The Journal of Neuroscience has yanked an Alzheimer’s paper and banned three University of Pennsylvania authors from publishing there temporarily, following conflicting investigations by the university and the publisher, the Society for Neuroscience, into the data.
The 2011 paper looked into the cellular makeup of the characteristic plaques that develop in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been cited 64 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
While the notice states that Penn’s investigation “supports the journal’s findings of data misrepresentation,” last author Virginia Lee said she asked the journal to simply issue a correction of the faulty data, since the findings are “extremely important” for the field and have been affirmed by a later paper. According to author John Trojanowski (who is married to and publishes regularly with Lee), he and Lee have been barred from publishing in Journal for Neuroscience for several years.
Senior Co-author Edward Lee is out for a year [see update at the bottom of this post].
Lee provided us with a letter Vice Dean of Research Glen Gaulton sent to the journal (click here to read), in which he says an investigation found “no evidence of research misconduct” and the “errors…do not detract from or otherwise alter the conclusions of the manuscript.”
Ultimately, however, the journal decided to retract the paper. Here’s the notice for “Intraneuronal APP, not free Aβ peptides in 3xTg-AD mice: implications for tau versus Aβ-mediated Alzheimer neurodegeneration”:
The Journal of Neuroscience has received notification of an investigation by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which supports the journal’s findings of data misrepresentation in the article “Intraneuronal APP, Not Free Aβ Peptides in 3xTg-AD Mice: Implications for Tau Versus Aβ-Mediated Alzheimer Neurodegeneration” by Matthew J. Winton, Edward B. Lee, Eveline Sun, Margaret M. Wong, Susan Leight, Bin Zhang, John Q. Trojanowski, and Virginia M.-Y. Lee, which appeared on pages 7691–7699 of the May 25, 2011 issue. Because the results cannot be considered reliable, the editors of The Journal are retracting the paper.
We spoke to Trojanowski for more details:
Last April, we got an email about an inquiry into figures that I would call erroneously used. An error was made by [first author] Matt Winton, who was leaving science and in transition between Penn and his new job. He was assembling the paper to submit it, there were several iterations of the paper. One set of figures was completely correct – I still don’t know what happened, but he got the files mixed up, and used erroneous figures to illustrate points that are valid and have been confirmed by others. SfN noticed they were erroneous and launched an investigation.
Without any communication, [the SfN ethics committee] came back and said, these are the sanctions. There’s never been disclosure about their process. What’s quite puzzling is the fact that they didn’t abide by the Penn committee’s investigation, and we have no idea what investigation they did. SfN has been completely opaque about their process. So we’re completely unaware why they dismissed the Penn assessment and went ahead with the sanctions and the retraction.
It’s not the American way to have a secret process investigating a potential wrongdoing. Penn showed there was no ill intent, it was a mistake and mistakes happen. I’m not excusing it – we take full responsibility and intended to publish a corrigendum to correct our mistakes. SfN foreclosed on that option.
Here’s more from Lee:
In a nut shell, Dean Glen Gaulton asserted that the findings in the paper were correct despite mistakes in the figures. I suggested to J. Neuroscience that we publish a corrigendum to clarify these mistakes for the readership of J Neuroscience since the findings of this paper are extremely important for the Alzheimer’s disease field because it provided convincing evidence pointing out that a previous report claiming accumulation of intracellular Abeta peptide in a mouse model (3XFAD) is wrong (Oddo et al., Neuron 2003), as evidenced by the fact that this paper has been cited by others for 62 times since publication. Subsequent to our 2011 J. Neuroscience paper, others also have found no evidence of intracellular Abeta in the 3XFAD mice (e.g. Lauritzen et al., J. Neurosci, 2012).
SfN president Steve Hyman declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality.
Hat tip: Rolf Degen
Update 3:40 p.m. EST 3/2/15: We spoke with Edward Lee, who was not a senior author but a post-doc at the time of the publication. He told us he received a letter from SfN in early February overturning his publication ban, and that he didn’t join the team until a year after the figures were assembled.
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