Senior author “fully confident” in paper that cites retracted Cell study and shares first author

Last week, we reported on an investigation at Glasgow’s Beatson Institute for Cancer Research into the circumstances of a retraction in Cell. That retraction wasn’t signed by the paper’s first author, Lynne Marshall, who had since moved on to another institution. (We have yet to hear back from Marshall about why she didn’t sign.)

As a commenter on that post pointed out, Marshall was the first author on an EMBO Journal paper that cited the now-retracted Cell paper several times. So we wanted to find out if there were any questions about the EMBO Journal paper, “Nutrient/TOR-dependent regulation of RNA polymerase III controls tissue and organismal growth in Drosophila,” published in February of this year. Savraj Grewal, Marshall’s PI at the University of Calgary until her postdoc ended earlier this summer, tells Retraction Watch:

I can say that I completely stand by our Marshall et al 2012 EMBO J paper. When I learnt of the pending retraction, I went back through our work – all the experiments are well-documented, all the raw data are clear and, therefore, I remain fully confident in our findings and conclusions. This research was very much a team effort with me, Liz (E. Rideout) and Lynne (who spear-headed the work), and as the project evolved we always shared, discussed and commented on our findings and data together – so I’ve always had (and still have) complete confidence in our work.

The work is separate, he said in the course of the exchange:

Our EMBO J paper does not rely on the Cell paper at all. They are two completely independent studies, and the Cell retraction does not undermine our work in any way. Both papers are on the same general topic (RNA polymerase III activity and growth control), but they are in different systems (fruit flies vs. mammalian cells), they generally rely on different techniques (genetics vs.molecular biology), and of course, the work was carried out in different labs.

In another email, he addressed the fact that the EMBO Journal paper cites the now-retracted study:

It is true that we cite the Cell paper. But this is simply due to the scientific norm and etiquette of always citing relevant published work in the Background section of a paper and then citing them again in the Discussion section as you discuss your findings in the general context of the field. All papers do this. As you note in your blog, 83 other papers have also cited the retracted Cell paper, but I don’t think we should question these studies because of that.

Grewal reiterated:

I have been through all of our data again and the experiments are all well-documented, the raw data are clear and I am fully confident of our findings. I am quite happy to say this publicly.

We very much appreciate Grewal’s engagement on this, and wish that all scientists were so responsive.

7 thoughts on “Senior author “fully confident” in paper that cites retracted Cell study and shares first author”

  1. Fair enough.
    I think people will falsify data if
    a. The neat idea they are supposed to prove isn’t actually true
    b. They can’t master a technique or not reliably and either don’t know why they can’t master it or are just trying to cut some corners – for example not keeping good records.
    As a junior post-doc, if the head of the group gave her a workable proposal, there is no reason to assume that someone would jump straight into falsification without at least seeing if they could get it work by, errrr, more orthodox methods.

    1. In this case, it was most likely either an external or internal pressure to produce results worthy of a PhD (I am assuming Marshall was a PhD candidate at Glasgow). If the paper was fraudulent, so was the thesis, I would think. Something the Scots seem to gloss over.
      On the other hand, Grewal should not have dignified the baseless accusations with an answer. Besides, Marshall by then had no incentive to fake results.

      1. “I wonder what will happen to a new paper by Marshall et al. (2012):
        The retracted article is cited several times and uses as a support for conclusive remarks.
        September 6, 2012 at 10:29 am”

        Baseless? I would think so. Just because the two papers share an author, it does not mean both are bogus. Besides, Marshall must have been aware of the growing controversy surrounding the Cell paper, so she would have been insane to try to pull off the same trick again.

      2. I think there was room for suspicion. As many commenters point out, when misbehavior is discovered in one paper, it often turns out that there are instances of misbehavior in other papers and/or at other institutions. Grewal himself seems to have thought the same thing, since he said he checked all the data and documentation as soon as he heard about the pending retraction of the other paper.

        I see no accusation of wrongdoing, just a suggestion that something should be followed up, in light of the general trend of misconduct coming in a series rather than in isolated instances. And I think RW was doing its usual thorough job in following up.

        If our aim is to discover truth, then scientists must be able to defend their results without getting insulted that anyone would doubt them.

  2. A little web reserach tells me that Dr. Marshall recieved a fairly lucrative PDF fellowship from “Alberta Innovates” when she joined the Grewal laboratory – undoubtably helped by the prestige of this fradulent Cell paper on her CV. What do do in this case? Does Alberta Innovates ask for the money back?

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