Authors retract 2007 PNAS paper on aging due to figure’s “unintentional anomalies”

pnas 2515The authors of a 2007 PNAS paper that provided molecular details for how calorie restriction may act on Sir2 enzymes to extend life are now retracting their research after discovering a figure was compromised by “several unintentional anomalies in the background image.”

According to study author David W. Piston at Vanderbilt University, first author Qinghong Zhang cut and pasted images together to beautify a figure showing how a form of sugar affects the expression of SIRT1, the mammalian version of the Sir2 enzyme:

She claims it was unintentional.

Still, the findings remain valid, said Piston — he’s seen data from original lab notebooks, including at least 1 other version of the same figure, that show the same results. Other people have also since built on the paper and reproduced its findings, he said.

We contacted Zhang, now based at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and will update if we hear back.

Although the authors could have simply corrected the figure, the paper is old enough that it had “run its course,” said Piston, who is moving to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri to head the department of cell biology and physiology, and simply pulling it seemed like the most “expedient” step:

We felt it was the highest road to take. For us it was really an embarrassment, and it was better to just bite the bullet. We were the ones who signed our name to the bottom line, so we should stand up and say we didn’t do a perfect job.

The paper “Metabolic regulation of SIRT1 transcription via a HIC1:CtBP corepressor complex” has been cited 113 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. The retraction notice, including a statement from the authors, appears below:

CELL BIOLOGY Retraction for “Metabolic regulation of SIRT1 transcription via a HIC1:CtBP corepressor complex,” by Qinghong Zhang, Su-Yan Wang, Capucine Fleuriel, Dominique Leprince, Jonathan V. Rocheleau, David W. Piston, and Richard H. Goodman, which appeared in issue 3, January 16, 2007, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (104:829–833; first published January 9, 2007; 10.1073/pnas.0610590104).

The undersigned authors wish to note: “It has come to our attention that Fig. 2A in our paper had several unintentional anomalies in the background image that lead us to question its accuracy. Consequently, we would like to retract this paper from the scientific literature. We apologize to our colleagues for any inconvenience this might have caused.”

A representative of the journal had no additional comments.

Hat tip: Leonid Schneider

16 thoughts on “Authors retract 2007 PNAS paper on aging due to figure’s “unintentional anomalies””

  1. It always strikes me: if the claims made by retracted papers are absolutely valid then what was the rationale of fudging images anyway?

    1. The problem lies more with some journals allowing such statements. Not the case here, but the authors made it public anyway. In such situation, where the data to support the validity claim is gone the way of the retracted paper, it is not for the authors to decide what is still valid or not, but for the scientific community.

  2. Don’t forget that this was communicated (ie on the “contributed” track) by the senior author (Goodman) as a NAS member so he would also have been responsible for the review process. I have been associated with several submission of this type and I can say that the level of oversight by the communicating member varied widely (n=3). It would be interesting to know if these NAS member contributed papers have a higher incidence of retractions or concerns than papers that get in through the regular peer review process.

  3. “the paper is old enough that it had “run its course,” said Piston”
    How are we to understand that? Piston cannot mean that nobody believes that paper’s claims nowadays, because he insists the data were still valid, despite admission of image manipulation by the lead author. So what did Piston mean to say? That this paper brought all possible funding and jobs, so it is squeezed dry in this respect and can be retracted, without any consequences? This is how I understood it, and to me this sounds very disrespectful and arrogant. This sounds to me like cynicism we used to hear from investment bankers.
    Again, this is why I think funding agencies should be able to claim their money back:

    1. That this paper brought all possible funding and jobs, so it is squeezed dry in this respect and can be retracted, without any consequences? This is how I understood it

      I confess, that was also my interpretation.

      1. Not to mention that it was a fairly highly cited paper back in the day (140+ citations) which has however passed its zenith years ago. But at least it helped boosting the IF of PNAS during its temporary existence…

  4. Well, when you also count the “striking degree of similarity” between the right-most CtBP band in Figure 1D and the right-most CtBP band in Figure 3A (with the obligatory horizontal flip), it’s a good job this was retracted. If they’d tried to simply correct it, that could have been embarrassing.

    1. Paul, embarrassing for whom? History of literature corrections suggests authors can easily shoulder the most “embarrassing” corrigendum to avoid retraction. A retracted paper is also useless to procure funding, but in this case, see above my comment on Piston’s cryptic remark.

  5. BB above makes a pertinent remark about how this study was used (unknowingly) to inflate the PNAS IF. A very valid observation. Very broadly, what to do with publishers and journals that have, in retrospect, profited from boosted IFs as a result of erroneous science? What penalty should they have, or what should be forfeited? Indeed, the authors have suffered a knock, but the publishers continue undisturbed. Not to mention that they have also profited in real cents and dollars, from the sales of hard copies and subscriptions, so when a paper is retracted due to faulty science, did they not benefit financially off bad science? Something is wrong with this equation.

  6. Good point by “Good point!” replying to “BB”. Hopefully the IF will be a thing of the past soon, but how about a new rating system for journals, this time for honesty and scientific integrity?
    This would rate how journals respond to public accusation of misconduct and irreproducibility in their papers, address the issue of obscure retraction notices and embarrassing corrigenda Paul Brookes referred.
    Most of all, it would be about the overall transparency of the journal’s editorial process. PNAS would however face heavy minus points for their archaic “contributed” track (as in this paper).

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