The last author of a 1999 paper has asked the journal to retract it less than one month after a user raised questions about images on PubPeer.
Yesterday, last author Jim Woodgett posted a note on the site saying the author who generated the figures in question could not find the original data, and since he agreed the images appeared “suspicious,” he had contacted the journal to retract the paper.
Here’s the note from Woodgett, based at Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum
Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto:
…the person who generated the original data cannot source it and, as a consequence, a request to retract this paper based on the discrepancies in figure 5B and C has been submitted and approved.
The PubPeer exchange is over a pair of figures in the 1999 paper, “Regulation of the protein kinase activity of Shaggy(Zeste-white3) by components of the wingless pathway in Drosophila cells and embryos,” which has been cited 77 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.
One day after a user posted the figures, Woodgett responded:
I’m senior author on that paper and those figures were all from my lab and most likely generated by the first author, Dr. Laurent Ruel, who is a fantastic geneticist. I’ll ask him to dig out the primary auto rads (hopefully still has them from 17 years ago) but looks at my first glance like noise (the placement is just bizarre for any malicious intent, no?).
Woodgett added on the thread that the he agrees with the questions raised by the user:
I can’t tell without the original data but the top figure is certainly suspicious to me, as it stands…Yes, bottom suspicious too. The red box and area just below in lane F matches an unmarked space on the left-hand most lane that’s not boxed. Too much of a coincidence…
On September 21, Woodgett announced on PubPeer that he had asked the journal to retract the paper, as the author who generated the figures could not find the original data to resolve the questions.
Woodgett told us isn’t sure what went wrong with the images:
I think there was manipulation, and I don’t understand why.
He added that he asked an outside expert to conduct an image analysis, who “backed up there were significant issues.”
Woodgett said he wasn’t surprised that Ruel — who left his lab in 1999 and now is based at Institut Valrose Biologie in France — couldn’t find the original data. “I’ve got stuff from 1990,” Woodgett told us, but he realizes many scientists don’t keep their findings that long.
Mostly, Woodgett told us he is disappointed by the retraction, which he called a “waste:”
It was a great paper. That figure wasn’t that important for the paper, certainly not for the conclusions.
He added that other groups have since backed up the paper’s findings, which are now “lore.”
It’s not surprising that Woodgett acted so promptly and transparently when questions about one of his papers arose — a prime example of “doing the right thing.” In 2012, he argued in Nature that scientists need to be more “open about our mistakes:”
The scientific community must be diligent in highlighting abuses, develop greater transparency and accessibility for its work, police research more effectively and exemplify laudable behaviour. This includes encouraging more open debate about misconduct and malpractice, exposing our dirty laundry and welcoming external examination.
We’ve asked JBC to confirm that the authors have requested to retract the paper, and contacted Ruel.
Woodgett was a co-author on one previous retraction, after a researcher forged his signature on a paper Woodgett didn’t agree to publish. Here’s the notice for “GSK-3beta in mouse fibroblasts controls wound healing and fibrosis through an endothelin-1-dependent mechanism,” published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation:
The senior author, Andrew Leask, signed the authorship agreement form on behalf of James R. Woodgett without his knowledge or consent and takes full and complete responsibility for this action. The senior author sincerely apologizes for any inconvenience this error has caused and would like to emphasize that this in no way diminishes the validity of the data presented in the article. However, the article is being retracted in accordance with JCI policy.
Update 9/23/16 8:26 p.m. eastern: We’ve heard from Ruel, who responded to the suggestions the images had been manipulated:
I have exchange on this with Dr . Jim Woodgett, and unfortunately I do not keep the original blots with me. Compared to other figures of the paper, the quality of the blots are very poor , grainy and low resolution (P32 labelling), and possible some cleaning work was done on the background. But scientific information and contents of this figure are entirely accurate, as the rest of the paper, and [been] confirmed by numerous lab since [then].
As first author of this paper I am agreed with Dr. Woodgett for the retraction of 1999 JBC paper…
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