Diabetes researcher sues journal to prevent retractions of papers cited more than 600 times

Mario Saad, via unicamp.br
Mario Saad, via unicamp.br

Mario A. Saad, who last year retracted a paper for plagiarism, is now suing the American Diabetes Association over four expressions of concern in its flagship journal, Diabetes.

As reported in the Boston Business Journal, Saad’s lawsuit claims that his institution, the State University of Campinas, investigated two articles at the journal’s behest. The American Diabetes Association was unhappy with the results, and asked the school to reopen the investigation, including two additional papers.

Saad is suing to prevent the journal from retracting the papers, in addition to monetary compensation.

Before we learned about the lawsuit, we exchanged emails with Saad about the expressions of concern. He said he was frustrated with the journal for disagreeing with the results of the university investigation. According to Saad, the school found “only editing mistakes that can be corrected by erratum,” while the journal claimed the articles contained image manipulation.

Saad also questioned why other articles with “similar problems” are subject to erratum, while his papers received expressions of concern, suggesting that it was because his research is from a South American country.

Here’s an excerpt of the complaint, from the BBJ:

“Most detrimental, the ADA stated that it will not consider, for publication in any ADA journal any submissions authored by any of the faculty of (Saad’s) University until the issues described in the expression of concern have been appropriately reviewed and addressed by the University,” the complaint states.

A number of Saad’s papers have been questioned on PubPeer, under two different variations on his name.

Here’s the introduction to the E.o.C.’s for the four papers; you can read the individual breakdowns here:

DOI: 10.2337/db15-ec03

On the basis of the recommendation of the American Diabetes Association’s Panel on Ethical Scientific Programs, the editors of Diabetes are issuing this expression of concern to alert readers to questions about the reliability of data in the following articles authored by Mario J.A. Saad and colleagues.

The editors of Diabetes were made aware by readers of the journal of potentially duplicated and manipulated images in the below-listed articles. The corresponding/lead authors’ institution, the State University of Campinas (São Paulo, Brazil), has recently completed an investigation of two of these articles and has been asked to undertake an investigation of two others, as described below.

Diabetes is a member journal of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (publicationethics.org). As such, the editors of the journal and the Association’s Panel on Ethical Scientific Programs refer to COPE’s guidelines and recommendations when reviewing such matters.

Diabetes will make final decisions on these articles after the journal obtains more information on the reliability of the data and conclusions presented in each article.

We’ve asked Saad for more information on the lawsuit, and also contacted the university and the journal, and will update if we hear back.

These are the four papers in question:

  • Physical Exercise Reduces Circulating Lipopolysaccharide and TLR4 Activation and Improves Insulin Signaling in Tissues of DIO Rats (cited 38 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge)
  • Loss-of-Function Mutation in Toll-Like Receptor 4 Prevents Diet-Induced Obesity and Insulin Resistance (cited 407 times)
  • Exercise Improves Insulin and Leptin Sensitivity in Hypothalamus of Wistar Rats (73 cites)
  • Effect of Captopril, Losartan, and Bradykinin on Early Steps of Insulin Action (99 cites)

13 thoughts on “Diabetes researcher sues journal to prevent retractions of papers cited more than 600 times”

  1. Right or wrong, Dr Saad is about the find out that the judicial system is plagued with the same problem as the publishing industry—political bias.

  2. I wonder if threatening to sue was an effective resource used in the past to avoid a retraction, either in similar cases and by other groups.
    For instance, the entries in Retraction Watch below also present investigated issues on papers that maybe *should* have been retracted — and eventually were not –, also coming from authors of the same geographical region.



    I am curious see the outcome of this lawsuit. Should the journal loose the case, editors would be obliged to publish a retraction of the EoC stating that now they fully believe in the data?

  3. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for someone at PLoS to address the outstanding issue of a paper from Saad, which was originally commented on (at the PLos website) back in July 2013. The author of that comment then asked me to post on PubPeer, which I did almost 1 year ago (Feb’ 2014 – https://pubpeer.com/publications/22162948). At that time, PLoS then added a response to the original comment stating they were “looking into it”… http://www.plosbiology.org/annotation/listThread.action?root=68979

    Numerous requests to the PLoS editorial office have gone un-aswered. When I called them out on Twitter about this last fall, their Twittspokesperson specifically requested that I contact them via private message. I did, and got no reply. Naturally, COPE has been informed, and again has apparently done nothing in response.

    It really makes one question whether Saad perhaps attempted this type of lawsuit shenanigans with PLoS already, and succeeded? Otherwise how do you explain a journal ignoring 7 separate instances of apparent image manipulation for a year and a half. The alternative explanation (gross incompetence) is seemingly no better.

    1. There may have been a threat also to Plos but I suggest a greater factor is simple apathy. Inaction will remain until a greater threat emerges. Which requires someone else to do the hard work (as Diabetes are doing, to their credit).

    2. Bear in mind that the institution seems to be siding with Saad. PLoS may have to: i) apply real pressure to move them along; ii) be prepared to override them when they do finally get results. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the institution were just playing for time at the moment.

  4. There are probably some journals somewhere (e.g., on Beall’s list) which never retract or read or peer-review a paper, no matter what. So why doesn’t Saad resubmit his retracted papers there and everyone is happy (except his lawyers, who’ll miss out their fees)?

    1. Agree. Maybe the real ‘mistake’ was to publish too many articles that people actually read in journals that might actually adhere to stated standards of academic integrity. Eventually an outsider notices image artefacts, then they get listed and people realise there is a deeper problem, and finally someone actually does something about it.

    1. Especially if the expenses of this lawsuit are completely covered by public money, which I would bet is the case. There is this general notion that, if one is suing, he is probably right…

  5. Let’s not get distracted.
    There is no chance that the journal will ‘lose’ if they keep their heads – summarising what I said in the follow-up RW thread:

    The investigation panel completely failed to see the basic point that Saad’s experiments were always done as replicates e.g. in the Diabetes 2011 paper, there were 10 rats per bar shown. Those actually shown in the paper are simply a representation from one animal; there should have been 10 gel bands for each bar. Apparently not a single person considered that there must have been NINE OTHER GELS that the lab had undertaken. These were never asked for, or produced by Saad at his hearing.

    As outsiders I don’t think you can conclude anything other than that the experiments were never done. Strangely, the image manipulation may not actually be the primary problem; rather, it is just a visible sign of gels being fabricated which the parties involved assume will never be detected. Fabricating gels can’t be easy – as Mark Twain said : ‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything’. People make mistakes which others can then detect because of telltale artefacts in the bands.

    As such, the investigation was entirely flawed and the journal is right to maintain its EoC and refuse to accept work from this university.

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