Journal issues three notices for plant biologist, two citing manipulation

Researchers have retracted a paper from a plant journal after a probe found problems with several figures.

According to the new retraction notice in The Plant Cell, some figures in the paper were manipulated, as well as “inappropriately duplicated and reused from a previous publication.” The authors assert that they believe the conclusions remain valid.

The journal has also issued two corrections that include some of the same authors — including one that cites inappropriate image manipulation.

Here’s the retraction notice, issued last month:

The authors of the above article request its retraction from The Plant Cell following an investigation into concerns of the origin and assembly of several figures. First, some of the RNA gel blot images in Figure 6A were inappropriately duplicated and reused from a previous publication (Peng et al. 2006 Plant Cell 18:955-969, Figure 5A; images corresponding to psbA, psaA, psbC, petA, and psbEFJL). In addition, several other figures were inappropriately manipulated as follows: Inappropriate splices were performed in Figure 3B (between lpa2-1 and lpa2-2 in the panels of At5g51540, At5g5150 and ubiquitin), Figure 4A (CP47 and Cyt f panels) and Figure 4C (CF1β and Cyf panels). In Figure 3B the bands from the panel with the 30 RT-PCR cycles of At5g51550 were inadvertently duplicated in the panel of the 25 RT-PCR cycles of At5g51550. The image of the EtBr stained gels in Figure 6B was improperly modified (improper contrast adjustment, erasing of the background) and the signals above the bands of the LPA2 immunoblots were covered in Figure 8B and C. The yeast clones from different dishes were pasted into one artificial background in Figure 10.

The characterizations of the lpa2 mutants have been repeated and the results were reproduced in our laboratory. We are therefore convinced that the conclusions of this article remain valid, i.e. that LPA2 is involved in PSII assembly. However, considering the number and extent of these irregularities and mistakes, we have decided to retract the article. Lixin Zhang as the corresponding author takes responsibility for the publication and apologizes for these errors and inappropriate figure manipulations.

The 2007 paper, “LPA2 Is Required for Efficient Assembly of Photosystem II in Arabidopsis thaliana,” has been cited 56 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

This is the second retraction we’ve reported for last author Lixin Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who was the second-to-last author of a 2013 paper retracted by the Biochemical Engineering Journal for using a figure from another paper without attribution or permission.

We’ve also found a correction for a paper published in The Plant Cell by Zhang and some of the co-authors on the newly retracted paper that points to a manipulated figure  — but fingers another researcher, not listed on the retracted paper, as responsible for the manipulations.

Here’s the correction notice for “PSBP-DOMAIN PROTEIN1, a Nuclear-Encoded Thylakoid Lumenal Protein, Is Essential for Photosystem I Assembly in Arabidopsis,” issued earlier this year: 

Figure 4B has been corrected. In the original version, there was inappropriate manipulation by the first author, Jun Liu, of the β-subunit of CF1 (CF1β) band to increase the apparent intensity of this band. The original unadjusted image of in vivo pulse labeling of thylakoid membrane proteins in ppd1-1 complemented plants (ppd1-com) is used in the corrected figure. The figure legend and conclusions of the manuscript are not changed by the correction.

This paper has garnered 30 citations since publication in 2012.

In addition to Zhang, the two papers have three authors in common: Lianwei Peng, Qingtao Lu, and Congming Lu.

Another study by Congming Lu and Lixin Zhang was also corrected for issues with images in The Plant Cell on November 28, 2016. This 2014 paper, “RHON1 Mediates a Rho-Like Activity for Transcription Termination in Plastids of Arabidopsis thaliana,” has been cited five times. The first paragraph of the notice reads:

The authors of the above article request the publication of corrections to Figures 1, 2, and 3, as described below, for clarification of the methods used and the manner in which gel images were arranged. The original results and conclusions are unaffected by these corrections. The authors apologize and accept responsibility for not detecting these errors prior to publication.

Tyrone Spady, director of legislative and public affairs at the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), which publishes The Plant Cell, declined to comment.

We’ve reached out to Congming Lu and Lixin Zhang for comments; we couldn’t find the contact details for Jun Liu.

We’ll update the post if we hear back.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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