Cell Press flags two papers after author confesses to fraud

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 8.45.56 PMNormally, when we see disputes over fraud allegations, it’s one author accusing another — but an unusual case at Cell has recently crossed our desk.

The journal has flagged a paper after an author confessed to committing fraud himself — but the corresponding author is disputing that confession, citing concerns about the confessor’s “motives and credibility.”

Independent labs are repeating the experiments to determine if the third author on the paper did, as he so claims, manipulate experiments. In the meantime, Cell and Molecular Cell have issued expressions of concern (EOCs) for two papers on which Yao-Yun Liang was a co-author. The notices cite an inquiry at Baylor College of Medicine, where the work was done, which was inconclusive, and recommended the journals take no action about the papers.

The EOCs are pretty much the same (both journals are published by Cell Press). Here’s the EOC that appears on “PPM1A functions as a Smad phosphatase to terminate TGFbeta signaling,” published in 2006 by Cell and cited 251 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science:

Yao-Yun Liang of the above article informed us, the Cell editors, that he manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results in Figures 2F, 2H, and 3G. The corresponding author of the paper, Xin-Hua Feng, has refuted the validity of Liang’s claims, citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility. In a continuing process, we have consulted with the authors, the corresponding author’s institution, and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and we have evaluated the available original data. The Committee on Scientific Integrity at the corresponding author’s institution, Baylor College of Medicine, conducted a preliminary inquiry that was inconclusive and recommended no further action. As the institution’s inquiry was inconclusive and it has been difficult to adjudicate the conflicting claims, we have provided the corresponding author an opportunity to arrange repetition of the experiments in question by independent labs. These experiments are currently underway. This statement is to alert the community to the concerns about the data and to our ongoing process. We will provide an update when the process is concluded.

Direct Interaction of c-Myc with Smad2 and Smad3 to Inhibit TGF-β-Mediated Induction of the CDK Inhibitor p15Ink4B” in Molecular Cell has been cited 146 times; Liang is the second author. The expression of concern is the same as the one above, but it specifies that the potential issues in this 2002 paper are with Figures 5C and 5D.

A spokesperson for Cell Press told us that he couldn’t comment further on the concerns that Feng had with Liang’s motives, and that the potential issues with the figures came to light when Liang contacted the journal.

We asked for more information on why the journal went against BCM’s recommendation. The Cell Press spokesperson told us:

Baylor College of Medicine conducted a preliminary inquiry that was inconclusive. We found the approach described in the expression of concern to be the most appropriate for this situation, as a way to move beyond the conflicting claims towards a clearer data-supported resolution.

We’ve reached out to BCM, and to the corresponding author on both papers, Xin-Hua Feng, as well as Xia Lin, the first author on the Cell paper and last author on Molecular Cell; both Feng and Lin work at BCM. We could not find current contact information for Yao-Yun Liang, who worked at BCM at the time the paper was published. The Cell Press spokesperson said he couldn’t provide further information on Liang’s whereabouts.

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