Pain study retracted for bogus data is second withdrawal for University of Calgary group

molpainBack in January 2013, we wrote about the retraction of a paper in Diabetes that the authors had “submitted without knowledge of inherent errors or abnormalities that they recognized in retrospect after submission.”

Now, Molecular Pain has retracted a paper by the same authors, this time for data manipulation. The article, “Comparison of central versus peripheral delivery of pregabalin in neuropathic pain states,” was written by Cory Toth, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Calgary, in Canada, and colleagues. It has been cited eight times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Toth said of the Diabetes article at the time:

While preparing for a subsequent work, it came to our attention that the luxol fast blue images in the image were representative of separate cohorts of mice not studied in the publication. Due to this carelessness, I asked for retraction while we ensured that other images were truly representative and to permit performance of new image acquisition.

But the notice in Molecular Pain suggests a different sequence of events for the Molecular Pain paper:

The corresponding author Cory C Toth would like to retract the article [1]. It has come to light that the data obtained at the University of Calgary presented in Figure 4A and Figure 5 have been manipulated which was unrecognized by the corresponding author. The University of Calgary has investigated this case and supports the decision to retract the article. We apologize for misleading the readership of Molecular Pain.

We tried to reach Toth but didn’t hear back. We’ll update this post if we learn more.

Update April 7, 2014, 12 p.m.: We heard from Toth, who sent us the following response by e-mail:

Please know that I have retracted a series of papers, the last of which will likely not be published until mid-June. Also, please know that this has been a devastatingly bad year for my laboratory and my career. As a result, this will be my single response to your website’s questions. Much of the story behind the errors in our works is already published on your website, Retraction Watch.

The results of a University of Calgary investigation committee into my work found the following:
1) I insufficiently supervised two junior technicians.
2) I failed to identify red flags with their behaviors.
3) My laboratory failed to keep sufficient records on data obtained.
4) I incorrectly upregulated low resolution subimages into high resolution images for journal submission

These were my errors, and as a result, I agree with the retractions of manipulated works identified. There is clearly data that was recycled in different forms rather than being newly performed in at least a small portion of each of the manuscripts implicated.

I am significantly apologetic, remorseful, and embarrassed that this occurred under my watch. Please know that I will not be publishing in the world of science in the future.

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10 thoughts on “Pain study retracted for bogus data is second withdrawal for University of Calgary group”

  1. “Please know that I will not be publishing in the world of science in the future.” Another tragedy to hit science. I have seen the exact same tearful remorse by Obokata in Japan, who will be presenting her case publically, I believe on April 9 2014. These cases make one think, are retractions the best way to correct the literature? One gets a sense from Toth of the pain, and the struggle. And his willingness to abandon science as a personal sacrifice, or as a gesture of remorse, or even worse, as a gesture of giving up, is just one hint that retractions are taking a toll much deeper and much more aggressively than was most likely originally intended. A true class war-fare is emerging, I claim. The fact that the vitims are emerging from all classes makes the borders of the class war-fare difficult to interpret.

    To perceive this class war-fare, just spend a day, if you have the time, to randomly sample some of the “predatory” open access publishers’ journal articles. Then, quickly switch to some “respectable” high IF journals in the same field of study. To be blunt, it is like comparing trash with excellence, in many cases. Yet, the “excellence” is being severely bashed, through extremely fine-scale post-publication peer review, and there are some who are falling by the way-side, possibly as innocent victims. At the same time, scrutiny of the filter-feeders in the muck are being avoided excessive scrutiny because the pace of output os rapidly outpacing the pace of scrutiny. And, at this lower end of the quality scale, we are witnessing a hyperbolic proliferation of scientists that don’t give a rat’s ass about quality, about ethics, or about publishing ethos. There is this extraordinary black hole emerging between quality journals, in a traditional perceptive sense, and the lower-end feeders. They are real dangers, in a broad sense. It is evident from the Toth story, and others, that apparently purposeful manipulations were made by members of his team – unknown to him – that have now victimized Toth himself. Even though it is impossible to ever tell whether a person’s tears are genuine, or of crocodilian nature, the tragedy remains.

    The key questions now are:
    “How many retractions do we need before science is irreparably crippled?”
    “How many potentially honest victims do we have to lose before we realize that the corrective measure was wrong?”

    Only when a tangible negative result emerges will society, and science, re-think it different positions, including retractions.

    1. Science is not being crippled by retractions, it is being crippled by the processes that lead to retractions. What worries me is the large number of papers that aren’t retracted but should have been. The reason behind the poor quality of papers is a system that rewards low quality research. Investigators are under pressure to produce papers. They apply the pressure to junior researchers, postdocs and postgraduates to get lots of papers otherwise you won’t have a job. They don’t read the papers carefully before submission, and often there is no input from a qualified statistician. Response to negative peer review is simply to resubmit to another journal. Often the process is overseen not by the principle investigator, but a postdoc or postgraduate. The PI is of course too busy preparing grant applications.

      1. Ken, actually, on any other day, I would agree with you 100%. However, if you observe any of my other posts, you will know that I am a fierce critic of the publishing “system” in which scientists find themselves. I am also extremely critical of the traditional peer review for being porous, weak and fallible to errors (but not always). And, if you follow my comments on RW carefully, you will also know that I am equally fiercely critical about scientists who game the impact factor in this more-equals-productivity mentality that has taken over science. These are ills that are not new to science, and indeed, I fully agree with you that retractions have now started to become a useful corrective tool. However, as equally as traditional peer review is still the best of all bad options, it is a bad option nonetheless. What I am saying is that we need to advance cautiously, not aggressively, because there are also victims, some of whom may truly be innocent. So, above, I am only slightly in defense of the “victims”. I am also saying that the negative consequences caused by the “predatory” open access jornals, many of which run a pay-for-publish system, or protect scientists from developing countries while extorting money from scientists from developed countries may pose a greater risk to the existence of science than the Toth et al. saga. I am cautioning about the way in which retractions are advancing. The publishers, who are guilty of incomplete and imperfect peer review, are being let off the hook. And yet, we entrust them with developing the retraction notices. So, not only do they control the whole submission, peer review, editorial and decision process, they also now control the corrective system, all under the current COPE+members umbrella. All I am saying is that we need to exercise caution and we need to desperately answer questions a) and b) through post-retraction author surveys. There are two things about science and history that are inseparable: destiny. And destiny is something that can be chosen, and is not random.

        1. If there are any truly innocent “victims” of retraction then please, make their case known. Because I don’t know of any. But I know of a whole lot of papers that should be retracted.

          And I know a whole lot of victims of those un-retracted papers: it’s the honest scientists who didn’t resort to plagiarism and misconduct to earn their publications.

          1. OK, the first one clearly is an example where the authors were innocent but it’s truly an exceptional case because those “retractions” were in fact the work of hackers, not of the journals, so it’s arguable whether they count as retractions at all. The innocent authors were victims, but they were victims of hackers.

            In the second case, the author was not a victim. The journal behaved badly (1. in accepting the crazy paper in the first place, and then 2. in changing its mind capriciously) however the author chose to submit his work to that journal – so he knowingly took on the risk that the journal would behave in a way he didn’t like (that’s why it’s called ‘submission’).

            And the journal’s reason for retracting the paper was cogent (it wasn’t mathematics), the journal didn’t libel the author by saying “we retracted it because it was fraudulent”, or whatever.

            That the author’s lawyers managed to score a ‘win’ for him doesn’t mean he in fact was a victim.

  2. Class war perhaps, but only in the sense that we have teflon, where data problems lead at most to mega corrections and apparently no hiatus in success in obtaining funding and perpetuating poor lab practice and the rest, where something sticks. The other issues are neatly summarised by Ken

  3. As a former employee at Toth’s Lab back in 2010 and having worked with him in different for about two years, I tried to make the point that most of his paper’s data wasn’t reliable, results were not trustable and students were not being supervised good enough; disregarded comments….I just didn’t want to be part of that game any longer. It all make sense now.

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