De-coli: Plagiarism leads to retraction of highly cited recombinant protein paper

appliedmicrobioThe authors of a 2005 article on E. coli in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology have lost the paper because they recombined it from previous work.

The article, titled “Strategies for efficient production of heterologous proteins in Escherichia coli,” came from a pair of biochemical engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, in New Delhi, India.

According to the abstract:

In recent years, the number of recombinant proteins used for therapeutic applications has increased dramatically. Production of these proteins has a remarkable demand in the market. Escherichia coli offers a means for the rapid and economical production of recombinant proteins. These advantages, coupled with a wealth of biochemical and genetic knowledge, have enabled the production of such economically therapeutic proteins such as insulin and bovine growth hormone. These demands have driven the development of a variety of strategies for achieving high-level expression of protein, particularly involving several aspects such as expression vectors design, gene dosage, promoter strength (transcriptional regulation), mRNA stability, translation initiation and termination (translational regulation), host design considerations, codon usage, and fermentation factors available for manipulating the expression conditions, which are the major challenges is obtaining the high yield of protein at low cost.

But the retraction notice states that those conclusions had largely been reached, well, elsewhere:

Upon investigation carried out according to the Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines, it has been found that the authors have duplicated substantial parts from the following article:

Strategies for Achieving High-Level Expression of Genes in Escherichia coli
Savvas C. Makrides
MICROBIOLOGICAL REVIEWS, Sept. 1996, p. 512–538 Vol. 60, No. 3
Copyright ©1996, American Society for Microbiology
In particular the authors duplicated
(1) Fig. 1 (incl. legend)
(2) The subchapter “Translational regulation”
(3) The subchapter “mRNA stability”
As it was not possible to contact the authors the retraction had to be executed without their approval.

The now-retracted paper has been cited 177 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

4 thoughts on “De-coli: Plagiarism leads to retraction of highly cited recombinant protein paper”

  1. Bravo. Is a retraction justice enough? I think not. Far from it. To be praised 177 times is nonsense. I suggest that Springer be also held responsible for now cleaning up the literature that references Springer material 177 times. An unconscionable crime has taken place, and the authors are of course to blame, but let Springer also now be held accountable for cleaning up the mess that has heralded its fraudulent publication 177 times.

    1. Can you explain what you think Springer should do in order to “clean up the literature”? Everything I can think of is either ineffective or totally impractical.

  2. Of course, it is so highly cited because it is a review. And it is a rather common task to express a protein in E. coli, so it is of interest to a lot of people. Only astonishing thing is, why didn’t anybody notice earlier?

    As to JATdS “cleaning up the mess”, hard to think of any means to do so. Retract the 177 paper? Don’t think so…..

    1. Allow me to clarify my ideas. Firstly, anyone who has ever published with Springer will know that Springer offers a Citations Alert service, alerting authors every time that the Springer paper is referenced/cited by any other paper (admittedly, I am not sure what data-base they use to base the citations; Thomson Reuter’s list?). Nonetheless, this implies that Springer cares about how and when its journals’ papers are cited. Actually, this is the ultimate objective of “the game”, to get papers cited. Without those golden citations, no Springer journal will be able to achieve its impact factor. And, most likely, without an impact factor, fewer scientists will be attracted to that Springer journal.

      So, let’s set naivety about the publishing system aside. Citations are essential for Springer.

      That said, a fraudulent paper (independent of the reasons) has been cited (or praised, or whatever euphemistic verb you wish to choose) 177 times in the broad literature. It’s not an Elsevier paper, so don’t expect Elsevier to do something about it, unless one of the 177 papers referencing the fraudulent Springer paper was published by Elsevier. What I am suggesting is Springer’s responsibility is as follows (responsibilities need to be widened because the problem of fraud and misconduct is now a wider problem in science publishing, so Springer needs to adjust to meet these new challenges). Springer has the responsibility of contacting the editors of all 177 journals (and/or publishers) requesting that a corrigendum or erratum be published, alerting readers of those 177 papers that one of the references in that paper is a fraud (equivalent to a retraction), and thus any conclusions based on that paper are, at best, suspect. I believe that Springer does not have only the responsibility of adding a correction, erratum, or retraction. It has the responsibility of taking care of the down-stream processes that are related to that paper, namely the 177 references (aka citations). If Springer wants to benefit and receive laurels for the 177 citations, then why shouldn’t’ it also be held responsible for cleaning up the mess with its own (i.e., a Springer) paper? If Springer collects the copyright, then should it also not be responsible for cleaning up the literature?

      The buck doesn’t stop at the retraction. Hardly.

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