After a paper is published, how long should a journal consider allegations of misconduct? For one journal, that answer is: Six years.
We see plenty of journals that retract papers at least 10 years old over concerns regarding misconduct, but in a recent editorial, Molecular and Cellular Biology announced it would pursue allegations made within six years after a paper is published. This rule mirrors federal regulations (which apply to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity), which also decline to investigate allegations if at least six years have passed since the incident supposedly occurred — but with some exceptions, such as if the misconduct could have an impact on public health.
Incidentally, the same issue of the journal includes a retraction notice for a paper published seven years ago, citing image duplications. A spokesperson for the American Society for Microbiology (which publishes the journal) told us the journal investigated the paper in 2016, within the cutoff period.
Here’s the key text from the editorial:
After a manuscript is accepted for publication, it is analyzed for potential data manipulation and plagiarism. Further, ASM takes allegations of scientific misconduct seriously and investigates these claims thoroughly. Following the Code of Federal Regulations and ASM policy, we pursue allegations of publishing misconduct made within 6 years of publication in an ASM journal but will not comment on allegations made on public websites or through social media.
The ASM spokesperson explained that, like the ORI, ASM journals will make exceptions to the six-year statute of limitations, for instance if older papers “provide evidence of an extensive pattern of misconduct.”
We’ve wondered before whether there should be a statute of limitations on retracting old papers — a poll we ran last year showed readers were evenly split on the issue.
We also wondered about the note regarding public websites and social media. The spokesperson pointed to the ASM policies and procedures, and noted:
ASM will not comment on allegations made on public websites or through social media. We prefer to have a permanent, formal record of the allegation and how it was handled. Social media and public websites may not be the best forum for that.
In terms of how the publisher feels about PubPeer, and anonymous allegations, she said:
We assess the comments/allegations on PubPeer as they are brought to our attention, and follow up with the authors of the papers as appropriate.
If we receive anonymous allegations, we ask the writers to identify themselves, and we assure them that ASM will not disclose their names without permission.
She added that the ASM ethics policies apply to all journals, not just Molecular and Cellular Biology:
The editorial in MCB was intended to explain to readers that the journal had analyzed a large number of published papers that a reader brought to our attention because of potential image concerns. ASM staff independently confirmed the allegations and contacted the authors. We currently are working with these authors to correct the scientific record, in most cases by publishing Author Corrections, but in a few instances, by retracting the papers.
Here’s Molecular and Cellular Biology‘s retraction notice for the 2010 paper:
We hereby retract this article. After publication, the article was found to have image duplications in Fig. 5A and 6B, which represent a major deviation from established scientific standards for publication. We did not notice the duplication during submission. The first author indicated that it happened during transfer of images to Photoshop.
We apologize for this data misrepresentation.
“DDB2, an Essential Mediator of Premature Senescence” has been cited 26 times since it was published in 2010, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Last author Pradip Raychaudhuri at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote the retraction notice, told us:
Photoshop is used to compile a figure containing multiple images. It appears that the first author inadvertently copied parts of same image in two panels – This is what I was told. Unfortunately, the main ideas in that paper are right.
The ASM spokesperson told us:
The investigation into this particular manuscript which was published in 2010 was initiated in 2016. As stated in the editorial, in this instance, ASM and Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) analyzed publications where a reader(s) brought to our attention potential image concerns.
We were unable to find contact information for first author Roy. He apparently entered a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, but has since left his PI’s lab.
Hat tip: Kerry Grens
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