first time FASEB Journal editor Gerald Weissmann — who, in the interests of full disclosure, was one of Ivan’s medical school professors and later a columnist at a webzine Ivan edited — has taken things into his own hands when not all authors saw eye to eye with the journal. Last year, he upgraded a previously agreed-upon erratum to a retraction after hearing the results of a misconduct investigation.

The University of Bern tells us that they are unaware of any requests from the journal, and suggested that the editors may have asked Azzi’s current institution, Tufts, to investigate. We’ve asked Azzi and Palombo for more information — particularly why the universities declined to conduct a misconduct review — and will update with anything we hear back.

Hat tip: Clare Francis

9 thoughts on “FASEB J retracts 15-year-old study after author comes forward, but universities decline to investigate”

  1. Applause for the journal and, hm, half-hearted applause for the co-author who reports the duplicate submission after she has built up her CV to the extent that she no longer needs the extra publication.

    Now why does the journal want to have a misconduct finding from an institution? Duplicate submission violates the journal’s rules. It is not the university’s job to police that part of the process. The university should oversee the conduct of the research. The journals, individually or as a group, should check (when possible beforehand) whether a manuscript is duplicative and should have the strength of character to punish violations of their own rules when these violations are discovered after the fact.

    Thank goodness this is “just” duplicate publication, not invented data that will cause loss of time, money, and potentially lives when the results are believed and acted upon.

    1. “Thank goodness this is “just” duplicate publication”.

      Duplication is not as benign as it sounds.

      This is a relatively old study (which perhaps should have led to retractions of the duplications mentioned), but medicine does not change so much as the problem is still with us. There is evidence we (I have nevr spoken for the U.K. before) are getting less honest (http://publicationethics.org/opinion/brits-are-getting-less-honest).

      To the duplication study.

      BMJ 1997;315:635 Martin R Tramèr
      Title: Impact of covert duplicate publication on meta-analysis: a case study

      I draw you attention to the conclusion section:

      Conclusions: By searching systematically we found 17% of published full reports of randomised trials and 28% of the patient data were duplicated. Trials reporting greater treatment effect were significantly more likely to be duplicated. Inclusion of duplicated data in meta-analysis led to a 23% overestimation of ondansetron’s antiemetic efficacy.

      I believe that authors and organisations (public and private) like the 23% overestimation of efficacy.
      It would give a treatment/drug/intervention (work on metabolism such as Aldose Reductase, mentioned in the duplication above, does have implications for diseases such as diabetes mellitus) an edge of the rivals.
      That “little bit extra” as Dick Cheney used to say while at the same time touching the side of his nose (i.e. for those in the know).

      Duplicates do have the added advantage of making your publication list longer (useful for money-raising and so disadvantaging people who do not duplicate, triplicate…).

      Notice that the titles of the papers (which is all most grant administrators would look at. I doubt they read the abstracts even) in question are not diffferent say by a typo (mistake), but sound all “sciency” and different.

      Version 1.
      “4-Hydroxy-2,3-trans-nonenal Induces Transcription and Expression of Aldose Reductase,” Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 1996 Sep. 13;226(2):512–6.

      Version 2.
      “Aldose reductase induction: a novel response to oxidative stress of smooth muscle cells,” FASEB J. 1997 Feb. 11:181–188.

      That is evidence of evasiveness.

      1. Given that titles and abstracts end up in databases, it is understandable that the authors wanted to muddy the waters as much as possible. At least, that is what I would have done. However, the retraction notice states that there was a data overlap between the two papers. It seems to suggest that the two manuscripts were essentially different but there was an overlap between the sets of data they were based on. Again, it could mean that the two sets were identical, the one set was a subset of the other set, or that the sets just shared pieces of data to some degree. If the two sets were identical (or one was a subset of the other) it really stinks because somebody had to write two papers based on the same data. Actually they did a pretty good job considering that at least one of the papers has been frequently cited and, yet, nobody noticed anything for 15 years. It is possible that recently somebody did notice and brought it the author’s attention. Self-reporting looks much better than the alternative.

  2. Another pair of similarly sounding publications:

    Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1031:405-11.
    Modulation of cell proliferation and gene expression by alpha-tocopheryl phosphates: relevance to atherosclerosis and inflammation.
    Ogru E, Libinaki R, Gianello R, West S, Munteanu A, Zingg JM, Azzi A.

    Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Bern, Buhlstrasse 28, Bern 3012, Switzerland.


    Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2004 May 21;318(1):311-6.
    Modulation of cell proliferation and gene expression by alpha-tocopheryl phosphates: relevance to atherosclerosis and inflammation.
    Munteanu A, Zingg JM, Ogru E, Libinaki R, Gianello R, West S, Negis Y, Azzi A.

    Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Bern, Bühlstrasse 28, 3012 Bern, Switzerland.

    1. This is a really strange case. I just checked the two papers, and the Ann N Y Acad Sci paper acknowledges that four of the six figures are actually reproduced from the BBRC paper. The last two figures, however, are ALSO from the BBRC paper, but they are not indicated as reproduced from the BBRC paper. Interestingly, for Figure 5 the figure legend is very slightly different between the two papers (I think it is an inconsequential difference), while for Figure 6 there is a much bigger difference. In fact, one difference is enormous, and it can’t be a micro to milli conversion error. To add injury to insult, the Ann N Y Acad Sci paper lacks the acknowledgments to the funding they received.

      Has anyone contacted the two journals?

      1. “This is a really strange case”. Not so strange. The Ann N Y Acad Sci is full of hundreds of highly overlapping publications.


        761 entries. Of these 537 appear in the Ann N Y Acad Sci after they have appeared somewhere else.


        Some hold the belief that Ann N Y Acad Sci is a “review journal” (in case a comet strikes, but now it is electronic so ius everywhere computers are), although I have never heard of the rule that things are allowed to legitimately be published more than once (often with methods and results sections giving the impression of experimental papers), or even of the immune status of “review journals”.

        Under pressure from other journals Ann N Y Acad Sci will act.

        For example this pair:

        Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1991 Dec 26;642: and J Cell Sci. 1990 Nov;97 ( Pt 3):463-71.

        Funnily enough, a 2011 erratum has appeared to the 1991 publication:



        Corrigendum for Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 642: 148–166
        Philpott, M.P., G.E. Westgate & T. Kealey. 1991. An in Vitro Model for the Study of Human Hair
        Growth. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 642: 148–166.
        doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1991.tb24386.x
        The above article is based on an article published earlier in Journal of Cell Science (Philpott,
        M.P., M.R. Green & T. Kealey. 1990. Human hair growth in vitro. J. Cell Sci. 97: 463–471. PMID:
        1705941) and arises from an invited conference presentation on the subject. Apologies are given
        to the publishers, editors, and readership of Journal of Cell Science.

        How come they didn’t notice in 1991?

        A pair where a publication in Ann N Y Acad Sci led to the retraction of a later publication.
        Diabetes Care. 2008 Feb;31 Suppl 2:S255-61. and Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 Nov;1084:250-66

        The retraction: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/35/2/456.long

        Statement of Retraction
        Ziegler D. Treatment of diabetic neuropathy and neuropathic pain: how far have we come? Diabetes Care 2008;31(Suppl. 2):S255–S261. DOI: 10.2337/dc08-s263

        Two tables and the text of this article were first published in “Ziegler D. Treatment of Diabetic Polyneuropathy: Update 2006. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1084:250–266, 2006.” This article is therefore considered a duplicate publication, and after careful consideration, it has been retracted by the American Diabetes Association, publisher of Diabetes Care.

        © 2012 by the American Diabetes Association.

  3. thanks CF for warning us on Ann N Y Acad Sci publications. I had earlier noticed something similar but did not highlight. People whom i know of publish regularly there…

  4. A rare case when the journal does the right thing, bravo!
    Regrettably, this time the institutions refuse to do the right thing.
    Isn’t it time to make the institutions adhere to COPE Guidelines “Cooperation between research institutions and journals on research integrity cases” http://publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines

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