JACS corrects, removes author from previously flagged paper

JACSA paper at the center of a high-profile case of alleged misconduct in Hong Kong has earned a correction notice.

The correction replaces an expression of concern on the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) paper, which followed allegations of data manipulation. It provides some un-cropped images, and removes a co-author from the paper. However, it does not appear to address previous allegations of misconduct, nor a recent ruling from an investigation at Hong Kong University (HKU), which found that some of the data were “invalid.”

Here is the correction notice for “Molecular Imaging of Peroxynitrite with HKGreen-4 in Live Cells and Tissues:”

Page 11728. Derek Hoi-Hang Ho, at his request and with the agreement of all co-authors, is removed as an author of this article.

Page 11733. It should be noted that, in Figure 5, we display only the target tissues (i.e., smooth muscles of the aortic root) that are of relevance and interest to the atherosclerosis model for comparison of peroxynitrite levels. Although the surrounding tissues (i.e., cardiac muscles) have greater fluorescence than the tissues of interest (i.e., smooth muscles), they may not be relevant to the atherosclerosis model reported.1 The original uncropped images of Figure 5 are included as Figure S20 in the revised Supporting Information.

Supporting Information. Similarly, in Figure S16, only the target tissues (i.e., smooth muscles) are displayed and compared, whereas surrounding tissues are cropped out for simple illustration. The original uncropped images of Figure S16 are included as Figure S21 in the revised Supporting Information.

According to Yang, Ho had provided some cells for the research and requested to be removed from the paper after he did not agree with adding a correction notice. We have not been able to find contact information for Ho, whose affiliation on the paper is also HKU.

As the Hong Kong Free Press reports, Yang is blaming her students for the problems with the paper:

Yang reportedly changed her position, arguing that her students were responsible for the disputed data. She said that she did not review the raw data before publishing the paper.

The investigation committee held that Yang’s published data was invalid, but accepted her submission that she had no knowledge of the misconduct.

As we reported previously, HKU ruled last year that two students — second author Nai-Kei Wong and co-author Hu Jun — acted negligently in collecting data for the paper, but did not commit misconduct.

Yang told us that the results in the paper are replicable:

As early as April-May, 2015, my group re-performed all cell imaging experiments in HKGreen-4 paper and obtained the same results as published in the JACS paper, and later in June-July, 2015, validation trials were performed with even more stringent conditions under supervision of a third-party imaging expert from another university, as requested by HKU investigators. The validation experimental results, according to this technical expert, have excluded any possibility and intention for data manipulation. We provided JACS with a copy of the data obtained. JACS accepted our Addition/Correction (DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b02642), which comprises of a statement regarding the cropped image used in the main text and the inclusion of all un-cropped images in the revised supporting information.

But, as the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports:

Dr. Lam Yun-wah from the City University of Hong Kong was assigned to monitor one of the students who was asked by the HKU to redo the experiment.

Lam said in his report to the HKU that the student could not replicate the findings stated in Yang’s research findings.

The correction does not address concerns of data manipulation raised by Roger Wong, a former HKU researcher whom Yang fired from her lab. After failing to replicate Yang’s work, Wong told us earlier this year he examined the original data and found inconsistencies.

Yang claims Wong tampered with her raw data; however, according to the Hong Kong Free Press, an expert witness said the possibility the data were fabricated was “very low.” Another expert witness who reviewed Yang’s research findings said her method “was of an ‘unacceptably’ poor standard.”

The publication also reported that HKU has faced criticism for how it has handled the investigation — for instance, not including chemistry experts in the disciplinary committee, and including HKU Vice-Chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang, who has worked with Yang and supervised one of her students.

Hong Kong Free Press contacted HKU for comment about the recent decision to acquit Yang, first reported by the outlet Apple Daily:

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, HKU declined to confirm the allegations and information reported by Apple Daily, citing confidentiality rules. It denied allegations of procedural impropriety and emphasised the school’s commitment to research integrity in a separate statement issued Friday.

Tam, the vice-chancellor who handled Yang’s case, had declared a conflict of interest regarding his past collaborations with Yang before commencing the investigation, according to HKU. Tam was not a member of the investigation committee, which had “acted independently” with the assistance of experts and legal advisors.

We have asked JACS editor Peter Stang if he considered all of Wong’s concerns in reviewing the material for the correction, and if the journal plans to further investigate the paper.

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3 thoughts on “JACS corrects, removes author from previously flagged paper”

  1. I disagree with this decision by JACS. You cannot just remove one author. The original paper consisted of a team. In fact, even if one of the authors was guilty of tampering with data, does that make the person any less of an author? I think not. It just makes the person a dishonest author. The correct action would be to retract the paper and to invite the authors to resubmit a correct data set for a fresh and independent peer review (but with the original set of authors). This patch-work of errata is distorting the reality, as I see it.

    1. As far as I understand, Derek Ho is not involved in the misconduct, he just provided some cells. He did not agree with the correction and instead wanted to be removed as an author. This could mean he did not want any change to the paper at all or maybe he wanted a retraction. Anyway, he did not stand behind the content of the changed paper as it is now anymore. Thus he did not want to be associated with that paper anymore.

      Interesting question, but I actually think it should be the right of any author to withdraw from authorship if he/she does not agree with a corrected paper. After all, he/she only agreed to the original version.

      The topic is more far reaching, what are the rights of a co-author if he/she believes a paper should be retracted (or corrected) and the other authors do not agree? Should a paper automatically be retracted as soon as one author declares “I do not stand behind the paper anymore”? In the sense of “all authors are one”, all have the same responsibility for the data etc., that would be the only logical way to go.

      This discussion is independent from the fact that I also believe retraction would have been the better choice here overall.

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