University of Lisbon investigation that spawned neuroscience retractions found no evidence of misconduct

j neuroscienceYesterday, we reported on two retractions in the Journal of Neuroscience whose notices referred to a University of Lisbon report that had determined there was  “substantial data misrepresentation” in the original articles.  The notice didn’t say anything about misconduct, but when we see “misrepresentation,” we tend to think — as do many others — that there had been funny business.

But we heard back this morning from the senior author of the study, Ana M. Sebastião, and there’s a lot more to this story. It turns out that the University of Lisbon committee that wrote the report concluded, unanimously, that

the misrepresentations of the figures that were detected by the Editor of the Journal of Neuroscience in the two articles in question did not result from misconduct, i.e. these faults cannot be attribute to intentional fabrication or falsification. On the contrary, these errors seem to have occurred in good faith and in no way did these affect the scientific content of the articles and their conclusions.

The committee — full report available here — recognized

that these misrepresentations resulted from a careless action of 2 PhD students [Natalia Assaife-Lopes and Sofia Critovao-Ferreira] who admitted that at the time of preparing the final manuscripts had to work under great time pressure. Further the Committee acknowledges that the senior author (AMS) should take the main responsibility for not having detected the mistakes that occurred in the figures in both articles. All authors assumed their share of responsibility.

Here’s how the April 2012 report describes what happened:

In the case of Figures 1a and 4a of the paper by Assaife-Lopes et al. (2010), where the same images of a Western blot are repeated for two different conditions, the 1st author admitted that this occurred due to faulty “cut and paste” of very similar pictures. In the case of Figure 4f of the paper by Cristovao-Ferreira et al. (2011) the Western blots of Tubulin that were repeated resulted from using the selected part of the blot twice in the final figure. The Committee members examined the original blots to better understand what went wrong. This fault occurred at the last moment after the manuscript had been revised and was being prepared to be resubmitted. Apparently this was done under great time pressure to re-submit the manuscript.  Most co-authors received this last version at the same moment as it was being sent to the Journal, and thus did not see the very final version before resubmission.

We’ve made the original Cristovao-Ferreira et al figure 4 available here, along with the corrected version here, so readers can judge the errors for themselves.

The committee recommended that the journal publish errata for the two studies — a move Sebastião had actually proposed in November 2011, months before the journal’s publisher, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), asked the university to investigate in February 2012.

They also recommended that SfN rescind a moratorium it had placed on the University of Lisbon authors that would prevent them from publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience and presenting abstracts at the group’s annual meeting. (The moratorium did not apply to Moses Chao of New York University, one of the authors on one of the papers, which might have been a bit awkward, considering that Chao is immediate past-president of a group called the Society for Neuroscience.)

The moratorium was lifted on all authors except Sebastião, who will face a ban until September 2014:

The argument was that as corresponding author it was my duty to carefully check figures in the papers, which is true and is indeed written in the Journal rules. I do not contest that, rules are rules, though I consider the time period a bit excessive for errors that are very hard to detect by eye. As supervisors usually do, I checked quantifications against blots during the course of the investigation, but since  the errors have been made while setting up the final Figures, due to a lack of attention of the first authors, they escaped to my eye while doing a final revision of the MS.

Now, it would be one thing if the Journal of Neuroscience didn’t believe the University of Lisbon report. After all, there is a conflict of interest when an institution investigates one of its own. But in an email exchange late last year with Sebastião, in which she tried (obviously unsuccessfully) to convince him to run errata instead of retract the papers — even offering to fly to the US to go through the data with him — John Maunsell, the editor of the journal, wrote:

We accept without reservation the conclusion from the investigation of the University of Lisbon that the errors were honest and that there was no misconduct.  The retractions are based on the number and nature of the errors that appeared multiple articles, which have left the editors unprepared to stand behind these reports.

So why wouldn’t the journal include the four-word phrase “there was no misconduct” in the notice? And why does a ban make any sense, if such bans are about intent? We’ve taken issue with how the Journal of Neuroscience handles retractions before, and this unfortunately doesn’t instill any confidence.

12 thoughts on “University of Lisbon investigation that spawned neuroscience retractions found no evidence of misconduct”

  1. The link within the post to the corrected version of the figure links to the original figure, as does the link for the original figure.

  2. Pasting the same image or part of an image twice is misconduct in my opinion.
    If Lisbon Univ thinks it isn’t, I can understand the Journal does not want to officially say it is, to avoid libel suits, but the fact that the ban remains in place indicates they DO think it is misconduct. And yes, the senior author is responsible and should have spotted it – and not have put unreasonable time pressure on her students.

    1. It seems that this submission was actually the submission of revisions of the manuscripts, making it rather more likely that the deadline was imposed by the journal.

      1. While it is true that journal put time-limits on submission of revisions, these are almost always “soft” and can be extended by a week or two with a simple request from the corresponding author.

  3. The Lisbon committee has probably been provided with digitally time-stamped Westerns created before the manuscripts were originally submitted and has determined that these blots corresponded to the corrected figures the authors attempted to publish as corrigenda, right?

    1. Having read the report and looked at Figure 4, , I could easily believe this might be a genuine chase where the word “sloppy” might actually apply – at least as the first paper. Generally when someone uses the same actin blot over half a dozen papers they have to be well aware what they are doing and the word “sloppy” can not apply. “Lazy” might be the right word, not being bothered to stain for loading controls and just reusing blots, but without a genuine intent to deceive – but they still must have known they were reusing blots.

      In this case it doesn’t seem impossible that they could have snipped the wrong piece out – the figure itself seems entirely negative in findings – none of the treatments seemed to make any difference whatsoever, so its hard to see anyone would bother to falsify it. The only possibility would be they had been too lazy to do the tubulin staining in the first place. Perhaps it would have helped if the committee had reproduced the page of the lab book.

      Anyway its worth contrast and compare with what this university and journal did and what happens at Harvard. Does Harvard hold such committees when such papers are rejected? Do these committees produce reports that detail the interview with all parties and the contents of lab records? Do Harvard authors get slapped with a one year publication ban?

      1. As we all know – if there is no control – there is no experiment.

        They do have some significant differences in the pdf linked.

      2. Which is why the paper has been and remains retracted. But I don’t see it should set off any further alarm bells.
        And I think the committee’s explanation – that the tubulin staining had been done and the 2nd part was omitted in error – is not implausible. Otherwise we would have to assume the committee was lying in unison.

        If this was a Harvard investigative committee that would be entirely possible, but a Lisbon university probably lacks the requisite chutzpah to lie so blatantly.

  4. Oh, its never intentional. One cuts, pastes, copies, eliminates replicates, submits to several journals at same time, republishes the same results, etc etc etc and when caught says oooops, sorry, lets hide it, never meant to.
    See this a lot here too.

    1. In my experience, once a paper is accepted, all authors just think it’s done, another one down, and move on to the next thing, rather than checking everything obsessively, especially at the proofs stage.

  5. As with most of the cases we see on this site, there is probably a substantial backstory which we will never know. Authors tend to provide snippets of the ordeal (that are favorable to their viewpoint) and the journals remain silent (probably for legal reasons). One of the only clues we get is the timing. This case took well over a year to resolve. I’ve been involved with similar cases where the authors immediately provided the original gels, it was clear that there was editing, perhaps in bad taste, but not misconduct, and the issue was resolved to all parties satisfaction (either with a minor correction or nothing) within a couple of weeks. Even the time from the official report to the retraction seems drawn out.

    “So why wouldn’t the journal include the four-word phrase “there was no misconduct” in the notice?” I think this is a positive development. The Journals aren’t in a position to determine misconduct, it opens them to legal issues, and takes forever. If the data are bad, whether due to sloppiness or misconduct, they should pull the paper. One would think that an official committee report would be adequate to state “there was no misconduct” but the Terry Elton case (as reported on RW) should give one pause.

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