We’ve uncovered a “mega-correction“ for a 2010 paper in Development, posted as the result of an investigation into the first author which has already led to three retractions.
Last year, the Utrecht University investigation into Pankaj Dhonukshe found “manipulation in some form” in four papers, and concluded that he committed a “violation of academic integrity.” The investigation also led to the retraction of a 2012 Cell paper and two papers in Nature that were co-authored by Dhonukshe.
Development began investigating the corrected paper after being contacted by one of the authors and alerted to the results of the university’s investigation. The notice includes a statement from Dhonukshe objecting to the correction.
The corrected paper, “Plasma membrane-bound AGC3 kinases phosphorylate PIN auxin carriers at TPRXS(N/S) motifs to direct apical PIN recycling,” was published in 2010 and has been cited 81 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
The correction notice, published this summer, reads, in part:
The authors informed us of problems related to Fig. 3C and Fig. 7D in Development 137, 3245-3255. Both issues were noted by an investigation by the Technical Committee of Utrecht University (UTC) into this publication. Based on the findings provided (detailed below), the journal has decided that the major conclusions of the paper are not affected and that retraction is not required, but that a correction should be provided with an explanation of the circumstances. This course of action complies with our policy on correction of issues in the scientific record, which states: “Should an error appear in a published article that affects scientific meaning or author credibility but does not affect the overall results and conclusions of the paper, our policy is to publish a Correction”.
The notice includes five paragraphs of changes to the paper, focusing on two figures.
It also includes a statement from Dhonukshe that he disagrees with the notice:
Pankaj Dhonukshe, the co-first and co-corresponding author of the original manuscript, is not listed as an author on this Correction upon his request.
The notice then presents Dhonukshe’s specific objections to the changes, including that they do “not affect the published conclusion.”
Dhonukshe also disagreed with the retraction of the 2008 Nature paper. He stood by the paper’s conclusions and told us last year the retraction “is not based on any deficiencies in published experiments and results.”
In a statement to Retraction Watch, Development’s Executive Editor Katherine Brown explained that the journal conducted their own investigation into the paper after being contacted by last author, Remko Offringa:
To answer your questions, we were contacted by the co-corresponding author, Remko Offringa, after became aware of the concerns with the paper – which we understand became apparent during a Utrecht University investigation – of which some Retraction Watch readers may already be aware. We then launched our own investigation into the case, involving our Editor in Chief, a scientific expert in the field from our editorial team, and an independent image analysis expert. As stated in the Correction notice, the authors provided us with all the raw data pertaining to Figure 3C, allowing us to conclude that the lanes spliced together in that figure panel had come from the same gel, and that the ‘cut-and-paste’ – while falling short of the journal’s data presentation policies – did not affect the results or conclusions of the paper. These data are now shown in full in the corrected Figure – along with additional information in the revised figure legend. Regarding Figure 7D, both the Utrecht committee and our own independent expert concluded that the images had been inappropriately manipulated and invalidating the results presented in that figure panel.
Brown said that this is a serious case but that correction was the right response:
Following extensive discussions and liaison with the Utrecht committee, we decided that a Correction was the more appropriate course of action than a full retraction of the paper. As the authors state in their Correction notice, disregarding the result presented in this figure panel does not invalidate the major conclusions of the paper, and extensive investigation – at both an institutional and journal level – revealed no further concerns with the work. The journal’s policies (http://dev.biologists.org/content/journal-policies#corrections) are that “Should an error appear in a published article that affects scientific meaning or author credibility but does not affect the overall results and conclusions of the paper, our policy is to publish a Correction in print and online… Should a published paper contain one or more significant errors or inaccuracies that change the overall results and conclusions of the paper, the entire paper should be retracted.” While not downplaying the seriousness of this case, we believe that it fits into the former category, and therefore that a Correction was the appropriate response. We note that there is a significant body of literature in this field that supports the conclusions of this paper and felt that the community would be better served by a detailed Correction notice – making them aware of which parts of the paper should be considered invalid, but also of where there was no evidence of malpractice. We do recognise that this is an unusual situation, but we believe that this is the outcome that best preserves the integrity of the scientific record.
Offringa told us that the other authors first became aware of the problems with the paper after the investigation:
In February 2014 we became aware through publications in different media including retraction watch that the Technical Committee of Utrecht University (UTC) had found anomalies in 4 publications where Dr. Pankaj Dhonuskhe was first or last author. One of these concerned a publication in Development entitled “Plasma membrane-bound AGC3 kinases phosphorylate PIN auxin carriers at TPRXS(N/S) motifs to direct apical PIN recycling”, where Dhonukshe was first author and I was last author. Comments by the UTC concerned two figures, one of which (Fig 3C) was contributed by my group, and the other (Fig. 7D) was contributed by Dr. Dhonukshe, who at that time worked in the group of Prof. Ben Scheres at Utrecht University.
He detailed the investigation into each of the figures, which you can read here. He concluded:
All co-authors, including Dr. Dhonukshe (and his lawyer), have had ample opportunity to give their input on the text of the Correction, and all co-authors, except for Dr. Dhonukshe, have agreed to the final text and publication of the Correction.
Dhonukshe told us he believes the figure should not have been removed:
As the “anomaly” at figure 7D does not affect the published conclusion the current content related to figure 7D should therefore have been revised, and not removed…By removing the figure the editor of Development gives room to Utrecht University in their desperate search for ‘proof’ that they need to construct ‘fabrication’ (i.e. repeated action) in a decision of almost two years ago by now. With this final correction text including my dissenting comment they fail. Further and finally, as the published image is NOT processed by me I cannot be singled out for the blame.
To conclude: I disagree with the correction of figure 3C (Offringa) and I disagree with the removal of figure 7D. I do not think that the article should have been retracted.
Last year, Ben Scheres, a co-author on Dhonukshe’s retracted papers, told Retraction Watch that he was “deeply saddened and disturbed about all these incidents.”
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