Cancer researcher facing criminal inquiry up to six retractions

jbc 620Alfredo Fusco, who is under criminal investigation in Italy for scientific fraud, has had two more papers retracted.

Both are in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC). Here are the two studies:

Neither retraction provides any real information, as is unfortunately still common at the JBC:

This article has been retracted by the publisher.

37 thoughts on “Cancer researcher facing criminal inquiry up to six retractions”

  1. Maybe when a certain number of retractions is reached, every single remaining publication by the offender should be accompanied with an expression of concern? After all, good science relies on honesty, and even if some papers by Fusco shall remain unretracted, can anyone really trust them?

    1. IMO that would be unnecessary precaution. Rumour spreads rapidly in the scientific community and most people tend to ignore articles coming from “contaminated” research groups without such official warnings. Sometimes a retraction is not even needed – I think everyone knows a least a handful of dodgy papers within his field whose credibility we do not question openly, but rather omit from our references anyway.

      1. Trustworthiness of research studies should not be based on “rumors”… If there is reason for concern, it should be openly stated and not rely of the “grapevine” communication…

        1. Yet mostly there is no real reason for concern, regarding the other articles of fraudsters. An official expression of concern notice needs solid proofs, which are rarely available. It needs to be emphasized that fakers are caught only exceptionally, and the majority of those featured here on RW were engaged in some really dumb if not reckless misconduct.

      2. I don’t think reliance on unspoken standard procedure is a good long-term strategy, particularly when unscrupulous authors can cite those articles themselves. This kind of approach is perhaps one of the environmental factors that has allowed dodgy research to flourish.

    2. There is even a broader question – how trustworthy are published, and not retracted, studies by the researchers formally (e.g. by ORI) convicted of scientific misconduct? Should also such studies be stamped (automatically) with an “expression of concern” label?

      1. This is exactly my point. Moreover, while senior scientists may rely on “grapewine” on the reliability of others’ work, junior scientists tend to trust papers they read. Thus, whatever Fusco and Co can save from retraction, will continue affecting the work of PhD students and young postdocs.

    3. Absolutely. Now retractions are mainly based on evident Photoshop manipulation, that can easily be picked up by a software. What will happen when things will become more sophisticate? I mean people telling you they used an antibody and instead they used another one? Or they spiked their sample into another one to get what they want with *exactly* the same background? I mean a cheater is a cheater…

      1. “easily be picked up by a software”, or by taking a look except not many people did.
        The masses need to take a look at the data before swallowing the text.

  2. Perhaps RW could reach out to JBC, in particular their ethics officer Patricia Valdez, regarding whether there’s been a formal policy shift at the journal?

    A while ago this site was shouting from the rooftops about JBC’s efforts to increase transparency in retraction notices, but it appears the phenomenon was short lived and now we’re back to the old pattern of opacity. A quick scan shows over the past year the short-form notices have out-numbered the fully descriptive ones. Maybe its’ time to retract your piece that was so flattering of JBC?

    1. As we reported then, JBC told us when they began adding some information to notices that it would not be all notices, just those in which formal investigations (eg ORI) had been made public, and those in which authors had provided information to the journal for publication. There has been no change in that policy. Obviously, we wish they were transparent in all of their notices. We’ve told them that, and said so in the post earlier this week to which this one links. But we also believe it’s important to praise steps in the right direction, which is what the other posts to which you refer did.

  3. Perhaps if individuals who committed such gross violations were prosecuted in the USA more frequently, it might have a chilling effect on those contemplating research misconduct. Under current Federal law, to submit fraudulent data in a grant request is a felony punishable by jail time and/or a fine. Such prosecutions have been rare. It is not clear if this because cases are not referred by ORI to the Attiorney General for prosecution
    or the AG does not consider them to be worth its time. Both explanations have been offered.
    It may be necessary for the scientific community, through its professional organizations, to support such a policy for there to be a change in current practice..

    Don Kornfeld

    1. Donald, from what I understand (perhaps Alan Price can weigh in on this?) part of the problem stems from the different branches of government and what they’re permitted to do. ORI is part of Health and Human Services, so has limited ability to bring certain types of action within the federal system. This is why their sanctions mainly consist of things within their own jurisdiction (ban from serving on study sections etc). Apparently ORI was stripped of most of its teeth in the mid 90s by coming under HHS’ wing. On the other hand, the oversight body for NSF work is within the Government Accountability Office, and so has more teeth. As alluded to by David Wright in his resignation letter, the federal system and how all the different branches of government talk to each other (or don’t) appears to be an underlying source of problems in ORI and beyond. One only needs to look at the post 9/11 debacle involving the different branches of the security service, to see how inefficient things can get when big egos meet big budgets. The long term solution (IMO) would be to create an oversight body to cover all science within GAO and give it some teeth.

      1. Paul.

        You’re right. ORI cannot initiate a prosecution. It has to refer a case to the Office of the Attorney General where such a decision is made. The ORI may have give up trying since the AG has chosen not to prosecute such cases. ( With one or two rare exceptions)

        Be that as it may, Earlier this year Senator Grassley asked why a particularly egregious case of misconduct was not prosecuted. It might help to get him to raise this failure of prosecutions in general.
        Perhaps criteria could be established for cases which ORI believe merit prosecution..Grassley has the necessary clout.


  4. There are many entries at Pubpeer about papers by A Fusco, including one about a 1987 paper which has quite high quality images. I mention the quality of the images otherwise some will give a blanket answer that the paper is from 1987 and suggest that all images in papers were poor then.

    Mol Cell Biol. 1987 Sep;7(9):3365-70.

    For reference:
    Mol Cell Biol. 1987 Sep;7(9):3365-70.
    One- and two-step transformations of rat thyroid epithelial cells by retroviral oncogenes.
    Fusco A1, Berlingieri MT, Di Fiore PP, Portella G, Grieco M, Vecchio G.
    Author information

    1Dipartimento di Biologia e Patologia Cellulare e Molecolare, L. Califano II Facoltà di Medicina e Chirurgia, Università di Napoli, Italy.


    1. I took my time and checked the image. Well, it is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions. The bands are similar but not truly identical (check it with enhanced contrast and inverted colors). It is clear that some lanes were not part of the same gel but probably it was not even prohibited back then(?)

      1. “probably it was not even prohibited back then” Are you lawyer or a scientist? What about using common sense? You don’t need journal guidelines for that. There are too many similarities.

        1. I only wanted to emphasize that it is extremely difficult to prove the improper image manipulation in case of a paper that was submitted for publication nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps it was misinterpreted due to my poor english skills. The main problem is that yiou can no longer request original correspondence, raw data, lab notebooks, or images from the authors. Additionally it is impossible to replicate the experiment since the original reagents, techniques and methodology are no longer available. I myself also think that the gel image in question is fabricated, but my opinion does not matter.

      2. In reply to BB June 26, 2014 at 5:46 pm
        The point is that journal editors should follow standard local legal practice. For civil cases that is “on the balance of probabilites”. “Beyond all reasonable doubt” is for criminal cases. In many cases editors are applying the wrong legal test. They are setting the bar too high for retracting papers.

  5. Please see pubpeer comment (especially the imgur image)

    Am J Pathol. 2004 Aug;165(2):511-21.

    and scroll up.

    For reference:
    Am J Pathol. 2004 Aug;165(2):511-21.
    The oncogenic activity of RET point mutants for follicular thyroid cells may account for the occurrence of papillary thyroid carcinoma in patients affected by familial medullary thyroid carcinoma.
    Melillo RM1, Cirafici AM, De Falco V, Bellantoni M, Chiappetta G, Fusco A, Carlomagno F, Picascia A, Tramontano D, Tallini G, Santoro M.
    Author information

    1Dipartimento di Biologia e Patologia Cellulare e Molecolare, Facoltà di Medicina e Chirurgia, Università di Napoli “Federico II”, via S. Pansini 5, 80131 Naples, Italy.


    1. They should be ashamed of themselves! But what bugs me even more is they didn’t even bother to take a picture from a different position of the same plate. They just mirrored an image from the same figure hoping that people may be didn’t notice. What will happen when frausdters will become a little smarter? For this reason I think that from now on each paper coming from their group should have attached a clearly written warning statement.

      1. The senior author of Am J Pathol. 2004 Aug;165(2):511-21, Massimo Santoro, is on the scientific committee of the Italian Association for Research on Cancer. Two up from the bottom on the right.

        The one four up from the bottom on the left, M Maggiolini, had this retraction recently:

        The one two places above Massimo Santoro, Pier Luigi Lollini, has this retraction with Silvia Bulfone-Paus.


    “rector of Fusco’s university set up a three-man internal committee headed by Roberto Di Lauro, vice-rector for research at the University of Naples, that is expected to report by the end of the year. Di Lauro has co-authored nine papers with Fusco, but says that he will resign from the committee if any of these papers feature in the investigation.”

    9 seems correct. Publication number 3 is with an M Fusco.

    The ealiest of the publications, J Virol. 1985 Oct;56(1):284-92,
    does seem problematic:

    For reference:

    J Virol. 1985 Oct;56(1):284-92.
    A mos oncogene-containing retrovirus, myeloproliferative sarcoma virus, transforms rat thyroid epithelial cells and irreversibly blocks their differentiation pattern.
    Fusco A, Portella G, Di Fiore PP, Berlingieri MT, Di Lauro R, Schneider AB, Vecchio G.


    The journal does not want to do anything. We should not forget about the role journals play in being obstacles to science. There is no statute of limitation. How does that editor think we got out of the Dark Ages if not by challenging what the Ancients said?

    From: susan ross
    Date: Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 8:44 PM
    Subject: Re: concerns image reuse/data fabrication: J Virol. 1985 Oct;56(1):284-92.

    Hi, Roz,

    I think your plan is fine with regard to the other 2011 and 2012 papers is fine.

    This is a new allegation received today – this one I looked at and the
    dot blot in Fig. 8 does look like there was image duplication. That
    being said, I don’t know that investigating a manuscript from 1985
    makes sense.


      1. In reply to Enrico Bucci June 27, 2014 at 4:12 pm


        I know that it is important to go after bite-size pieces, but have you thought abour extending your search for image irregularities to other countries? I know it sounds like a big step, but it sounds like you alread have the data required.

        I read “[Bucci] created a network of scientists who had been co-authors at least three times with authors of the retractions.

        The list ran to more than one million, so he looked only at Italian scientists.”

        Science is international and does not respect national boundaries. People may move from one country to another. I doubt that the flight on the aeroplane changes their behaviour.

        Of particular note:

        “Fusco was first or last author, the team found 53 containing gels with potential irregularities, including one from as far back as 1985”.

        Was that 1985 paper J Virol. 1985 Oct;56(1):284-92? From your reply directly after the discussion about that paper it sounds like it is.

        For reference:

        That publication does have the person, Roberto Di Lauro, vice-rector for research at the University of Naples, who is leading the university investigation into Alfredo Fusco as an author. Roberto Di Lauro is on record as saying “he will resign from the committee if any of these papers feature in the investigation”.

        Surely Roberto Di Lauro knows the list of “53 [papers] containing gels with potential irregularities, including one from as far back as 1985”? It would be list he was looking at.

        The investigation by the University of Naples, with time, may acquire the status as the Marxian film Duck Soup is now thought to be a masterpiece.

        1. David, i will call you this way because i have no other way. Be assured that i did not limited my work to italians – the fact is that journals are slow in their answer and i have no way to look over more than a hundred of cases. Unfortunately, most of the journals only consider signed allegations – so most of yours and other anonymous work get lost. By the way, at least a paper from non-italian scientists was retracted after i sent a letter to the journals … but the point is not only to spot potential misconduct cases, wich i can quite efficiently do; the point is the follow-up, which is not easy on a large scale for a single individual

          1. In reply to Enrico Bucci June 28, 2014 at 4:20 am

            It is an obstacle to science that most of the journals only consider signed allegations, if that. You would imagine that editors could look at data and determine its authenticity, but perhpas they cannot. One of the editors of Biochem J finds it hard and complains about that. There are signs of change though. Retraction Watch and Pubpeer allow a public fora. The more publicity the more likely a paper is to be corrected.


  7. Reply to Enrico Bucci June 28, 2014 at 4:20 am

    The news report in Nature writes that “He [you] plans to publish his [your] results.”

    That is very important. I was told a long time ago that science cannot prove anything, but only disprove things. Identifying erroneous results is the method. Yours will be a very important contribution to science.

    From hotspots of faulty data national and international networks can quickly be identified and people will know where to look.

    I understand that the point is not to spot misconduct cases, but to follow up. By and by blogs such as Retraction Watch and the Pubpeer database become more complete datasets. Authors may choose to ignore what is written (both Retraction Watch and Pubpeer try to avoid personal issues and concentrate on the scientific points), but an accumulation of comments pointing out scientific defects (mostly about the data you can see) will influence how others view the work.

    Placing some of your findings at Pubpeer (a searchable database) will mean that others can see them and make up their own minds. Others often help by adding illustrations so that readers can see the faulty data directly (sometimes the publisher’s own webpages are sufficient for that). Many now do not bother writing to journals, but by-pass the journals by adding comments to Pubpeer. Retraction Watch is also searchable and provides a complementary forum.

    1. Well david, i fully agree with you. Sorry if i may seem so slow in preparing this paper, but i actually have to take care of my (very little) company every day – sò that i work on it during my spare time. Moreover, there are already legal matters at sight – i have also to prepare my defense very accurately, you do not want to risk to waste everything for some legal menace.

      1. Since today, it appears that searching news for Alfredo Fusco using google omits some results for privacy issues. This could occur only for searches performed in Europe.

        This is the text accompanying the result page (in italian).
        “Alcuni risultati possono essere stati rimossi nell’ambito della normativa europea sulla protezione dei dati”

          1. Thanks for pointing that out, Enrico. You are absolutely right: any news search for names will trigger that warning message.
            As many us us, I am really curious how your Nature paper is coming along. Did you hear from them? Also, do you have any plan to release somewhere else the list of suspicious gels and other experiments if journals will likely act as a wall of indifference?

          2. Hi Art! As for the paper, it is coming – at this point I cannot tell you more, but that you have to wait presumably some months before seeing it out (in case it is accepted). As for the second request, please note first of all that I am not checking only gels – I am looking for duplication and slight modifications of any sort of images. However, before releasing any image list to the public, it would be extremely helpful at this point to collaborate with people like for example folks at PubPeer – I would like to check to what extent my software can catch the problems they reported for a number of papers. Just a final consideration: journals are not always acting badly. I agree that the majority did not react or answered sometime in a ridicoulous way, but a number higher than I was initially expecting indeed retracted or corrected the problematic papers I reported so far – sometime in no more than 3 weeks. It may be that we should all together prepare a list of journals/publishers, which proved collaborative in correcting Science, reporting as well those which acted in a silly way. May be Ivan and the Retraction Watch guys may coordinate this effort, also pruning out irresponsible claims or dubious ones.

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