Serial figure fakers have expression of concern upgraded to a retraction

Another retraction has appeared up for frequent fliers Jun Li, Kailun Zhang and Jiahong Xia at Huazhong Science and Technology University in Wuhan, China.

We’ve covered them twice before, for a variety of retractions, corrections, and expressions of concern.

The retraction, in Clinical and Experimental Immunology, upgrades an expression of concern published earlier this year, and is the team’s fourth.

Here’s the notice for “CCR5 blockade in combination with rapamycin prolongs cardiac allograft survival in mice”:

The above article in Clinical and Experimental Immunology, published online on 26 May 2009 in Wiley Online Library ( and in Volume 157, Issue 3, pages 437-445, has been retracted by agreement between the authors, the journal Editor-in-Chief, Professor Mark Peakman, and John Wiley and Sons Ltd. This is following an investigation by the authors’ institute (Department of Cardiovascular Surgery, Union Hospital, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong Science and Technology University, Wuhan 430022, China) into misrepresentations within figures and a loss of the original data, which invalidates the results presented.

The paper has been cited 10 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. We’ve emailed the author, editor, and university, and will update with any new information we receive. For background, here was the meat of the expression of concern, which gives more details than the retraction notice but is not linked to from the article’s main abstract page:

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.

7 thoughts on “Serial figure fakers have expression of concern upgraded to a retraction”

  1. In 2014 Nature has retracted seven articles. Papers have also been retracted from other prominent journals. Many of these papers were published years ago and have been cited hundreds of times by subsequent studies. I have two queries:

    1. Is it wrong to say that cause of these retractions is a failure of the editorial and peer review process to detect the problems in the paper?
    2. Who is responsible for such instances of retractions in Nature and other prominent journals: the editors. the peer reviewers or the publisher?

    1. Paul, this is an excellent question and I have been a vocal critic of editors, peers and publishers, and the system that they artificially sustain, for some years now. Ultimately, you are referring to a single entity because they all fall under the publisher’s umbrella. So, ultimately, the publisher should take blame, in my opinion, for a failed peer review. Of course, if there was misconduct, for example, simultaneous submission or duplication of figures, which would have been difficult to track in real time during peer review, or using current plagiarism-detection software, then one can only empathize with the peers, editors and publisher, who would then be the victims, and not the cause. Most certainly I believe that each case has to be examined individually, but most certainly, in most cases I have seen at RW, I would say that there is proportionality in the blame. One of the worst problems about most publishers that issue retractions, is the great lack of transparency and details in the retraction notices, which not only casts a cloud of doubt on each case that is poorly explained, but also on the genuine objectives of the publisher (understandably, they don’t want to be too honest because they have a reputation and economic interests to protect, but at the expense of academic integrity, transparency and opacity). I have commented about the responsibilities of each member of the publishing chain here:
      Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2013) Responsibilities and rights of authors, peer reviewers, editors and publishers: a status quo inquiry and assessment. The Asian and Australasian Journal of Plant Science and Biotechnology 7(Special Issue 1): 6-15.

      1. Currently I would be already perfectly happy if journals would finally start to clean up the mess. Transparent retraction notices are indeed a desirable but less urgent goal.

        For example the current number of pubpeer entries for JBC is a princely 265, and it is growing steadily, there’s a good chance that they are going to break the 300 barrier this year. Now of course I didn’t check all these entries, but i think we can agree that the overwhelming majority of these are not compliments or polite discussions of the finer points of the methodology, but rather reports on blatant cases of improper image (and possibly) data manipulation.

      2. This is interesting. You said that the publisher should ultimately take the blame. I was just reading an Editor in chief agreement of a big publisher. It spoke of editorial independence and that the editors control the scientific quality of the content. If this is really the case, why the publisher?

    2. 1. Yes, it is wrong to say that. Peer review is based on trust, and will always have to be. Sometimes you can easily see e.g. figure manipulation or plagiarism, but often you need to look at all figures in minute details, flip pictures and alter contrast, or even read and evaluate other papers of the same authors to possibly see manipulation and/or duplication. I think few people who act as peer reviewers on a daily basis would want to read a paper with the constantly nagging question “is this manipulated? This maybe?” Editors are even less to blame in virtually all cases.

      2. The authors! Why did you not add them? You can perhaps add some blame to the publisher if it does not provide plagiarism control and the paper contains major plagiarism, and perhaps blame the editor if a paper is retracted because it is so obviously wrong that he must have chosen the wrong reviewers, but in most cases it is 100% the authors that are responsible.

      1. But if peer review is based on trust, what’s the point of it? Why not just trust that the methods are appropriate and the results are important? After all, the authors say they are. Why doubt them? Clearly this is absurd. Editors in fact employ peer reviewers because they don’t trust authors. Peer review is based on doubt.

        (I am being a Devil’s Advocate here.)

    3. 1. The immediate cause of a retraction tends to be a decision by the editor to retract the paper. The events leading up to that decision can be quite complex. If you don’t like the answer maybe your question was not very accurate.

      2. Publishers are private companies, so the final decision usually will be with the editors, or depend on internal procedures.

      If you want to know more details, I recommend you to read the many examples covered in this blog. For several cases, the discussions and decisions leading up to the final retraction will be evident.

      I think the problems with your questions are that the use of the term “responsible” it is not so clear. Do you imply a legal responsibility, or a moral/ethical one? What if there is no legal framework to decide? Concerning ethical/moral judgements, you will get a lot of answers from different persons.

      I also tend to agree with the basic rule that the author is fully responsible for the contents of his work.

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