Science retracts two papers for image manipulation

science 2014Science has retracted two papers by Frank Sauer, of the University of California, Riverside, after the university found evidence of serious image manipulation.

Here’s the notice, signed by Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt:

Science has received the results of the University of California, Riverside Committee on Privilege and Tenure’s investigation of the papers published in Science by Professor Frank Sauer and colleagues, “TAF1 activates transcription by phosphorylation of serine 33 in histone H2B” (1) and “Noncoding RNAs of trithorax response elements recruit Drosophila Ash1 to Ultrabithorax” (2).

For the 2004 Report (1), the Committee’s findings can be summarized as follows: Lanes 3 and 4 in Fig. 1B were replicated from a figure in another paper (3). There was manipulation of gel images that constituted data falsification and fabrication in Fig. 2C; Fig. 3, B and C; Fig. 4, B and D; and panel A in fig. S5C. For the 2006 Research Article (2), the Committee’s findings can be summarized as follows: In Fig 6C, there was replication of the same image in two panels that constitutes data falsification. There was manipulation of gel images that constituted data falsification and fabrication in Fig. 4D; Fig. 6, A and B; and fig. S5A.

The Committee concluded that the image manipulations described above constituted a significant departure from the accepted practices of Dr. Sauer’s research community. Therefore, the data, results, and conclusions in the papers are clearly not reliable. Science is hereby retracting the papers, at the request of University of California, Riverside and Dr. Sauer. The Committee determined that Dr. Sauer was the sole individual responsible for producing the figures.

The 2004 paper has been cited 36 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, while the 2006 paper has been cited 161 times.

Sauer is still listed as an assistant professor at UC-Riverside, but his email bounced when we contacted him for comment.

According to a Riverside press release about the 2004 paper, he has been at the university since early 2003. He and his colleagues have had funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the NIH, and the VolkswagenStiftung. While image manipulation of this sort would certainly trigger an Office of Research Integrity investigation, that agency has a six-year statute of limitations, so the investigation would have had to have been going on for more than two years.

12 thoughts on “Science retracts two papers for image manipulation”

  1. Only 36 citations for a 10 year old science paper? I guess the community knew that it was BS.

  2. Frank Sauer trained with some of the brightest minds in biology. However, he is no stranger to retractions. A 1996 paper in Cell from the lab of Robert Tjian, the current President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with Sauer as first author was retracted in 1998. According to the retraction notice, at that time it was “due to technical problems”. We witness the disintegration of an awe-inspiring publication record.

  3. As to your note about ORI’s 6-year statute of limitations, please note the EXCEPTIONS (in the ORI regulation section to which you linked here) —

    “Sec. 93.105 Time limitations.
    (a) Six-year limitation. This part applies only to research misconduct occurring within six
    years of the date HHS or an institution receives an allegation of research misconduct.
    (b) Exceptions to the six-year limitation. Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply in
    the following instances:

    (1) Subsequent use exception. The respondent continues or renews any incident of alleged research misconduct that occurred before the six-year limitation through the citation, republication or other use for the potential benefit of the respondent of the research record that is alleged to have been fabricated, falsified, or plagiarized.
    (2) Health or safety of the public exception. If ORI or the institution, following consultation with ORI, determines that the alleged misconduct, if it occurred, would possibly have a substantial adverse effect on the health or safety of the public.
    (3) “Grandfather” exception. If HHS or an institution received the allegation of research misconduct before the effective date of this part.

  4. No doubt Nature are keeping score of the retractions piling up at Science. Hopefully though, they are not indulging in an unseemly bout of schadenfreude as Science pulls ahead in the disgrace race. For the obvious thing when there is a pattern of behaviour is to look at the earlier self-plagiarised paper too. Which was, we have been informed, published by Nature.
    And as night follows day, the earlier Nature article (PMID:12397363) does of course contain the sort of gelly naughtiness that would, I believe, delight the sharp-eyed David Hardman when in full-on sleuthing mode. (David – do please correct me if I am wrong.)
    At least one of the gel insertions is transparently visible in situ in this earlier paper, no doubt published in all innocence by the NPG. But then “A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh!?” Allowing for a little bit of grey scale tweaking, please allow Scrutineer to present Fig. 1
    But wait – there is more! Scrutineer also desires to draw the reader’s attention to certain similarities between Fig. 1 and Fig. 2
    Should the above mentioned sleuther happen by, it can be safely assumed that he would be able to spot a number of implausibly sharp-edged bands in the figures of this blighted Nature article. Also, I just realised I forgot to show the Fig2b lanes 1 and 3 duplication – my apologies.
    All of which might lead one to wonder – where will it all end? And, for what it is worth, where did it all begin?

    1. This needs to be formally brought to the attention of Nature as its clear this analysis reveals obvious gel manipulation in this manuscript as well.

  5. I checked today and when I clicked on his faculty profile this is what it said:

    Not Found

    The requested URL /biochemistry_dept/faculty/Frank_Sauer/index.html was not found on this server.

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