EMBO journals retract figures in two papers missing source data

Journals published by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) have retracted a handful of figures in two papers with the same last and first authors.

After some figures in the 2005 and 2007 papers were flagged on PubPeer and the authors couldn’t provide the original data, the journals decided to retract parts of the papers, since other data supported the remaining conclusions, according to the Head of Scientific Publications at EMBO.

The partial retractions are labeled as corrigenda by the journals. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) announced it would be classifying partial retractions as errata, noting they had been used so rarely by journals.

Both lengthy corrigenda (also reported by Leonid Schneider) contain statements from the authors and the editors. The statements from the authors provide detailed explanations about the problems with the figures in question; here’s an excerpt from the editor’s statement in The EMBO Journal corrigendum:

In light of the potential image aberrations noted in the author’s statement, and since source data were not available for the figure panels in question, Figs 4E and 6B, upper panels, are herewith withdrawn.

The 2007 paper, “Sulfatase modifying factor 1 trafficking through the cells: from endoplasmic reticulum to the endoplasmic reticulum,” has been cited 28 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.  

Next, here’s the excerpt from the editor’s statement in the EMBO Reports corrigendum:

In light of the potential image aberrations noted in the author’s statement, and since source data were not available for this figure, panels A and B of Supplementary Fig 4 are herewith retracted. These panels constituted loading controls for Fig 2A and C with limited impact on the qualitative conclusions made in the paper…

The 2005 paper, “Sulphatase activities are regulated by the interaction of sulphatase‐modifying factor 1 with SUMF2,” has been cited 25 times.

Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal and Head of Scientific Publications at EMBO, told us the issues were first brought to the authors’ and journals’ attention through comments on PubPeer.

Pulverer explained to us why the journals didn’t feel the papers needed to be retracted entirely:

…the decision between outright retraction – where all of the scientific information is effectively removed from the published record –  and a correction is both important and complex…we look carefully at the nature of the manipulations, the importance of the data affected relative to the rest of the data in the paper (including other data supporting key conclusions, as was the case here) and the availability of source data. The availability of more recent data supporting the conclusion from other laboratories or to some extent the same laboratory is also relevant to these deliberations.

Pulverer noted:

We retract a paper if it is fundamentally flawed or where we [lose] trust in the veracity of the key findings presented (including both data and conclusions) or fundamentally in the reliability/integrity/competence of the authors. In this case, we retracted a number of figure panels in the paper which were clearly flawed, but decided that key conclusions in the paper were not undermined by the issues uncovered. This decision was arrived at after extensive deliberation and exchanges – including with the authors.

When asked why the authors did not have source data available, Pulverer referred us to the study’s authors, noting:

I think it is useful to note that many institutions do not have sufficiently explicit data retention policies.

We’ve contacted last author Maria Pia Cosma from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain and first author Ester Zito, based at the Institute for Pharmacological Research Mario Negri in Milan, Italy. We’ll update the post if we hear back.

Cosma’s name may seem familiar to our readers — two of her papers were investigated by Cell Press after allegations of image manipulation surfaced on PubPeer; earlier this year, Cell and Molecular Cell dismissed the allegations after seeing original high-resolution versions of the images in Cosma’s lab notebook.

paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics listing Cosma as last author was corrected last year for containing incorrect immunohistochemistry in one figure.

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