Fifth Alirio Melendez retraction offers clues about University of Glasgow misconduct findings

A new retraction — his fifth — in the Journal of Immunology for Alirio Melendez, formerly of the National University of Singapore, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Liverpool, sheds some light on the results of an investigation by one of the universities.

Last month, a Glasgow spokesperson told Nature that the university’s investigation had been completed in October 2011, but that it did not comment on individual cases. A spokesperson, according to the Times Higher Education:

…would say only that there was “no evidence that our current staff contributed, falsified or duplicated data to any publications co-authored with (Professor) Melendez”. He also confirmed that relevant journals would be contacted where retractions or corrections were deemed necessary.

The notice for one such necessary retraction, in the September 15 issue of the Journal of Immunology, gives a few details:

We wish to retract the article “Sphingosine Kinase1 Is Pivotal for FcεRI-Mediated Mast Cell Signaling and Functional Responses In Vitro and In Vivo” by Peter N. Pushparaj, Jayapal Manikandan, Hwee Kee Tay, Shiau Chen H’ng, Srinivasan D. Kumar, Josef Pfeilschifter, Andrea Huwiler, and Alirio J. Melendez, The Journal of Immunology, 2009, 183: 221–227.

An investigation by the University of Glasgow concluded that identical images have been used to depict different experimental conditions in other publications. Specifically, in Fig. 4c, the image in panel 1 (IgE-sensitized and saline challenged control mice [WT plus IgE plus PBS]) was previously published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2009, 106: 9773–9778) in Fig. 2 panel B1 (wild-type mouse injected with PBS alone), in Fig. 2 panel D3 (RAG1−/− mouse challenged with IL-33 alone), and in Supplementary Fig. S1.

We apologize to the scientific community for the need to retract this article.

The paper has been cited 15 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The retraction is only signed by four of the authors: Peter N. Pushparaj, Hwee Kee Tay, Josef Pfeilschifter, and Andrea Huwiler. It seems to carefully avoid placing blame for the misused figure.

The PNAS paper to which the notice refers has now been retracted, as we reported last month. That retraction notice was corrected once to reflect the status of a Science paper that has been subject to an Expression of Concern. It was corrected again last week because it said the Journal of Immunology paper had already been retracted; now, of course, it appears prescient.

13 thoughts on “Fifth Alirio Melendez retraction offers clues about University of Glasgow misconduct findings”

  1. I wonder why the National University of Singapore, where many of the “research” for the retracted papers were apparently conducted, remains silent?!

  2. Clearly fraud, but one aspect makes no sense – Melendez was corresponding author, so only he or the journal can voluntarily retract the article.

    In such cases the journal should simply say ‘We are retracting the article’. Authors can agree with the decision but if they are not corresponding, but they can’t have any influence over the retraction decision.

    To me the journal is (slightly) obfuscating.

  3. The fraud is obvious, very amateur and bad for the the field of inflammation/allergy. What about the Science paper? And the other papers? And the first author of this one still hanging around working on the same subject (, doing the same blots and everything… I don’t really think the problem NOW is in Glasgow. The article on Science was quite GOOD and BIG, the subject is of major interest (I read it when it was still fresh and our group tried some exp, but nothing that I can use now to say if it’s true or not), how can we trust on it? I am pretty sure the whole political thing behind it is 75% at the NUS and they are just in silence for ages! Nothing moves! All his ideas and drafts started a long time before Glasgow or Liverpool…

    1. I think the whole political thing is quite possibly 100% at NUS, where the seeds for the fraud were sown. The irresponsible research management policies and environment and influential administrators jumping on to the bandwagon of “stars” like Melendez to get publication credits (like Halliwell and other junior adminstrators) at NUS created a nurturing environment for sloppy science and less-than-ethical processes. Liverpool and Glasgow are unfortunate victims – unless it turns out in the future that publications that came out of Liverpool and Glasgow are faulty or manipulated. It is sad that NUS does not have the academic and professional maturity needed to come clean,

  4. It is very likely that most of the coauthors neither perpetrated nor were aware of the fraud. These people should have never signed a retraction notice unless it explicitly identifies the actual offenders. Otherwise, it suggest that all the cosignatories are indeed responsible.

    1. The point of a retraction notice is to alert the scientific community (and wider interested parties) that the paper is flawed and that its presentation/analyses/interpretations should not necessarily be trusted. All the cosignatories are “responsible” in the sense that in signing off as a coauthor one accepts some responsibility for subsequent consequences, even if negative ones arise through no fault of individual coauthors.

      The apportioning of blame is a different matter altogether.

      The signing retracting coauthors are acting properly. There is a certain similarity with the rather famous Wakefield MMR – autism Lancet paper where most coauthors (but not the corresponding author) issued a retraction notice (specifically retracting a controversial interpretation). If it’s obvious that the paper is flawed but the corresponding author and others choose not to sign a retraction notice, it makes sense that the publisher, editors and “honourable” coauthors present a united.point of view. In fact any retraction is strengthened if the bulk of the authors sign the retraction – after all if the authors don’t have faith in the paper then we certainly shouldn’t.

      As to blame apportioning, I would have thought that would implicity accrue in most people’s minds to the authors that didn’t sign the retraction notice!

      1. The point is that those who did not sign the retraction notice might have felt that it did not say enough and, consequently, would have made them perceived as perpetrators of the fraud. If I were guilty, I would be more than happy to sign a vague retraction notice. Conversely, if I weren’t, I would insist on the notice being very explicit in identifying the fraudster by name regardless of his position in the food chain. While people may feel a sense of loyalty and may not want to harm their colleagues, this is too generous an approach for the bastard who drags other people’s names through mud.

      2. It’s not obvious that that sort of vindictiveness is particularly helpful in a retraction notice, chirality! The important thing is to inform the wider community of the problem, and the reason for the retraction is pretty explicit (fradulent or grossly incompetent image reuse). No doubt vindictiveness was expressed by the innocent coauthors in other places (!), and the attribution of blame that is relevant for assessing penalties and career consequences and so on should have been addressed in the Glasgow Uni. investigation. I expect everyone that needs to know (e.g. those making hiring decisions; other researchers in the field etc.) will have a pretty good idea of the source of the problems.

        A couple of other points come to mind:

        (i) The coauthors of these two papers (the PNAS and J. Immunol paper) are not blameless. 7 coauthors (everyone except Melendez) signed the retraction notice for the PNAS paper. It’s pretty surprising that all 7 of these coauthors failed to notice the rather obvious image duplication in two panels of the same figure in the paper that each of them must have looked at quite carefully as authors.

        (ii) the author contributions of the PNAS paper are:

        Author contributions: F.Y.L. and A.J.M. designed research; P.N.P., H.K.T., S.-C.H., N.P., and
        D.X. performed research; A.M. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; F.Y.L. and A.J.M.
        analyzed data; and F.Y.L. and A.J.M. wrote the paper.
        (AJM is Melendez)

        How is it possible that those who actually performed the research (P.N.P, H. K. T. etc.) didn’t notice that their data had been incorporated incorrectly into the figure?

        and (iii)

        If I was involved in this field I would wish to talk to one or more of the coauthors who I felt to be trustworthy and determine what elements of the work were valid. There’s lots of data presented in these two papers, collected and analyzed by around 10 different researchers altogether. Presumably quite a bit of the work may be pukka. It would be nice to think that the robust elements of the work could be put together, new experiments done to address dubious elements arising from the image fraud, and the work republished with justifiable interpretations. That would seem to be a way of extracting something positive from the mess…

      3. I agree the authors are right to sign a statement stating that they agree to the retraction – it shows they have insight into the inappropriate procedures used in generating the paper, and the seriousness of what has happened. Assuming an investigation does not find any of them personally guilty of misconduct, they have a chance to move on.

        What I don’t agree with is the absence of a clear statement from the university saying that the image manipulation described falls under the definition of scientific misconduct (being a form of fabrication) and further that the university investigation recommends retraction, and finally that the journal agrees with the university that the paper should be retracted. This is after all what has happened. Instead the information is conveyed in vague and passive terms that leave room for doubt about how scientific misconduct should be handled.

        Let’s remember that many other labs we’ve discussed on RW have clearly done the same thing (evidence of image fraud), but escaped by claiming that the work was merely poorly presented (e.g. the recently described Karin lab ‘clerical error’).

  5. It seems that AJM is really an intelligent researcher – he dragged few noteworthy scientists under his carpet. It is true that there is no statements from the University where most of the work was done as R Chun noted. R Chun appears to know NUS well; who is in charge of the investigation – still Prof Barry Halliwell? I came across few more examples from NUS – they look serious but nothing has happened so far. God bless all of us.

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