Firefly paper flagged following Queensland investigation

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A BMC journal has added an expression of concern to a paper on firefly genes after a University of Queensland investigation determined a table should be credited to a different source.

According to a representative of the university, the investigation found no evidence of misconduct. The university submitted an erratum that the journal chose not to publish; in the EOC note, the journal says the wording of the erratum is “under dispute.”

The erratum submitted to the journal specifies that the table should be attributed to former UQ biologist Robert Birch, who was not an author on the paper. The investigation concluded that the authors had not committed misconduct and “acted in good faith” in using the table, Anton Middelberg, University of Queensland Pro-Vice-Chancellor told us.

The paper, “Synthetic versions of firefly luciferase and Renilla luciferase reporter genes that resist transgene silencing in sugarcane, published in BMC Plant Biology, has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s the expression of concern:

The publishers of this journal are publishing this Expression of Concern because attribution for the synthesis and design of the luc* and Renluc* coding sequences in this article [1] is under dispute.

The correct table and description of the method set out in Table S1 can be found in this article [2].

The University of Queensland advises that there has been no academic misconduct but the wording of any erratum remains under dispute.

We asked Middelberg if there was a formal investigation into possible misconduct. He told us,

Yes. Following concerns raised about authorship, appropriate attribution and potential minor plagiarism, a thorough investigation was conducted in accordance with The University of Queensland policy and procedure and the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007). The investigation found no evidence of research misconduct by the authors and found that Dr Moyle as principal author had acted in good faith.  Dr Moyle was requested to correct the scientific record by providing appropriate attribution to the author of Supplementary Table 1.

We asked if the university would resolve the authorship issue mentioned in the EOC. Middelberg said,

UQ and Dr Moyle have attempted to do so, submitting the following erratum to BMC Plant Biology, based on investigation of the issue.

Here’s the text of the erratum they submitted, which credits the author of the supplementary table:

There are two omissions in supplementary table 1. The corrected table can be found within “Design rules for efficient transgene expression in plants”, Plant Biotechnology Journal (2014) 12 pp. 925-933.

The authors would also like to acknowledge Robert Birch as the original author of the supplementary table and technical information provided in the material and methods section under the heading “Design and synthesis of luc* and Renluc* coding sequences”.

Middelberg told us:

The journal declined to publish the erratum, instead publishing a notice of concern that appears to meet the spirit of the erratum.

We reached out to Maria Kowalczuk, the author of the EOC and a member of the Research Integrity Group at BioMed Central. She forwarded our request to BMC spokesperson Shane Canning who told us:

We have no further comment to make at this time beyond what has been stated in the expression of concern.

We’ve reached out to author Richard Moyle, an agriculture researcher at the UQ, and will update this post with anything else we learn. An email to Birch’s UQ email address bounced back.

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One thought on “Firefly paper flagged following Queensland investigation”

  1. When I saw “Firefly paper” in the title, I was startled. At first I thought that it meant fly-paper to catch fireflies for those charming insects to end their days in agony stuck to it. Whew! It referred to something else altogether!

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