Amid a legal dispute, journal downgrades a retraction to an expression of concern

cellcyclecoverThe journal Cell Cycle is expressing a “note” of concern about a 2012 paper by a former researcher at the University of Minnesota, who has claimed that her mentor at the institution was violating her copyright. It turns out the journal had briefly retracted the paper, but reversed itself with the expression of concern — a curious about-face that, in our experience, often indicates the work of lawyers.

That seems to be the case here, too.

The article, “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes,” was already the subject of an erratum, available here:

Olga A. Issaenko [who is listed as being affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science but still lives in Minnesota] and Alexander Yu Amerik, authors of the recently published paper, “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes” wish to make the following clarifications regarding compound names referenced therein.

1. The authors note that on pages 1809 and 1810, the label and the legend for Figure 4B appeared incorrectly in part. Compound name “KVI-14” should instead read “RA-14.”

2. The authors note that small-molecule inhibitor RA-9 used in this study is structurally different from another chalcone derivative “compound 10 RA-9” in reference 1. To avoid further confusion, in Table 1 below, authors provide chemical formulas, other known names and known references for chalcone derivatives used in this study.

Now along comes the expression of concern, which states:

In the May 1, 2012 issue, Cell Cycle published “Chalcone-based small-molecule inhibitors attenuate malignant phenotype via targeting deubiquitinating enzymes” (, a Report by Olga A. Issaenko and Alexander Yu Amerik. The publishers now express a note of concern regarding this article. In October 2012, the first author claimed copyright infringement of her work by a competing researcher Dr Martina Bazzaro of the University of Minnesota, in whose lab Dr Issaenko was employed from September 2009 to July 2010. In return, the University of Minnesota performed a review of Dr Bazzaro’s laboratory materials from 2010 and claim ownership of data from Table 1 and parts of Figures 1-6. These claims have been denied, and the dispute is ongoing.

So, Issaenko says the data are hers, Minnesota disagrees, and those claims “have been denied?” Who is doing the denying here? Issaenko, we assume, although it’s not clear whether some more official body has ruled on this case.

We reached Bazzaro but she declined to discuss the case with us, taking a rather tautological tone:

The letter says what the letter says.

Ah, but not what it used to say. That’s because Cell Cycle had, for a brief while, retracted the article. Tara Barton, who handles the journal for Landes, the publisher, sent us this email in response to our queries:

note that we never sent the Retraction, published momentarily on our site, to Pub Med, as it was a tentative solution to a very complicated problem. The Expression of Concern, on the other hand, which we ultimately determined was the best course of action, is on PubMed (

Did the switch come as a result of a legal threat? Barton says

That wasn’t really the whole situation.

The university issued us the following statement:

In December 2012, the University of Minnesota notified the journal Cell Cycle of its concern that Dr. Issaenko used data generated in Dr. Bazzaro’s laboratory without permission from Dr. Bazzaro or the University.  Based on a report submitted by University research officials to the journal in April 2013 documenting the use of data from Dr. Bazzaro’s laboratory, the journal initially retracted the paper.  Shortly afterwards, the journal changed its mind and published the expression of concern instead. The University considers the journal’s statement to be inaccurate andunfair to Dr. Bazzaro, and is notifying the journal of its dissatisfaction with this outcome.  The University disputes Dr. Issaenko’s allegations of copyright infringement, which the journal did not inform the University of until March 2013.

Evidently the dissatisfaction doesn’t end there. We found Minnesota court records indicating some kind of ongoing legal dispute involving Issaenko and Bazzaro, although the nature of the spat isn’t clear from what’s available online. A hearing took place earlier this month. Neither of their attorneys would shed any light on the matter.

Carol Grant, who is representing Bazzaro, told us — with what we’ll admit was admirable restraint — that she didn’t see the point in sharing details of the case with us:

It’s a cost that she does not need to incur for any reason.

0 thoughts on “Amid a legal dispute, journal downgrades a retraction to an expression of concern”

  1. I have a feeling that this case will, ultimately, be resolved with an ugly retraction following a lawsuit. This will be quite similar to the situation where there med student took data from her lab and tried to publish it.

    The following is pure speculation: First author did some of the work in post-doc lab and published it without permission. Bazzaro is pissed that her data was stolen and sued.

    In the event that the speculation is correct, I bet Bazzaro will win the lawsuit. Bazzaro will then be free to take the data that was generated in her lab and publish it without issue (and, if she chooses and limited Issaenko’s involvement mostly to data collection, without putting Issaenko on the paper). This paper will then be retracted, and could be resubmitted without the data in question by the original two authors.

    Or, everyone could be happy, and they could rework the paper with a happy arrangement so that Bazzaro is a corresponding author.

    I have a feeling that we will see a lot more of these in the future. One can’t take data from a lab and publish it without consent of the PI. The argument that the PI’s involvement didn’t rise to the level of authorship does not mean that the PI doesn’t own the data and doesn’t have the right to nix a publication from happening.

    1. Perhaps there is a simpler explanation.

      The PI needs to be very careful publishing data when the spat is ongoing, and if there be intent to publish the data without putting the researcher who actually acquired the data on as an author, then the PI better make sure the data is correct and without error as their employer will not look favourably upon them a year or so down the line when it turns out the data has not been reported accurately.

      A smart move for the PI would be to make peace, calm everything down, be fair to all concerned and move on. Seems unlikely in this case.

  2. the nature of the spat isn’t clear from what’s available online

    I’m surprised you could find anything. The Minnesota courts site is a mess. I couldn’t locate so much as a docket.

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