Image problems lead to demise of paper on ginseng for heart attack

JMM march13coverA group of researchers from Shangdong, China, has retracted their 2011 paper in the Journal of Molecular Medicine on the heart-protective properties of a substance in ginseng because the article contained dodgy figures.

The article, “Ginsenoside-Rg1 enhances angiogenesis and ameliorates ventricular remodeling in a rat model of myocardial infarction,” purported to show that ginsenoside:

increased VEGF expression levels, activated PI3K/Akt, and inhibited p38 MAPK in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, Rg1 increased the density of newly formed vessels, decreased TNF-α and collagen I expression levels and area of myocardial fibrosis, and improved left ventricle function in vivo. PI3K inhibitor LY294002 significantly attenuated Rg1-enhanced VEGF expression and capillary density. As well, inhibition of p38 MAPK slightly increased VEGF expression in vitro and in vivo, increased capillary density, and decreased TNF-α and collagen I expression levels and area of myocardial fibrosis in vivo. Rg1-induced activation of PI3K/Akt also contributed to the downregulation of p38 MAPK. Thus, Rg1 is effective in promoting angiogenesis and attenuating myocardial fibrosis, resulting in ameliorated left ventricular function.

Except that, well, let the authors explain:

This article has been retracted upon request of the authors. The retraction has been made due to duplication of blots in Figure 1a and Figure 3 in this paper. The authors deeply apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused to the readers.

That sure sounds to us like image manipulation, but then again it might have been a simple error.

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

Christiane Nolte, managing editor of the JMM, told us that the journal, a Springer title, heard from a reader about a problem with the figures:

We learned about a problem with this paper by end of last year. We confronted the authors with this issue, and asked explanation how this issue happened. The authors themselves suggested to retract the article.

We are not aware of other retractions coming from that group.

7 thoughts on “Image problems lead to demise of paper on ginseng for heart attack”

  1. Anyone see what blot(s) it is. The graphs are from two different experiments, one in HUVECS (Figure 1) and the other in vivo (Figure 3), though the treatments appear to be the same. My lab does a ton of blotting and NEVER have we seen such small SD’s as this paper is reporting…and we typically have N’s of 8-12/group. That alone makes me scratch my head a little.

  2. You know what concerns me about all these retractions for image manipulations – usually containing blots – which seem to make up the bulk of the retractions featured on this site, is that these are probably being picked up because it’s a manipulation you can figure out. The kinds of comparisons that were done on Science Fraud, for example. And since this kind of manipulation seems to be going on all over the show, it makes me wonder about what kind of manipulations are going on that are more hidden and difficult to figure out.

    1. Booker wrote “…this kind of manipulation seems to be going on all over the show, it makes me wonder about what kind of manipulations are going on that are more hidden…”

      Nail, head, hammer.

      It is the tip of a very large iceberg. Senior researchers have all seen it. There are those who do it, observe it, condone it, let it go, close their eyes to it and then those who actually want to change it.

      The more I look into it, the more I see it. And there are no obvious candidates from students, technicians, postdocs, lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, professors, heads of departments, Deans.

      The entire system needs a complete overhaul. However, one can understand the reticence of academics to fight this if their senior academics condone it. But that is no excuse, and frankly, unethical.

      There is very little one can do using the current system so a new system is required.

    2. Interesting point. Western blots are absolutely demanded for so much of biology, but can sometimes be uncooperative. One can have smudges or variability that for some proteins can be difficult to control. On the other side, there is pressure to get results out at speed to avoid being scooped or losing out on a grant deadline. So it looks like some succumb to the temptation to cut, paste, smoothen or simply mislabel. Unfortunately for them, it is increasingly easier to detect this kind of falsification. One could argue that people fake western blots more often than other data, but maybe they are just being dumb for faking something that is easy to detect and the rest of the fraudsters are getting away with it.

      If such fraud, which can be detected by outsiders, is so common, what about other kinds of data? As an electrophysiologist, it would be trivial to change the gain on a trace, to label condition A as condition B, or to toss out a data point that does not fit my brilliant hypothesis. Nobody would know, unless they repeated the experiment and got a different result. At that point I could harrumph and call them incompetent.

      When I have read and reviewed papers, I have always looked hard at the data to be certain that they support the conclusions. I am not prepared to deal with outright lying. It’s scary to think that our system is based on the optimistic premise than most people don’t lie when they write papers.

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