Cell retraction of Alzheimer’s study is second for Tufts neuroscientist

Gizem Donmez, via Tufts

A researcher at Tufts University has retracted a paper in Cell, a year after retracting a study on a similar subject from the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Here’s the notice for “SIRT1 Suppresses β-Amyloid Production by Activating the α-Secretase Gene ADAM10,” a 2010 paper by Tufts’ Gizem Donmez, MIT’s Leonard Guarante — of longevity research fame — and colleagues:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors. Donmez et al. (2010) reported that SIRT1 suppressed Alzheimer’s disease in a mouse model by upregulating the ADAM 10 α-secretase gene via coactivation of the retinoic acid receptor, RARβ. Increased α-secretase bypassed the processing of APP by the β-secretase, thereby reducing the amyloid burden. It has come to our attention that several figures in the paper contain images in which gel lanes were spliced together without appropriate indication. There are also instances of image duplication. We believe that these errors do not affect the conclusions of experiments in the paper. Moreover, the finding that SIRT1 upregulates the ADAM 10 α-secretase in neurons was reported by Theendakara et al. (Theendakara, V., et al. [2013]. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, 18303–18308), and the more detailed finding that SIRT1 and RARβ cooperate in neurons to activate ADAM 10 has also recently been reported by Lee et al. (Lee, H.R., et al. [2014]. J. Neurosci. Res. Published online June 5, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jnr23421), thereby supporting our main conclusions. However, the level of care in figure preparation in Donmez et al. falls well below the standard that we expect, and we are therefore retracting the paper. We offer our sincerest apologies to the scientific community for these errors and for any inconvenience they may have caused.

The paper has been cited 205 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

There’s a bit of a back story on this retraction, which Paul Brookes, who was behind the now-shuttered Science-Fraud.org and brought the issues to Cell‘s attention, describes in a January 2014 blog post. Excerpt:

In 2012, some problems came to light in three papers with a common author. One journal retracted the paper, albeit after much effort and with an opaque retraction notice. Another acknowledged the problems but refused to act and is now incommunicado. At the third journal there is reason to suspect an investigation may have been compromised by conflict-of-interest. Combined, these events do not speak highly to the manner in which journals handle these affairs. What’s more COPE guidelines appear to encourage such practices. Oh, and just to complicate things, the author of the papers threatened to sue me.

Cell had initially told Brookes, early this year, that

Despite some apparent superficial similarities, upon extensive examination we were unable to find any compelling evidence for manipulation or duplication in those panels and therefore are not taking any further action at this time.

Obviously, something changed. And in our experience, threatening to sue scientists who call attention to problems in one’s work — or threatening to sue us, for that matter — is never a good sign.

29 thoughts on “Cell retraction of Alzheimer’s study is second for Tufts neuroscientist”

  1. The initial behaviour of Cell was simply appalling, yet not uncommon. Even now, why are sentences like “We believe that these errors do not affect the conclusions of experiments in the paper” are still acceptable? Interestingly, also Donmez’ JBC paper, while retracted a year ago, still features on her institutional list of publication. Is it perchance also still cited in her grant applications? If you keep ignoring a problem, it may just go away.

      1. Journal editors should be impartial, and they are quite powerful on policing everything else of a text. Still, they happily let such unacceptable claims stand, so the retraction seems just an unlucky accident, of no fault of either side.

      2. I think RW should really put their weight behind pressuring journals to remove these kinds of statements. I mean, it’s almost comical.

      1. Aye. And if you go to Brookes’s blog, you can see that this was apparently what caused a certain amount of legal posturing.

    1. Looks like finally someone at Tufts is taking note. The retracted JBC and Cell papers have disappeared as of today from her list of publications from her profile page. I hope they also do something about the 1 postdoc, 1 graduate and 3 MBS students listed on her profile. The 1 post doc has already earned 1 retraction to his credit and they should be removed from such toxic training environment ASAP. Since Dr. Gonmez has been associated with image manipulations in paper from her PhD lab, Post doc Lab and PI lab IMO it is a fair assumption that blame or rather the talent for making up figures lies with her.

      Another unrelated to retraction but a general comment about the list of publications. In last 2 years she has published 6 reviews (2 in 2012 and 4 in 2013) all related to role of SIRTS in neurodegeneration and therapeutic targeting. Is this field making such rapid advances that one author can have so many different aspects to review and be original in terms of ideas with each of them?

      1. If people have nothing else to review on some exotic or maybe even a non-existent topic, they write a review using their own papers. I know a scientist who did just that, he reviewed almost exclusively his own Nature publication in another journal.

    1. Excellent point and this issue is often overlooked. She is apparently on the TT at Tufts, based on her title at least, but I can’t find any funding for her on Reporter (I assumed she had a K-grant). So at least she does not appear to have had any significant funding yet. But no doubt that bogus Cell paper helped her get the job, along with her pedigree at MIT of course.

      I would imagine it will be almost possible for her to survive at Tufts with this on her record. She will have no chance getting tenure if she manages to hold on to her position, surely. I guess that’s a silver lining.

      1. As per the Tufts Neuroscience news section Dr. Donmez is a recipient of research grant funding from Ellison Medical Foundation, Charlton Research Grant, CNR Pilot Grant and the Center for Neuroscience Research where she is employed is a recipient of P30 grant.
        Paul Brookes did contact the Ellison Medical Foundation (see his blog, link in his comment) but apparently they decided to do nothing.
        Unfortunately I do not share the belief that she will not have a chance of getting tenure as we have seen in the past that if you are well connected and your mentor is ready to shield you then even if the university finds evidence of deliberate data manipulation, you can still be allowed to hold your position and keep playing the game.

        1. sadly, you are absolutely right. Why does misconduct so rarely matter to the institutions? Is it because one hand washes the other? How deep is this problem of research misconduct really?
          Unless the institutions will be made responsible and forced to repay the dishonestly acquired public funds upon retractions or evidence of misconduct, this institutional backing will be impenetrable.

          1. IMO Universities just care about who can bring in money as grants. As long as you are successful in that they will be more than willing to look the other way as the present mandate is profitability. That is the only thing that can explain the difference in punishment meted out students/ postdocs vs faculty when caught cheating. Grant funding in turn depends upon whom you know and where and how many papers you have published. Where and how many papers you have published again in turn depends upon who your friends are. The yardsticks for evaluating success and corrupted peer review system (friendly reviews, expecting absolutely perfect results) has no doubt contributed hugely to the present scenario of scientific misconduct.

        2. Al

          You make an interesting observation.

          I think you may be suggesting there is a correlation with attaining tenure for researchers who have had papers retracted, despite the fact that the very papers that have been retracted were, perhaps, critical in tenure appraisal.



          and……yes……promoted to professor

          “They don’t talk about the deep satisfaction that comes with a job dedicated to creating new knowledge, to mentoring young people, and that makes you part of a community that deeply cares about the world,” David Scadden.

          If those who made the decision for professor Wagers to become a professor knew about the retractions, why would they formalise the promotion?

          1. Amy Wagers is a special case. She was postdoc in THE top cancer research lab. Her own former postdoc, Shane Mayack, took all the blame for the retractions, so officially it was another case of “evil postdoc sabotaging an honest genius”. Recently Wagers published 2! Science papers, again on blood rejuvenation. Unless those become shaky as well, the sky is the limit for Wagers.

    1. I’ve updated the full timeline on the Cell paper too (http://www.psblab.org/?p=334). They key thing to note is that my formal complaint to COPE regarding whether their code-of-conduct was breached by the editors at Cell, is still under investigation. I’m not even sure if COPE is aware that the paper has been retracted, but as Ivan points out above the contrast between the retraction notice and the earlier assertion of no-fault is somewhat disturbing.

          1. I think it is important to de-centralize COPE. It is clear that the “power” of COPE in “ethical” decision-making, particularly by paying members, is quite evident already. A journal, a scientist or a publisher is not more or less ethical simply because it is a member of COPE. One of the problems that we, as scientists are facing, is precisely dealing with excessive power by large publishers, simply because we gave them that power on a silver platter. COPE has some nice PDF files and case studies (none of which are very transparent, though). So, COPE should be downgraded from a member-paying “ethics” body to a voluntary “ethics” blog. One cannot buy ethics, nor can one not buy “membership” of an ethics body. That is purely ludicrous. The more comments on blogs rely on the centralization of COPE’s “power”, the worse it will be for science.

        1. Well, they did act. It took them some time, but they ended up retracting the article. So they don’t really need to apologize, in my opinion.

          It seems that journals rely more so on the institutions to corroborate cases of supposed image manipulation than in-house. This would explain why it took so long to do anything if Cell was waiting for the University to issue their findings.

          Also, this paper would never have been published had Cell not screened the images for manipulations before they sent it out for review, as the Journal of Cell Biology does.

          1. Cell based their first decision on their own “investigation”, which RW cites above. And it is rather puzzling why image manipulation software (like JCB uses it) is such a non-option for Cell and Nature, unless they wish to avoid having to write unpleasant news to their most important paper contributors…

          2. I have a question regarding what should be the course of action once a journal detects image manipulation in a submitted manuscript? Should they just notify the authors and give them a chance to cover up their tracks (if it was by design) or rectify the mistakes and publish elsewhere. Or should other parties such as host institute and others too should be notified of a potential misconduct?

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