Biologist under investigation asks journal to swap image, journal retracts the paper

Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, via the University of Gothenburg
Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, via the University of Gothenburg

When a researcher discovered one of the images in her papers was a duplication, she asked the journal to fix it — but the journal decided to retract the paper entirely.

The researcher, Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, is currently being investigated by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden after a number of her papers were questioned on PubPeer. She told us the duplication was the result of ‘‘genuine human error.’’ Tissue Engineering Part A, however, decided the request to swap the image was a ‘‘cause for concern,’’ and chose to retract the paper. 

Here’s the retraction notice:

The Editors of Tissue Engineering are officially retracting the published article entitled, ‘‘Replacement of a Tracheal Stenosis with a Tissue-Engineered Human Trachea Using Autologous Stem Cells: A Case Report,’’ by Berg M, et al., Tissue Eng Part A; 2014;20 (1/2):389–397; DOI: 10.1089/ten.tea.2012.0514.

The corresponding author, Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, of the above-named article contacted the Editors via email to ask for a figure in the article to be replaced nearly three years after publication because it was duplicated from a previously published article from her group. As requests of this kind are highly irregular and are often cause for concern, the editors determined that a retraction was in order.

The editorial leadership of Tissue Engineering is committed to the highest standards of scientific content and integrity, and does not tolerate any improprieties.

In March this year, we reported that the University of Gothenburg in Sweden (where Sumitran-Holgersson and her husband are now based) is conducting an investigation into Sumitran-Holgersson’s work after several of her papers — including the newly retracted one — were challenged on PubPeer. Leonid Schneider reported he forwarded the PubPeer comments to the editors of Tissue Engineering Part A on March 3.

According to Schneider, the charity Hjärt-Lungfonden (Heart-Lung-Foundation) in Stockholm, Sweden, has frozen Sumitran-Holgersson’s funding. Kristina Sparreljung, general secretary of Hjärt-Lungfonden, told Schneider:

Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson has an ongoing support from us during 2016 and 2017 with 500,000 Swedish crowns per year. She has received 500,000 Swedish crowns so far. As soon as the cheating issue came to our attention, we have made every effort to assess the situation and act properly based on the information we have. As a first step, we decided to freeze the payments. We have also asked the institution to freeze its payments, but they have decided to let Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson research further until the investigation is complete. She will not receive any more money from us until the investigation is complete.

The paper, “Replacement of a Tracheal Stenosis with a Tissue-Engineered Human Trachea Using Autologous Stem Cells: A Case Report,” has been cited 13 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

It described a procedure that should be familiar to readers for another reason — a trachea transplant seeded with the patient’s own stem cells, which is associated with another researcher under investigation in Sweden, Paolo Macchiarini. In the Tissue Engineering Part A paper, Sumitran-Holgersson and her team report that the patient died from cardiac arrest following the operation. 

Sumitran-Holgersson lost another paper in Blood after a previous investigation decided that its results could not be considered reliable. Sumitran-Holgersson and her husband Jan Holgersson, who both co-authored the Blood paper, did not sign the 2011 retraction notice.

Regarding the newly retracted paper, Sumitran-Holgersson described the study to us as: 

…the only article in the literature that honestly recounts the events of the post-transplant period in a patient receiving a tissue-engineered trachea and the lessons learned in this field.

She added: 

The authors had submitted to the editors of Tissue Engineering the original art files with dates and timings to prove that no manipulation has occurred but a genuine human error.

Sumitran-Holgersson noted that the change of figure would have “no bearing” on the outcome of the study, adding:

The truth of the matter is that the University investigation is not yet completed and none of the authors have agreed to the retraction as we do not believe that any manipulation has occurred. Thus neither the authors or the University has asked for a retraction of the paper.

Sumitran-Holgersson told Retraction Watch that it was “regrettable” that the journal did not give the authors the “benefit of the doubt” and wait for the completion of the institutional investigation.

As we reported earlier this year, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden (where Sumitran-Holgersson was formerly based) has also investigated Sumitran-Holgersson’s work and concluded that there is a “strong suspicion of scientific misconduct and falsification of data by Suchitra Holgersson.” 

Peter Johnson, co-editor-in-chief of Tissue Engineering Part A from Raleigh, North Carolina, said:

We conduct our investigations internally before we make decisions, which of course are confidential processes.

Previously, a spokesperson from the University of Gothenburg told us that the institution could not comment on the case while the investigation is ongoing.

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