Expression of Concern reveals journal editors bending over backward to give authors benefit of the doubt

ceiSometimes, an Expression of Concern says a heck of a lot without — as befits the genre — coming to a particular conclusion. Take this (paywalled)* example describing a paper from a group at Huazhong Science and Technology University, Wuhan, China:

The Editors of Clinical and Experimental Immunology are issuing this expression of concern to alert readers to questions about the quality of some data in the following publication:

CCR5 blockade in combination with rapamycin prolongs cardiac allograft survival in mice. J. Li, K. Zhang, P. Ye, S. Wang, J. Xia. Clin Exp Imm 157:437–445, DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2009.03982.x

The editors were informed of an error within Figure 2 by the authors of the paper in June 2013. The authors apologised informing us that they had used the wrong image in the panel 2F. Further investigation of the image revealed that panel 2F is a duplicate of image 2E but at an altered magnification. The authors supplied new images for review and a possible Corrigendum, however, these were unlabelled and the editors were unable to verify that these were indeed a true replicate of the initial study. We further noticed that in Figure 2J, the CCR5 lane of the Control Ab+PBS condition appears to have been modified. When contacted about this issue the authors were unable to supply an image of the whole gel/blot due to the loss of the original data.

In light of insufficient answers from the authors we have asked the authors’ institute to investigate this issue. Once we know the outcome of this investigation the editors of Clinical and Experimental Immunology will make a final decision on this article.

The story feels like The Great Unraveling.

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

Update, 8 a.m. Eastern, 2/19/14: The journal’s publisher, Wiley, has removed the paywall.

11 thoughts on “Expression of Concern reveals journal editors bending over backward to give authors benefit of the doubt”

  1. Dear Editors of Clinical and Experimental Immunology .

    With all due respect, please let me help you with your concern. The key point is:
    “The authors were unable to supply an image of the whole gel/blot due to the loss of the original data.”

    Just ask to the author for correspondence: “Why the blot has been lost?”
    If no reply is received within, say, one month, a retraction is fully warranted.


  2. Editors “expression of concern” is just a CYA way of saying “we acknowledge problems, but are going to do nothing about it”—like retraction

  3. The “dog ate my labwork” is apparently not an sufficient excuse for ORI.


    “Forensically, you can only “de-authenticate” an image (i.e., show that it has discrepancies).”

    “Authentication of a scientific image requires access to the original data.”

    “The identification of a discrepancy is only the allegation, and it does not by itself demonstrate an intent to falsification of data.”

    “A discrepancy in the image should not be conflated with a finding of falsification of data or, for that matter, of Research Misconduct. Making those distinctions require additional fact-finding.”

    “Resolution of those questions requires inspection of the original data. However, in the case where an image lacks authenticity, the absence of the original data can be used as evidence of possible research misconduct and sufficient justification to conduct further fact finding.”

    The best part is that “the absence of the original data can be used as evidence of possible research misconduct.”

    Journals, Ethics committee at Universities, NIH and other funders, need to adapt the ORI standard.

  4. Journals have neither the resources nor the authority to conduct investigations into research misconduct. The relevant institution has the authority and indeed the responsibility to do so. I think the journal is handling the situation correctly in this case.

  5. I understand Ed’s point but I agree with Dan – this is the approach prescribed by the ICMJE.

    If the institution won’t investigate, or conducts a sham investigation, then the EOC will remain in force for an unlimited time. This would still serve as a huge red flag saying ‘this paper and these authors are unreliable’. Remember that people still cite retracted papers so there’s nothing magical about retraction compared to EOC.

    There have been interesting cases where journals have acted despite the outcomes of investigations (JBC with Gopal Kundu). Technically they risk being sued although in reality there are no recorded cases of this happening. Most journal editors want to focus on the positive aspects of science and don’t want the baggage that comes with a confrontational approach; and in this case I think their approach is correct.

    1. An expression of concern placed at the top of an article in a big red box is certainly a deterent to further bad conduct.
      Here’s an example:
      Very likely more damaging than a wholesale retraction, particularly if the retracted article is completely purged from the literature.
      Actually, one would hope that retractions are handled more like the EoS – big bold statement about why this paper was retracted in the forever archive of the journal, with the Photoshopped figures on display for all to ponder.
      I would like to say that if a journal receives a inquiry from a concerned reader about a paper or a figure in the paper that they do have an obligation to investigate, as in my example — ask for original data, etc.
      No, journals are not the ones to initiate a misconduct investigation. Quite correct. But the as part of the scientific enterprise journals should be are obligated to look into a reasonable inquiry, act on the integrity of a paper they published and even notify ethics committees, if a paper is retracted and supply the “evidence.”
      Let the ethics committees ponder if it was misconduct, but journals have a reasonable obligation to ensure that the integrity of the[ir] scientific literature.
      If a figure looks like it has been unfairly manipulated they shoud ask the authors for the original data. If the editors – and these editors should be expert – do not believe the original data matches the published figure the paper should be withdrawn. How much in resources does this take?

  6. For very simple and straightforward cases, when western blot lanes have been duplicated or modified, and upon request original data cannot be “found” …… journal editors SHOULD pull down all these articles where alterations have been found. This is their duty. It is such a loss of time and money for all of us. If they don’t do so their journal quickly looses reputation and becomes untrusty. Otherwise why Gordon Ramsay would become so upset with restaurants selling bad food? Trust!

    1. But this is precisely why nobody cares and why there is no appetite to correct Western blots. Because it is not food and thus does not affect the general public. It is only topics of science that affect society, such as GMO, toxicity studies, cancer or other high-profile medical cases, or food-related studies that have their problems highlighted. For other issues, like Western blots, or minor sciences, these are relegated to the back seat. That is why RW is so important, because misconduct on any topic, of high or low profile, will eventually be covered. What is needed is momentum. Therefore, using simple tools, awareness can be created among peers, and if let’s say 10 Western blot specialists are contacted anonymously with a detailed explanation of the fault, and if there is broad consensus, I struggle to see how such a paper could survive, provided that those 10 scientists would then vocalize their concerns. One of the biggest hurdles we face now is the silence of scientists’ voices. We need to somehow encourage more to come forward and discuss, expose, and correct. I think we are starting to get there…

    1. If an institution comes after you for [doing your duty and] raising issues related to misconduct, then you probably 1) do not want to be there for long, or [much harder] 2) need to educate the administrators.

      If you are young, then move, if you are older try 2 and if that doesn’t work do 1.

      If senior scientists do not start doing more of 2 re scientific misconduct then science as we know it is indeed doomed.

      Institutions that cover up fraud (and worse punish scientists who try to set the record straight) deserve to lose their best scientists.

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