How a researcher’s request to correct one paper turned into 19 retractions

Jin Cheng

Last year, a cancer researcher wrote to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, asking to correct one of his papers. The journal responded by requesting the raw data used to prepare his figures. Then, in a follow-up request, it asked for raw data behind the figures in 20 additional published articles.

And when all was said and done six months later, Jin Cheng ended up with far more than just a single correction: Last month, the journal issued withdrawals for 19 of his papers — including the paper he originally asked to correct — along with one correction.

We’ve pieced together some clues about what happened after reviewing correspondence between representatives of JBC and Moffitt Cancer Center, where Cheng conducted his research. A spokesperson for Moffitt confirmed that the retractions did not initiate from an institutional investigation — but that the institution is now conducting one.

That’s not the way retractions typically happen: Often, journals don’t have the resources to conduct investigations themselves, so institutions mostly take the lead in double-checking papers and, if necessary, contacting the journal to initiate a retraction. Here, it seems the opposite took place.

The Moffitt spokesperson also told us that Cheng has retired from Moffitt within the last year, but she didn’t know if his retirement was linked to the retractions or investigation. Moffitt is affiliated with the University of South Florida Health; Cheng’s USF webpage is no longer active.

Kaoru Sakabe, Data Integrity Manager at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which publishes JBC, confirmed to us that the retractions stemmed from an internal investigation:

…back in October, the journal conducted the investigation.

The author requested that the papers be withdrawn.  (The JBC distinguishes between retractions and withdrawals: The journal initiates retractions; authors initiate withdrawals.  The result for each action is the same.)

The journal has also issued a statement, which adds some more information:

The journal withdrew the articles at the request of the corresponding author, Jin Cheng of the Moffitt Cancer Center, after an investigation by the journal.

Each notice explains the impetus for a withdrawal. In most cases, the same data were used to represent different experimental conditions.

But the most clues about the backstory to this slew of retractions come from copies of the emails and letters Moffitt sent to JBC and Cheng’s co-authors, provided to us by Moffitt.

One big question remains: Why did Cheng request to correct a 2010 paper? We’ve contacted him to find out. All we know is that someone posted a query about a figure on PubPeer in 2014.

In April 2015, Cheng requested to correct the paper; that same month, the journal responded, asking Cheng for the original data on April 30. More than one year later, the journal still didn’t have the data; on May 12, 2016, Sakabe sent Cheng a follow-up email, saying that in addition to that paper, they needed to see the raw data behind the figures from 20 others.

At some point, Moffitt’s research integrity officer got involved. On May 17, Brian Springer, the vice president of Research Administration at Moffitt, wrote Sakabe, saying he’d called the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to clarify what additional information the editors needed.  Sakabe wrote back:

Due to our administrative procedure, I am unable to take your call. I can say that concerns have been raised regarding the other manuscripts that the editors would like addressed.

On May 20, 2016, Springer responded to JBC:

I am writing to follow up on a recent request for original data supporting figures in JBC articles. This began with Dr. Jin Cheng’s request to correct an error in a single figure in the JBC article: Shu et al., J Biol Chem. 2010 Oct 22;285(43):33045-53. Dr. Cheng was admittedly slow to provide the original data due to other deadlines, which he regrets very much. This delay then led to a much larger request from JBC for source data for articles stretching all the way back to 2002….Dr. Cheng regrets this situation very much, and he is working to identify and prepare data for the review of JBC.

On July 8, 2016, Cheng and Springer sent Sakabe and JBC editors a letter, which states:

As you may know, the issues being addressed began in April, 2015 with Dr. Cheng’s request to correct an error that he found in two panels of two figures in the JBC article Shu et al., J Biol Chem. 2010 Oct 22; 285(43):33045-53. At that time, the JBC responded by requesting original data for that manuscript. Due to Dr. Cheng having to invest time to meet other unrelated deadlines and given the number of years that had passed since the experiments were originally completed, Dr. Cheng took some time to respond. JBC staff then requested source data for Dr. Cheng’s articles dating back to 2002. JBC and Moffitt consulted on the matter and mutually agreed that Dr. Cheng would provide to JBC the source data for the six JBC papers generated by his lab that were published from 2010-2015.

Dr. Cheng has no doubts regarding the accuracy and completeness of the data reported in those publications and is committed to sharing any data in his possession with JBC. However, several factors have made the complete data difficult to locate, including (i) the long time that has passed since the articles were published (ii) that Dr. Cheng took a 2-month medical leave in July-August 2010; and (iii) that these publications involved several different graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that generated the original research who have subsequently relocated to new positions across the US and internationally.

Dr. Cheng has worked diligently to locate the original data for these six manuscripts. Dr. Cheng did pay for travel of several of the first authors back to Moffitt to assist with locating and providing the data, and he has contacted others virtually to obtain their help in finding the original data requested by JBC.

With regard to the original paper Cheng asked to correct, they note that they couldn’t find the full original data and films, but reviewed records from the weekly lab meetings, a poster presentation and the first author’s thesis:

Based on these records, we are confident the results and conclusion in this manuscript are as stated in the manuscript. To confirm these findings, two current members of the Cheng lab have repeated the experiments, which show similar (if not identical) findings.

For the other manuscripts in question, they supplied the original data that could be located, as well as citation data from other labs that have published papers confirming the results.

Given the fact that we have had difficulty locating several pieces of the original data, the Cheng lab has now instituted shared laboratory drive documentation of all data to alleviate these issues in the future. As noted below, we are willing to repeat the experiments where data in question has been difficult to locate.

Sakabe, however, told us JBC never agreed to restrict the request to six papers. Here’s how she presents the chain of events:

Dr. Cheng originally wanted to correct two figure panels.  We asked for the original data for those figure panels in addition to other figures in the paper.  Dr. Cheng did not provide the original data.   We determined that there were possible problems with the other papers and we requested original data for those additional papers.

We did not agree to focus on the six papers published between 2010-2015.  Our Editorial Policies require that authors keep their original data for a minimum of six years and our requests to Dr. Cheng were consistent with that policy.  Dr. Cheng provided data only from the 6 most recent papers.

We requested that Dr. Cheng withdraw his papers from the journal.  Dr. Cheng and Moffitt Cancer Center withdrew the papers.

Indeed, on August 2, 2016, Sakabe sent Cheng and Springer an email noting that they had reviewed the raw data, and determined that there were problems with 20 papers, such as the same data being used to represent different experiments. Sakabe notes that one paper could be fixed with a correction, then says:

As for the remaining articles, the Editors have requested you withdraw these articles as the reuse of images to represent different experimental conditions is a violation of the JBC policy on publication ethics.

On August 23, Cheng and Springer responded:

While Dr. Cheng and Moffitt may not agree with all of the JBC findings, after diligent review and consideration, Moffitt and Dr. Cheng believe that the best course of action is to withdraw all the publications referenced in the preceding paragraph, with the exception of JBC/2008/M806041200, as noted below, for which additional data is submitted for your consideration. However, Dr. Cheng and the co-authors stand by the overall conclusions of each manuscript which were supported by the remaining data and were confirmed by other independent studies.

The paper flagged by Cheng and Springer — “MicroRNA-221/222 negatively regulates ERα and associates with tamoxifen resistance in breast cancer” — was ultimately retracted. On September 20, Springer asked JBC to modify the language of the withdrawal notice for that paper, stating:

As you recall, Dr. Cheng and Moffitt had requested the opportunity to correct this publication. As JBC has declined this request, we request that this language regarding this publication be amended with an additional sentence: “The authors stand by the overall conclusions of the study.”

That language appears in the withdrawal notice.

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2 thoughts on “How a researcher’s request to correct one paper turned into 19 retractions”

  1. You had me right up until “Often, journals don’t have the resources to conduct investigations themselves”.

    Puh-leeze! Academic publishing is a multi billion dollar industry built on 35% profit margins.
    If anyone has the resources to do this, it’s journals!

  2. “publications involved several different graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that generated the original research who have subsequently relocated to new positions across the US and internationally.”

    Might so other positions be freed up across the US and internationally?

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