JACS imaging paper “under editorial review” has been replicated, says author

JACS The author of a paper “under editorial review” at the Journal of the American Chemical Society has told us the results the paper have been replicated, contrary to claims made by a former member of her lab.

What’s more, the author said she has submitted a correction to the paper, which is currently flagged with an expression of concern, to provide uncropped images.

We originally reported on the case in February from the perspective of Roger Wong, a former chemist at Hong Kong University who said he hasn’t been able to replicate the findings out of the lab of Dan Yang, a current chemistry professor at HKU (who is female, despite the fact that “Dan” is frequently used as a male name in English). We unfortunately failed to reach Yang in February because of an email glitch; once we contacted Yang, she told us she does not believe Wong’s side of the story:

In the story on Retraction Watch, Dr. Roger Wong claimed that “his lab spent most of 2014 trying to replicate the paper” and that “[they] got almost all negative data. At a very late stage, after almost a year, [they] just wanted to take a look at the raw data to see if there’s something [his] entire team did wrong”. This is completely not true. To my best knowledge (based on emails, lab notebook records, and oral and written reports), Dr. Roger Wong and his task team never used HKGreen-4/4A (peroxynitrite probes) or did any experiments to validate results of the HKGreen-4 paper.

One of Wong’s concerns was that some of the images were composites from different experiments completed with different conditions. Yang told us that she has submitted a correction for the paper that includes uncropped images:

Regarding our JACS paper, the chief editor made the decision in January 2016 and reconfirmed last week: asking us to submit an Addition/Correction to JACS by adding all uncropped tissue imaging in the supporting information. The journal editors requested the Addition/Correction in order to ensure that a more complete understanding of this fluorescence system is made available in the scientific literature. The addition/correction was submitted by JACS editorial office on March 11 and the final decision letter should be received very soon.

The editor in chief of JACS, Peter Stang, would not confirm that the EOC had been resolved as a correction. He said:

We are still working on this and will update the status of the Expression of Concern upon completion of the editorial review.

Yang told us more of the backstory, from her perspective — that she had terminated Wong prior to him filing the complaint:

It was because of his unsatisfactory work performance in my group that I informed Dr. Roger Wong on the phone (December 19, 2014) about my decision to terminate his RAP contract with 4-month prior notice. In late December 2014, Dr. Roger Wong initiated the tissue cropping complaint with JACS, and subsequently filed complaint to the university against his ex-coworkers in my group in January 2015.

She alleged that some of the data Wong used in his analysis was likely “incomplete and untrustworthy:”

From January, 2015 until his departure from my group (April, 2015), Dr. Roger Wong and his subordinates unlawfully copied away our lab materials, including raw data, patent applications and unpublished manuscripts. Some raw imaging data were selectively removed and withhold by them. It is highly likely that the data provided by Roger Wong have been manipulated and repackaged to his advantage during university investigations. Therefore, any analysis based on this incomplete and untrustworthy set of data could be misleading and irresponsible.

She added that her students have replicated the findings:

…as early as April-May, 2015, several students in my lab re-performed all cell imaging experiments in HKGreen-4 paper with highly reproduced results, and later in June-July, 2015, validation trials were performed under the most stringent conditions supervised by a third-party imaging expert from another university, as requested by HKU investigators. The validation experiments showed that our probe worked reliably and the results were consistent with those shown in the HKGreen-4 paper. The HKU DC (Disciplinary Committee) made the final verdicts that cleared the students of all charges in September 2015.

We asked Wong about the allegation that he “unlawfully” copied lab materials. He referred us to an article published in Ming Pao, a Chinese paper, in March (herehere, here and here).

Wong told us:

We stress that all raw data submitted for whistleblowing were lawfully acquired. If one required to ask for permission before he or she is allowed to lawfully collect evidence of data falsification within the same research group, the scientific field worldwide will come to an end for no case of research misconduct would have been reported and the word “research misconduct” will be erased from this world.

A disciplinary committee investigated two students on the paper, and — according to an email to Wong from Kenneth Leung, the Associate Dean Faculty of Science — found that they incorrectly presented some of the research but were not guilty of misconduct.

Leung declined to provide more information to us:

In the light of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and confidentiality, it is not appropriate for me to respond to or comment on the enquiries.

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11 thoughts on “JACS imaging paper “under editorial review” has been replicated, says author”

  1. Referring to the newspaper Ming Pao’s report on March 15th 2016 (http://m.mingpao.com/pns/dailynews/web_tc/article/20160315/s00001/1457978966488, http://m.mingpao.com/pns/dailynews/web_tc/article/20160315/s00001/1457978969359, http://m.mingpao.com/pns/dailynews/web_tc/article/20160315/s00001/1457978970061), the translation of the news articles states that “the investigation committee has made three findings regarding to the JACS HKGreen-4 paper. First, data from experiments conducted on different dates were compiled into composite figures. Second, different degrees of laser intensities were used in experiments to show in figures. Third, images with different experimental settings were compiled into composite figures without properly stated.”

    “An expert witness from King’s College London stated that it was obvious that different degrees of laser intensities were used to display in figures and the higher the laser intensity, the brighter the image was. However, the JACS paper’s figure legends state that uniform laser intensity was used in experiments. In the conclusion, the expert directly pointed out that the above act is not acceptable, readers would assume brighter images refer to something of significance when compared to dimmer images.”

    “After expert(s)’ verification of raw data submitted by the whistleblowers, expert(s) stated that the chance for those raw data being tampered with is pathetically slim except by individuals expert in extraordinary high computing skills. The investigation committee accepted the submitted raw data as intact.”

  2. “…out of the lab of Dan Yang, a current chemistry professor at HKU (who is female, despite the fact that “Dan” is frequently used as a male name in English).”
    FYI: It is common, even typical, for Chinese names to be presented as surname followed by given name. Therefore, I suspect that “Yang” is the given name and “Dan” is the surname.
    This means that rather than saying “We unfortunately failed to reach Yang…” it would be appropriate to instead say “We unfortunately failed to reach Dan…” – and avoid making unnecessary and possibly embarrassing comments about foreign names.

    1. Actually, Dan is her given name and Yang is her family name. You can see this in her department’s homepage: http://www.chemistry.hku.hk/people_academic.php . All family names are in upper case.

      Yes, Chinese names are usually written so that the family name is first. But in university homepages, they usually stick to a particular way so that it doesn’t confuse people. And if that doesn’t work, they might do something else — such as using upper case.

  3. I totally agree with you Carl. I found the sentence “who is female, despite the fact that “Dan” is frequently used as a male name in English” disparaging.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. We included that phrase so that when we referred to Dan Yang as “she,” it would not be confusing for those accustomed to seeing “Dan” as a male name.

      1. On second thought, “disparaging” is too strong a word. Still, I believe the sentence was unnecessary.

        1. I think from the editors of Retraction Watch’s point of view, they know that the target audience are English language speakers. Thus, it’s a trade-off between not saying it and having people complain that “he” should be used throughout *or* saying it and having people use words like “unnecessary”.

          I think the best option is whichever one that will garner the least number of complaints… 🙂

  4. Carl wrote: “FYI: It is common, even typical, for Chinese names to be presented as surname followed by given name. Therefore, I suspect that “Yang” is the given name and “Dan” is the surname.”

    Thanks for your most valuable information, but two clicks would have shown you that she uses the name “Dan Yang” (Yang, D.) in her papers in American journals.

    Nothing wrong with assuming “Dan” is her first name. Some people like to be offended, I guess.

    Gu Fu wrote: “I found the sentence “who is female, despite the fact that “Dan” is frequently used as a male name in English” disparaging.”

    It is not disparaging at all, but very understandable. Many Chinese use “English names” in daily life, and so if we read of a “Dan” it might easily have been such an “English name”.

    1. No, not disparaging. There is nothing wrong with clarification. It is better to clarify more than may be necessary than to be wrong. I think if you were a regular reader here, you would understand that that is a value often upheld.

      And, I doubt that most of those keeping up with academics who have committed gross misconduct are all that concerned about the proper ordering of a Chinese persons’ names.

  5. Also covered in HKFP now: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/05/07/hku-embroiled-in-research-misconduct-scandal/

    The Hong Kong University Grants Council has to shoulder some of the blame for this mess by not introducing policies regarding research data management in a similar manner to the major US and European funders. Having the raw data hosted somewhere and independently available for scrutiny and re-use by completion of the project would have made this much less likely to happen. I’ve done a FOI request to see if the completion reports contained any other useful information or leads regarding the data (could be listed in the “other impact” section). Not spotted much useful in there, but if the information is useful to others you can see the response here: https://accessinfo.hk/en/request/project_completion_reports_on_hk

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