Data fabrication fells muscle physiology paper

Kinesiology researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been forced to retract a 2010 paper in the American Journal of Physiology — Cell Physiology in the wake of revelations that the first author, then a graduate student, fabricated her data.

The paper, “ATP consumption by sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ pumps accounts for 50% of resting metabolic rate in mouse fast and slow twitch skeletal muscle,” was written by Sarah Michelle Norris and colleagues and published in March 2010.

According to the retraction notice:

This article is being retracted, in agreement with all authors, due to data fabrication. The first author of this paper, Sarah Michelle Norris, has acknowledged that she fabricated data on the effects of cyclopiazonic acid (CPA), a highly specific inhibitor of sarco(endo)plasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPases (SERCAs), on resting oxygen consumption of isolated mouse muscles, in order to report a positive experimental outcome. The actual experimental data show that CPA (even 15 μM) had no effect on muscle oxygen consumption but the first author reported a progressive reduction in muscle oxygen consumption with increasing CPA concentrations peaking at a 50% reduction with 10 μM CPA. None of the co-authors participated in or had knowledge of the first author’s actions.

The study has been cited six times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, and was funded by the Canadian government:

This work was supported by Grant MOP-86618 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (to A. R. Tupling). S. M. Norris was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postgraduate Scholarship M award. E. Bombardier, I. C. Smith, and C. Vigna are all supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postgraduate Scholarship D award.

It looks like Norris was doing similar work for her 2009 masters’ thesis at Waterloo, titled ” “Contribution of Sarcoplasmic Reticulum Calcium Pumping to Resting Mouse Muscle Metabolism”.

We wonder if that paper might also be compromised. We have attempted to reach her supervisor, A. Russell Tupling, but have yet to  hear back. We also have a message out to Waterloo’s top research integrity officer and will update this post when we learn more.

Members of the group, including Norris and Tupling, also published a paper in another AJP journal, AJP Endocrinology and Metabolism, in 2010. That article has not been retracted.

Please see an update on this post.

16 thoughts on “Data fabrication fells muscle physiology paper”

  1. What is continually fascinating about this kind of fall is that it often doesn’t denote an evil character, just a reckless one. The following information appears on the internet about Norris.

    “She is currently in her fourth year of the honours kinesiology program at the University of Waterloo where she skates as a member of their team.She has also obtained her certification as a personal trainer.Sarah volunteers with a program called Kids in Action which involves promoting physical activity to obese children in a positive environment.In addition to this she also volunteers at the U of W Well-fit where she works with oncology patients aiding them through the exercise portion of their treatment.”

    1. stephenstrauss, you don’t say where this information is available. Is it generated by Norris herself?

      I have known graduate students who were very good at something, but unfortunately it was not their official field of study. Somehow they ended up in the wrong program and they spent their time in what they loved instead of what they signed up for. I have also known graduate students who were quite “creative” with their official biographies.

      1. Thanks. So it was essentially self-generated. Her boss asked her to write a couple of sentences about herself for the the organization’s web site.

  2. There’s something inconsistent about this picture: a young lady who volunteers aiding oncology patients with exercise (rehabilitation) and has been in an honors kinesiology program for four years to date has fabricated data in an easily detectable manner for no good reason.
    It seems to me that inhibition of SERCA’s having no effect on resting muscle cell oxygen consumption is a significant finding–why did she have to fake an effect? Questions, questions. Why would such a selfless person fake a finding that would be equally significant unfaked?

    1. Perhaps she was spending too much time volunteering instead of understanding why the experiment did not work and do the next study. A career in science does not encourage a balanced life, that is for sure. Plus, if your study does not work out at a critical stage in your career, it means you’ve got nothing to show for. It’s a bit like betting 1K on red at the roulette. If it comes out black, to recoup now you have to bet double, and so on until you win. But you may never win if you don’t have enough resources (e.g., time), which is probably why some end up cheating.

      1. Interesting analogy. I imagined sitting there betting on red every time. Eventually you’ll win (50% chance? I don’t know roulette) but what you win won’t cover your losses (or else the house would lose money.) Fun way to throw away your money; bet what you can afford to lose.

    1. Could they possibly have been courtesy authors? Perhaps co-PIs on the grant? Or members of the graduate committee who gave the thesis a quick look the night before the defense and discharged their duty by voting to pass the student? Perhaps everyone was content with numbers in a table and didn’t ask to see the raw lab results. I know you will be shocked … shocked … to hear that such things are ever done in academia. We prefer to think that they occur only in a country’s highest legislative bodies.

  3. “Kinesiology researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been forced to retract a 2010 paper”

    It seems that the researchers did not want to retract the paper voluntarily. Who forced them to retract? U of Waterloo?

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