Investigation triggers retraction for biochem paper

PLOS BiologyA paper has been retracted from PLOS Biology for duplicating lanes and incorporating others that “came from an unrelated experiment that had already been published.”

According to the retraction notice, first author Laura Cerchia says that the mistakes came “as a consequence of incorrect incorporation of representative blots.” Cerchia — along with her supervisor, study author Vittorio de Franciscis — apologizes for this.” None of the other authors were “involved in the preparation of these figures, and there is no concern about the results that they contributed.”

Cerchia maintains that the paper’s conclusions are still valid, but the remaining authors write that the issues undermines their confidence in the results. According to the notice, the retraction is a result of “an institutional inquiry” at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Rome, where Cerchia and de Franciscis are both based.

The notice tells the rest of the story:

The authors and editors retract this publication following an investigation into concerns around the data presented in Figures 3 and 4 that were brought to the editors’ attention. The text below has been agreed to by the editors and authors.

Some of the lanes presented in Figure 3 (five out of six lanes of the right “Ret” panel in Fig 3B) came from an unrelated experiment that had already been published in Fig 4A of a Biochem J paper from 2003 by the de Franciscis lab, with the same first author (Cerchia et al. Biochemical Journal, 372, 897–903). As this previously published data is subject to copyright, this content has been removed from the published record of this paper. Additionally, several lanes have been duplicated both within Figure 3 and between Figures 3 and 4 of this paper.

Some of the original blots were provided to the editors as part of this investigation and the first author, LC, states that the errors occurred as a consequence of incorrect incorporation of representative blots in the figures and, together with the senior author responsible for oversight of Dr. Cerchia when the research was carried out (VdF), apologizes for this. Even though LC maintains that the conclusions remain valid, the detected image manipulation in the published figures undermines the confidence of the other authors (FD, CP, JB, YA, KG, BT & DL) and the overall editorial confidence in the results presented in the latter half of this study. It should be noted specifically that the co-authors from collaborating groups (FD, CP, JB, YA, KG, BT & DL) were not involved in the preparation of these figures, and there is no concern about the results that they contributed (Figures 1 & 2). The manipulations were not identified prior to publication and all three senior authors (BT, VdF & DL) approved the submitted manuscript.

An institutional inquiry has been undertaken at the CNR in Rome, where de Franciscis and Cerchia are both located; a retraction was deemed appropriate as a result of this inquiry.

Given the serious concerns about the validity of some of the data presented in this paper, the authors and editors are thus issuing a retraction. The authors deeply regret any inconvenience this publication has caused for others. All authors agree to this retraction.

The study, “Neutralizing Aptamers from Whole-Cell SELEX Inhibit the RET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase” examined how to target large transmembrane molecules. It was published in 2005 by researchers based at the Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM), the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and CNR.

Emma Ganley, a senior editor at PLOS Biology, said that a reader contacted them about the figures and the decision to retract the paper was mutual.

Although this paper was published some time ago, we were contacted by a reader who queried some of the figures. We contacted the authors and conducted an inquiry taking time to ensure a fair and thorough consideration of all the available information. We followed the guidelines of the Committee on Publishing Ethics, of which PLOS Biology is a member. As a result of these investigations and after consultation with the authors we reached a mutually agreed upon decision to retract the manuscript. The retraction notice provides a summary of the reasons for the retraction.

It has been cited 172 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Update, 11:00 a.m., 8/10/2015: We’ve heard from de Franciscis who said that he has asked Cerchia to leave the lab:

The work was performed through several years starting in early 2000, then published in 2005. The initial work, essentially performed by D Libri and myself, took several moths with preliminary experiments dedicated to the set-up of the strategy and to overcome possible failures. Since then, several Postdocs put hands on the work with two main contributions by F Ducongè, who performed the Selex rounds and binding analysis, and L Cerchia, who performed the functional analysis.

In early 2015, ten-eleven years after publication, PlosBiol informed Authors that some of the results shown, within those concerning the functional analysis, were clearly fabricated. Since LC produced results in my laboratory, as senior Author and responsible of the laboratory, I informed the CNR of the event. Despite the long period of time from the submission, I realized that the conduct of LC in coping with the situation had severely weakened my trust in her and would have had a negative impact on the training of young students and postdocs, I thus decided to ask Dr Cerchia to definitively leave the Lab. Indeed, even if sometime understated, science and scientific relationships are essentially based on trust and on fair conduct.

Update, 10:45 a.m., 9/29/2015: In a statement to Retraction Watch, Cerchia said:

As I already wrote to Dr. Emma Ganley, senior Editor at PLOS Biology, I confirm that the functional study was in large part conceived and realized by myself, at that time fixed-term researcher at the Institute of Experimental Endocrinology and Oncology “G. Salvatore”, and that the obtained results are those described in the manuscript object of the retraction.

The submission to the Journal of the duplicated blots was a clerical error occurred in the laboratory directed by Dr. de Franciscis, but due to the long period elapsed since the publication it was not possible to trace with certainty how it occurred. However, I would specify that, after 10 years from the publication, we found the original blots related to the experiments that sustained without doubt the results of the paper, even if Dr. de Franciscis seems to have forgotten about this. Dr. de Franciscis sent them to the Editors, however the final decision was to retract the manuscript. Despite I had no direct responsibility on the image manipulation I had unwillingly to agree with the retraction.

Further, I was strongly surprised to read what Dr. de Franciscis declares about the reason why I left his research group: he never asked me to leave the Lab for weakened trust in me but he said to me that, as responsible of my own research lines, I had reached the scientific maturity to lead an independent research group. Indeed, today I am responsible of my own laboratory at the same CNRInstitute.

We asked de Franciscis about Cerchia’s statement but he declined to comment.

Hat tip: Gaetan Burgio

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