Institute director loses third paper following investigation

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An autism researcher is retracting a paper she shared with the director of a New York institute, following a misconduct investigation.

In 2011, suspicions raised by peer reviewers triggered the investigation into several papers by Xiaohong Li at the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities (IBR) in New York. The probe concluded in 2013 that there was no evidence of misconduct, but the committee recommended the institute review all relevant papers. This additional review led to the latest retraction, the result of problems with figures which “underpin the conclusions of the study.”

This is Li’s third retraction, all of which she shares with W. Ted Brown, the director of  IBR. The pair lost two articles in 2013.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Alteration of astrocytes and Wnt/beta-catenin signaling in the frontalcortex of autistic subjects,” published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation: 

The corresponding author Xiaohong Li is retracting this article [1]. Following a review of the original data, the results presented in Figures 5A and 5B which underpin the conclusions of this study were found to be unreliable because of possible technical artifacts in lanes 9–12 of the beta-catenin blot. BioMed Central has been advised by the authors’ institution that investigations by the Research Integrity Committee of the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene Governance Committee and the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene Board of Directors concluded that this article should be removed from the scientific literature. W Ted Brown, Ashfaq M Sheikh and Zujaja Tauqeer have agreed with this retraction. We have been unable to contact Fujiang Cao, Ailan Yin, Guang Wen, Mazhar Malik, Amenah Nagori, Michael Schirripa, Frank Schirripa, George Merz and Shiqing Feng.

The 2012 paper has been cited 15 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Carl Dobkin, the Chair of the Research Integrity Committee at IBR, told us that an initial allegation was brought the university in 2011:

The allegation of misconduct occurred when a manuscript was submitted for publication by Dr. Li; the manuscript’s reviewers had noted problems with the article that suggested scientific misconduct and the journal’s editor had concurred and notified the Institute.

An investigation concluded in 2013:

…that Dr. Li had not committed research misconduct but that the problems were possibly due to mismanagement of the laboratory and inadequate supervision of junior investigators. The Governance Committee [which carried out the investigation] made recommendations that included a review of all relevant publications.

He said:

Initial review of the Cao et al. paper suggested that there might be problems similar to those that led to the allegation of research misconduct. The [Research Integrity Committee] asked two senior scientists to examine the paper and the supporting material furnished by Dr. Li. After an extensive review these two investigators concluded that the supporting material and data were not adequate to justify the conclusions presented in in figures 3 and 5b and that Cao et al. should be retracted because of its potential to mislead other researchers.

In other words, he said, the reviewers found the paper was:

…not fabricated, just not supported by the material she presented to the two reviewers.

The senior scientists came to that conclusion in 2014, according to Dobkin. We asked why it took so long for the retraction notice to appear; he told us:

At least part of the reason is that once BioMed Central received the retraction request, they followed their own investigation protocol for retraction.

We’ve followed up with the journal to ask about the delay.

In addition to the retractions, Brown and Li have a a few errata. For instance, here’s a 2013 notice on “NF-B Signaling in the Brain of Autistic Subjects,” published in Mediators of Inflammation:

In the original paper, mistakes occurred in Figures 1, 2, and 3 should be replaced with the figures below. In addition, a new author Fujiang Cao has been added as the second author in this paper.

The 2011 paper has been cited four times.

Li has another correction from 2013, for “PRKX critically regulates endothelial cell proliferation, migration, and vascular-like structure formation” in Developmental Biology:

The actin panel in Fig. 4d and the control image in Fig. 7b were incorrect as printed. The correct panels appear below.

The 2011 paper has been cited nine times.

We have reached out to Li and Brown for comment.

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