Researchers retract two well-cited papers for misconduct

A scientist in Germany has lost two papers that were collectively cited more than 500 times, after an investigation at her former university found her guilty of scientific misconduct.

The probe into Tina Wenz by the University of Cologne in Germany, her former employer, recommended that six of her papers — which have induced some chatter on PubPeer — should be retracted. One of these papers was pulled by Cell Metabolism last year. Now, Cell Metabolism has pulled another of Wenz’s papers, and she has also lost another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which was previously corrected. 

First, here’s the PNAS retraction notice, issued today:

Retraction for “Increased muscle PGC-1α expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging,” by Tina Wenz, Susana G. Rossi, Richard L. Rotundo, Bruce M. Spiegelman and Carlos T. Moraes, which appeared in issue 48, December 1, 2009, of Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (106:20405–20410; first published November 16, 2009; 10.1073/pnas.0911570106). The authors wish to note the following, “This article describes improved systemic health in mice overexpressing PGC-1α in muscle. Following an investigation on Tina Wenz by the University of Cologne, it was concluded that there was scientific misconduct with respect to the above paper. Specifically, blots in Figs. 2D and 3B also appear in an unrelated publication (1). In addition, there was a previously detected duplication of a tubulin blot between Figs. 4D and 5D. Even if its main conclusions may be correct, given that the scientific integrity of the paper was compromised, we see the retraction of the paper as the best corrective action. We sincerely apologize to the scientific community.”

The 2009 paper, “Increased muscle PGC-1α expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging,” has been cited 334 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

As we previously reported, a figure in the PNAS paper was corrected in 2014, noting a control blot “appeared incorrectly.”

In October, Carlos Moraes, the study’s last author from the University of Miami in Florida, told us he was hesitating to proceed with a retraction, but ultimately decided to follow the probe’s recommendation. Moraes told Retraction Watch:

It was a difficult decision to retract the PNAS paper because a few of its figures were used in another paper published four years later. However, because essentially all the papers from my lab where Tina Wenz was the first author had some type of blot duplication problem, we felt that it was not possible to defend it and the right thing to do would be to concur with the recommendation from the University of Cologne investigation panel and retract the paper.

He added:

There were data in all the papers where she was the first author that others in my lab and even outside my lab were able to reproduce (e.g. PGC-1a overexpression protects muscle with a mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation deficiency). However, we still retracted all of them because the scientific integrity was compromised. Personally, I found that this was the only way to assure that work coming out of my lab is viewed as trustworthy.

Here’s the other retraction notice, issued by Cell Metabolism last week:

This article reports that PGC-1a improves mitochondrial myopathy and that its overexpression can compensate for an OXPHOS defect. Following an investigation of the first author, Dr. Wenz, by the University of Cologne, Germany, the university came to the conclusion that scientific misconduct was proven with respect to the above paper. Specifically, blot duplications were identified in Figures S3, S4, and S5. Given that the scientific integrity of the study has been compromised, we see the retraction of the paper as the best corrective action and sincerely apologize to the scientific community.

This 2008 paper, “Activation of the PPAR/PGC-1a Pathway Prevents a Bioenergetic Deficit and Effectively Improves a Mitochondrial Myopathy Phenotype,” has garnered 213 citations.

We’ve reached out to Wenz’s attorney, Lucas Brost, for a comment.

A spokesperson from the University of Cologne pointed us to this press release (in German) that the university released in September. According to a Google-translated version, all three of Wenz papers that have been retracted so far (as well as two others flagged by the probe),

show clear signs of deliberate manipulation and deception. This is a question of scientific misconduct by data manipulation in accordance with Art. Section 6 (1a) and (b) GWP-O.

Image-related problems in the PNAS paper (and an as-of-yet unretracted paper in Mitochondrion) are unlikely to be “accidental copying,” the release says:

The complexity of the image changes (horizontal and vertical reflections, rotations and distortions, adjustment of brightness and contrast, rotation, angular changes) are against accidental copying.

The spokesperson added

…Wenz [quit] her job in order for another work opportunity.

Wenz is now based at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. A spokesperson for the organization told us:

…Dr. Wenz has always been transparent to us about the ongoing investigation and the respective outcome and has taken the full responsibility for any misconduct that happened in her laboratory or through her coworkers at the University of Cologne.

We have no doubt in the quality of the research of Dr. Wenz at Boehringer Ingelheim. Integrity and validity of data resulting out of Boehringer Ingelheim’s research are of utmost importance for us and we have rigorous validation processes in place to assure the high quality of these data.

We asked Moraes if the case of Wenz — formerly his postdoc — was a learning experience, and he said:

Of course I learned something from the experience. No matter how mature, excellent and experienced the trainee appears to be, the raw data used for the final figures (including supplemental data) need to be scrutinized in details. Since all these problems came to surface, I also started to use this experience to discuss professional and ethical issues with students and postdocs inside and outside my lab, whenever I have the opportunity.

We have a bit of backstory to report on the second to last author on the two newly pulled papers, Bruce Spiegelman from Harvard Medical School. In 2013, he was at the receiving end of a hoax when bogus authors submitted his unpublished data to a journal (a paper which was later withdrawn). Spiegelman is also the last author of a controversial 2012 Nature paper on fat, which has generated some discussion on PubPeer, and a “Brief Communications Arising” article in Nature. In 2014, Spiegelman told us he had confidence in the findings.

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3 thoughts on “Researchers retract two well-cited papers for misconduct”

  1. “It was a difficult decision to retract the PNAS paper because a few of its figures were used in another paper published four years later”

    Say what?

    1. I think “a few of its figures were used in another paper published four years later” is describing the reason for the retraction, not the reason it was difficult to retract.

  2. I see. What is called “an unrelated publication” in the PNAS retraction notice is actually one of the other five papers of Wenz recommended for retraction by the University of Cologne. Based on the text as it’s written, one gets the impression that the PNAS paper was retracted because four years later an image was duplicated in a paper unrelated to Wenz. Hence my confusion.

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