Nature retracts paper six years after it was flagged for fraud

cover_natureNature retracted a paper on protein structures today, six years after an investigation at the University of Alabama identified several structures that were “more likely than not falsified and/or fabricated” by one of the authors.

The paper came under scrutiny soon after it was published in 2006. A letter published in Nature that same year pointed out “physically implausible features in the structures it described.” That triggered the investigation at the University of Alabama, the result of which was published in 2009, identifying “nine publications related to the same protein structures that should be retracted from various scientific journals.” Everything was pinned on last author H.M. Krishna Murthy, who the investigation determined was “solely responsible for the fraudulent data.”

A 2009 Nature news article on the investigation declared that the “fraud is the largest ever in protein crystallography.”

We’re not sure what took Nature so long to retract the letter, titled “The structure of complement C3b provides insights into complement activation and regulation.” Here’s the note, which explains that not all the authors agreed to the retraction:

This Letter is retracted by Nature. This follows an investigation by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama, USA, of structures deposited into the Protein Data Bank under accession 2HR0 by H. M. Krishna Murthy. Co-authors who agree with the Retraction: A. Abdul Ajees, John E. Volanakis, Sthanam V. Narayana. Co-authors who do not support the Retraction: Girish J. Kotwal and H. M. Krishna Murthy. K. Gunasekaran has not responded. The report from the University of Alabama at Birmingham investigation is available at: http://www.uab.edu/reporterarchive/71570-uab-statement-on-protein-data-bank-issues.

The statement from that investigation called for the retraction of nine publications in total that

should be retracted from various scientific journals, and is making those journals aware of this matter.

The online-first version of the paper has been cited 7 times, and the print version has been cited 42 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

We spoke to co- author Sthanam V. Narayana, who works at UAB, by phone.

This is a pretty old story, I don’t know why Nature took so long. Nature asked us maybe two months back, do I have any comment or objection for retracting.

He told them that he would gladly see it retracted. We asked if he was surprised by the results of the investigation:

Of course. Naturally. He’s a fellow scientist, a reputable scientist, we never suspected anything wrong. the part we looked at, it looked alright to us.  We didn’t have any role in that part of the work.

We’ve found that four of the other papers from the investigation have been retracted. Murthy is the only author common to all of them:

According to the university investigation, with regard to the now-retracted Nature paper:

No raw crystallographic data, data reduction output, or any other experimental records that would support the correctness of the structure of 2HR0, or demonstrate that this was an experimentally determined structure, were available for examination.

The Nature news article from 2009 explains how the investigation began:

When the structures were deposited in the PDB, Janssen immediately noticed discrepancies between Murthy’s and his own, including large ‘gaps’ in the lattice that were unusual in such a well resolved and ordered structure. Janssen and his supervisor, Piet Gros, enlisted two well known crystallographers, Randy Read of the University of Cambridge, UK, and Axel Brünger of Stanford University, California, to examine it. They agreed that Murthy’s structure seemed to be fake. The group sent a brief communication to Nature in December 2006 questioning the structure and forwarded their concerns to the University of Alabama.

In December, we noticed on ChemFeeds that the letter was listed as retracted:

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.21.14 PM

At the time, a spokesperson for Nature told us that the paper hadn’t been retracted yet, and that

Nature does not comment on retractions that may or may not be under consideration.

We have reached out to Nature for further information, and to authors John Volanakis (who has retired from UAB), and Abdul Ajees Abdul Salam (Manipal University). We could not find contact information for Murthy. We’ll update this post with anything else we learn.

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10 thoughts on “Nature retracts paper six years after it was flagged for fraud”

  1. I have discussed this paper in a number of contexts on RW, and have brought it up at every meeting where a Nature editor has been in attendance. It is massively irresponsible for them to have taken this long. There is simply no excuse.

  2. Holy cow, I thought that piece of @#$% had been retracted years ago! I think every protein crystallographer on planet knows the disgusting story, but I didn’t realize that the paper itself was still out there misleading biologists.

  3. What about the other ones? This is a clear case where RW could actually do some good- given that UAB has already supposedly called for the retractions? When did they do that? Why are the other papers still in the literature?

  4. I was told (a while ago) by someone with knowledge of the affair that Nature wouldn’t retract an article unilaterally. I’m not sure what changed – maybe the other authors hadn’t chimed in ? – but better late than never.

  5. How is it unilateral when investigation asks for retraction? That was an awful stain- and quite galling. And there are a number of other journals that have also not retracted.

    1. I was told that it’s irrelevant what the institution wanted as long as the individuals (especially corresponding author) were holding out – and there’s no question that Nature was aware of the investigation, as they published a news article about it in 2009. (Again, this is hearsay, and it’s possible their policy is just altogether incoherent.) I’m certainly not defending them; it was appalling poor judgement, but hardly the first or the last time Nature’s editorial process has broken badly.

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