According to the notice issued by the American Journal of Physiology – Renal Physiology (AJP), the last author initiated the investigation at the University of Houston in Texas, which found the first author — Mousa Abkhezr — to be guilty of falsifying and duplicating images.
We’ve obtained a copy of the investigation report, which concluded that Abkhezr committed misconduct “recklessly,” and the paper must be retracted. Although the report noted that Abkhezr argued that the problems stemmed from an honest error, the investigation committee ruled that data from the retracted paper cannot be included in his doctoral thesis.
The last author told us there is a separate ongoing “academic honesty enquiry” into Abkhezr’s dissertation.
Here’s the retraction notice:
Pleiotropic signaling evoked by tumor necrosis factor in podocytes. Abkhezr M, Kim EY, Roshanravan H, Nikolos F, Thomas C, Hagmann H, Benzing T, Dryer SE. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol 309: F98–F108, 2015.
A research misconduct investigation at the University of Houston initiated by Dr. S. E. Dryer has determined that portions of this work have been falsified. Specifically, the STAT3 blots in Figs. 2D, 4A, and 5A were previously published in the journal Molecular Pharmacology (Abkhezr M and Dryer, SE, Mol Pharmacol 87: 231–239, February 2015) as Figs. 1, B and D, and were improperly used to represent results from a separate set of experiments.
The β-actin blots in Figs. 3, A and B, and 9B are duplicates, as are the β-actin blots in Figs. 4, A and B, and 5A, and were improperly used to represent results from a separate set of experiments.
Therefore, this article is being retracted by the American Physiological Society in agreement with the authors.
The 2015 AJP paper has so far been cited once, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. And the 2014 Molecular Pharmacology paper, “STAT3 Regulates Steady-State Expression of Synaptopodin in Cultured Mouse Podocytes,” has so far gathered three citations.
Last author of the paper, Stuart Dryer from the University of Houston, told us:
I was initially contacted by the American Journal of Physiology paper shortly after the abstract had appeared in PubMed that their image analyses indicated that portions of figures in the retracted article had been used in a previous paper on which Abkhezr was first author that had recently appeared in Molecular Pharmacology and which also dealt with STAT3 signaling.
As soon as I saw the results of their analysis, which convinced me instantly that there were very serious issues, I immediately contacted our [Research Integrity Officer] (RIO) and requested the he put together a committee to investigate. I also contacted all of our co-authors, as well as my west coast colleague who had offered a position to Mousa Abkhezr as a postdoctoral fellow on the basis of my recommendation.
According to Dryer, the colleague thanked him and immediately contacted his human resources department to withdraw the job offer.
Dryer said his feelings on the issue range from “extreme shame,” “guilt” and “anger,” adding:
I would not wish this on my worst enemy.
Dryer sent us the RIO’s report, and gave us permission to make it available. It concludes:
The STAT3 blots are irrefutably the same as those previously published in the Molecular Pharmacology paper and are improperly represented in the AJP manuscript as a separate set of experiments conducted with different treatments. In addition, the β-actin blots are duplicates as alleged.
In the report, Abkhezr claims that duplicating images from the Molecular Pharmacology paper was a “mistake;” that he “lost track of all the bands” and did not always label them. It goes further to say:
The committee carefully considered Dr Abkhezr’s statements that using these control bands was an honest error and has no strong evidence to support the falsification as intentional, however when combined with the fact that similar errors occurred in nine separate figures within the manuscript, the committee believes that the misconduct rises to the level of having been committed recklessly.
In the report, Abkhezr further claimed that the lack of emphasis on managing and labeling data in his laboratory amidst juggling multiple research projects and teaching meant that he could not “keep up good practices.” The report added:
In his response to the committee, Dr Abkhezr provided the committee with .pdf versions of two additional blots, labeled “WB DATA” and “DATA.” He explained that these bands were from different experiments and not duplicated, and should be reviewed in response to allegations 1.b. and 1.c. Unfortunately, these images have no dates on them, are not labeled, and do not in any way identify the experiment run or the context in which they were run. For this reason the committee is unable to consider these blots as additional information related to this investigation. This further exemplifies the poor data management practices of Dr. Abkhezr and the reckless nature of the misconduct.
Although there have been no allegations of misconduct against the Molecular Pharmacology paper, the report recommends that Dryer “thoroughly review” its original data “to determine if it, too, should be retracted.”
Rich Dodenhoff, journals director at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), which publishes Molecular Pharmacology, told us it will look into the situation.
The report notes that Dryer has now adopted digital laboratory archiving and new standards on how to maintain original x-ray films and annotations in hard-bound notebooks. But the image manipulation was not one that could easily be spotted with the naked eye; it needed a “digital analysis,” Dryer told us.
The now-retracted article was submitted around the time Abkhezr also handed in his doctoral dissertation, which, Dryer told us, had the “same research integrity issues.” As a result, Abkhezr has yet to receive his degree, Dryer said:
The problems in the immunoblots were not noticed by me or by anyone else at the time he defended his dissertation, or during the review of the manuscript. Because these data are part of his dissertation there is a separate academic honesty enquiry that is going on, which will pertain to awarding of the degree, and which will ensure that the dissertation is never published.
The fact that this happened and I didn’t catch it proves that I was not vigilant enough. I had no suspicions that this student could do something like this. I should have. In retrospect, there were several red flags, including his developing tendency to work mainly at night. It has changed my management style.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Abkhezr is still based at the University of Houston, but we were unable to obtain current contact information for him. We’ll update the post with anything else we learn.
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