Use of data “without permission,” bad authors list, and hidden funding sink mol bio paper

dna cell biology 2A Chinese researcher has lost a paper after the journal discovered he published others’ research without permission and lied about the grant funding he used for the work.

Yihang Shen published a paper using his PhD research on the molecular biology of fetal rodent livers earlier this year in DNA and Cell Biology. Unfortunately, he didn’t have permission to publish the data. He also omitted the names of people who participated in the research, and listed an incorrect funding source.

The “cited grant,” according to the journal editor, was a grant awarded to Richard Finnell, a UT Austin researcher who often works with Shen’s PhD advisor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the well-known geneticist Fanyi Zeng.

Here’s the notice for “Characterization of Hydroxymethylation Patterns in the Promoter of b-globin Clusters in Murine Fetal Livers”:

The online-ahead-of-print published article, Characterization of Hydroxymethylation Patterns in the Promoter of b-globin Clusters in Murine Fetal Livers (DOI: 10.1089/dna.2014.2773), is being officially retracted from DNA and Cell Biology due to scientific misconduct. The senior author of the article, Yihang Shen, made use of data that he previously used as partial fulfillment of his PhD degree at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine (Shanghai, People’s Republic of China) where the work had been conducted and funded, and submitted the paper without permission from his laboratory director, Professor Fanyi Zeng, and without acknowledgment of all those involved in the study. Furthermore, the three co-first-authors listed in the published article did not participate in the study, and the scientists who should have been listed were omitted. Lastly, the funding source listed in the article was irrelevant, whereas the real funding sources were not disclosed or reported. DNA and Cell Biology is dedicated to upholding the strictest standards of scientific publishing, and will not tolerate any improprieties.

The editor in chief, Carol Reiss, gave us a great deal of detail via email:

The laboratory in which the graduate student (now postdoc/senior author) did the research saw a posting that the paper was published on-line.  I received a phone call from the lab chief in China and we discussed the allegation.

I requested a formal email message from her (and the US-funded collaborator whose grant was listed in the now-retracted paper.

The Chinese lab indicated that the former student participated in experiments, as a part of his PhD research, but did not have permission to publish on his own.  The paper’s authors did not include the lab chief, other members of the lab who did aspects of the research or the US collaborator, although his source of funding was cited.  The US scientist said that he had seen early drafts of the research, in his capacity as a member of the student’s advisory committee.

Simultaneously on the receipt of their messages, I received an email from the former graduate student confessing to his deed, requesting retraction of the paper;  he acknowledged that some of the co-authors (including the first author) had not participated in the work, a statement consistent with the two written comments from the lab chief and collaborator.

The journal’s web master removed the paper from the journal’s web site.  These messages led to the formal retraction of the paper.

I do not know what actions (if any) have been undertaken at the current host institution where the senior author was pursuing a postdoc.  I do not know if his Chinese PhD degree has been also retracted.

The actual source of support was from the grants (Chinese) to the lab chief, ZENG Fanyi who is at Shanghai Jiao Tong University;  I do not know their specifics.  The cited grant was awarded to Richard Finnell (UT Austin) this was listed on the web when the MS was submitted, but the briefly e-printed paper indicated grant 11KJB320017 from Jiangsu Province.

SHEN Yihang indicated in the acknowledgement statement that Dr Finnell provided editorial assistance to the paper (denied by Finnell).

Dr ZENG indicated that the research was supported by several grants from China’s NSF equivalent and from China’s military S&T fund.

Finnell, the researcher who was awarded the grant Shen claimed he used for his research, told us:

No I was not involved in the research. I am a frequent visit[or] to the Zeng laboratory and had worked with Shen on developing his manuscript. I was very surprised by his behavior and the submission of this work without Prof. Zeng’s knowledge.

We’ve reached out to Zeng and will update if we hear back. Shen’s SJTU alumni email bounces, and we were unable to find further contact information for him.

Update 11/19/15 1:56 p.m. eastern: We’ve updated the headline to more accurately describe what was reported by the retraction notice.

Update 11/23/15 3:21 p.m. eastern: We’ve received a statement from Shen:

I am Yihang Shen. I find it necessary to make it clear about what really happened about the retracted paper.

I am going to first start with the data issue. I am the one who designed the whole project. I was first inspired by Zhonghai Yan’s Ph. D dissertation (Int J Hematol. 2009;89(4):414-21). I started to give it lots of thought and later developed it further into a rough project. As I worked hard and have it more refined, I finally made it look like what it is now. I was one hundred percent involved in this project. it was my idea, my hard work, and my scientific enthusiasm that made it possible. I owned my data.

During the whole process of my research on this project, Dr. Fanyi Zeng, the lab chief, never gave me any substantial guidance on this project. She seldom showed up at the lab. Normally the required lab meeting was supposed to be on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. But she would have a lab meeting with me and other students barely once in every two or three months. That was the only time she was at the lab with students like me. It was extremely hard to meet her after the rare infrequent lab meetings. The earliest appointment to see her was at least two or three weeks later if I was lucky. Even if I finally got the opportunity to meet her, the only advice she could offer was simply about the layout of slides, the format of presentation, she hardly had any professional input about what was in the project. When it came to what should be the next step of the project, she had no idea to offer, no plan to follow. I had to totally rely on myself when I was in urgent need to look for the right direction to proceed with the project.

She did not even bother to provide me with the sufficient reagents necessary for the experiments. I was denied access to the basic lab use. For almost five years, she did not allow me to use the cell culture room. Instead of the more complete experiment in vitro, I was forced to use the alternative approach in vivo to carry on with my research. Even for the experiment in vivo, I was still restricted on the usage of most of the reagents such as antibodies of 5hmC, 5mC and other kits for DNA purification after bisulfite treatment and pyrosequencing detection. Also I was not allowed to utilize the necessary instrument of HPLC as another way to detect 5hmC level in hepatic DNA. It was always a struggle when I had to deal with the insufficient reagents and restricted use of necessary instrument.

What was worse, when she found out I did not follow her wish to work for her after I finished my degree, she tried every means to make things harder for me. When I finally finished the manuscript after long and painstaking modification and revision, I had tried so hard and so many times to ask Dr. Fanyi Zeng for her opinion. I asked her in person, I sent my request via e-mail, I called her over the phone……., no matter what I did and how hard I tried, she just totally ignored me.

After going through so much, I just got an impression that she did not want to have anything to do with this manuscript at all, and maybe it was just something like trash to her. Rather than having it left wasted like that, I decided to have it published anyway. That is how it ended like now.

And now I am going to address the author list issue. Everyone in the author list was involved directly or indirectly in this project. Wenxiu Li helped me to perform part of the experiments. Shasha Zhou and Zhonghai Yan contributed in manuscript modification and revision. Liantao Li assisted in providing funding from Jiangsu Province to cover the page charges. I don’t see anything bad in the author list. It is legit and fair.

I understand that I am not perfect. Looking back at what happened, I realized that there might be another way better to deal with the situation if I had been more careful. Anyway I hope people will have a better understanding about what really happened and don’t get fooled by one-sided story by someone else, and at the same time I can keep my reputation untarnished.

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