Journal won’t look at allegations about papers more than six years old, nor comment on those from “public websites”

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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30 thoughts on “Journal won’t look at allegations about papers more than six years old, nor comment on those from “public websites””

  1. so, miraculously, a scientific misconduct after six years turns what, time-barred? as scientists of today stand on shoulders of past scientists, no misconduct ever gets acceptable, whatever regulation people come up with. particular research may found its use even decades after it was made, so there is no practical time limit to investigating misconduct, imho. at MCB, they are trying to make their life easier, not scientific publishing better.

    1. This is reasonable, I agree. The aim of retraction of an article is not just punishment of the authors. When some results are published, they are used as reference for later researchers; they are considered as correct facts. But, if it is found that the results (partly or fully) were just product of fabricated data, cheating, or whatever wrongdoing, then they must be removed from the literature and public notified about the issues, no matter it is 6 or 60 or 600 years old. When some “researchers” make solid conclusions from photoshopped SEM micrographs, how I can trust the literature and published papers? Yes, “publish or perish” forces some charlatans in the academia to mass produce papers with fabricated data and cheating, but the academic community should not allow it to occur, or at least make it difficult. There should not be any time limit for investigation about any wrongdoing in scientific research.

  2. This is a stunningly myopic choice on the journal’s part; completely out of touch with the direction the field is moving in. The whole editorial is an anachronism.

    First, it reinforces the outdated notion that publishers see themselves as truthkeepers – “if it’s published and hasn’t been challenged within a nominal time frame then it must be true.” The reality is that science is moving more and more toward a model where a paper is the beginning of a discussion about a result, not the end. As some high-profile cases have shown (e.g. Aggarwal, Sarkur), it’s quite common for large numbers of papers to be questioned more than 6 years after publication. Citing the ORI limit is a poor excuse.

    Second, the choice to ignore social media and anonymous individuals reinforces the outdated idea that it’s not the content of the allegation that matters, but the importance of the person making it. As I have iterated on numerous occasions, if the message has merit then the identity of the messenger is immaterial. High school kids and Nobel prize winners have equal rights when it comes to pointing out problems in the literature. When identity becomes entwined with content, the possibility for disenfranchisement of certain groups emerges.

    1. The editors of MCB seem to be saying that, once 6 years gave passed, they can no longer vouch for the integrity of papers in their journal. Perhaps people should stop citing MCB papers older than that?

    2. “if it’s published and hasn’t been challenged within a nominal time frame then it must be true.”

      That is a scary proposition to ponder. If we further limit science’s ability to edit itself in regard to being technically correct then we create a first to the finish line situation where the actual finish line is dictated by the runner and not the judges.

  3. Another important RW article!

    I see this as a vindication of another vital website PubPeer.

    ASM has laid out precisely how they will respond to issues identified on PubPeer. They will follow up if a reader directs them to the site.

    One could argue about the new ASM anonymity policy, but I for one am ok with it.

    Let’s hope that the six year exceptions are generously granted.

  4. Perhaps, this editorial’s title should have better reflected its content, e.g., “Limits to Setting the (Scientific) Record Straight”? Seriously, I sure hope the Publishing Ethics Manager and Editor in Chief will reconsider their position in light of the criticisms made by Jan and Paul.

  5. A ridiculous and outrageous decision. This has nothing, necessarily, to do with misconduct. It has EVERYTHING to do with ensuring that the scientific literature is valid, valuable, legitimate, dependable, useful, etc. We reference papers more than six years old all the time and rely on them for insights and information that may guide us in our current work and future plans. There are many articles in the literature that include incorrect data, statistics, conclusions.

    One of the most valuable features of the scientific method is its self-correcting nature. I believe a decision such as this defeats that important safeguard. I would never even consider submitting a manuscript to MCB in the future.

    1. Good discussion and some valid points by all.

      “I would never even consider submitting a manuscript to MCB in the future.”

      My understanding is the new policy is not just for MCB, but all ASM journals – pretty broad swath especially if you are a microbiologist.

  6. And in that case perhaps police won’t re-investigate an old crime when new forensic tools become available? A lot of the “older” retractions come about when papers are re-analysed using new techniques (i.e. plagiarism software scanning etc).
    Perhaps there should be a “state of limitations” on some “crimes” but surely when the allegations are made about a clinically relevant paper (a surgical technique) or a subject involving vulnerable people (young, old etc) then ALL allegations should at least be looked at?
    I think a blanket response in these cases would not be good for anyone?
    Just my personal view….

  7. A way to influence the journals to investigate or retract problematic papers is to use PubMed Commons to comment on the problematic issues.
    These comments will be visible in PubMed and make it embarrassing.

  8. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) would like to comment on the misleading title of this post. As stated later in the post, ASM assesses comments and allegations made on PubPeer as they are brought to our attention and will pursue these with the author if appropriate. The point we made is that ASM does not comment on allegations made on public websites or through social media, but handles with the author directly, as appropriate. Our priority is to preserve the integrity of the scientific record, and we believe that publisher comments on social media and public websites are not the best means of achieving this. We also would like to emphasize that exceptions to the guidelines regarding a six-year statute of limitations are made whenever there is evidence of an extensive pattern of author misconduct. Our intent always is to be fair to authors and to acknowledge the reality that raw data supporting the claims in an old paper may not be available.

    For more information, please see Policies and Procedures for Detecting and Responding to Ethics Concerns on the ASM Journals Ethics Portal:

  9. Crazy. Often it takes much longer for the normal process of science to correct these errors. This policy would probably letting the bulk of those who commit misconduct off the hook. You can always assume they will claim the original data is unavailable. The journal should make it clear they require that original data be retained for at least 10 years as a condition of publication. This is very easy to do now, with lab books in the cloud.

  10. “The journal should make it clear they require that original data be retained for at least 10 years as a condition of publication.”

    Good point.

    Better that for gels, blots, autorads, etc. the original unspliced unmanipulated/unprocessed images should required to be provided as supplemental figures. This is a permanent solution, would eliminate 90+% of the commentary on PubPeer, and focus the website on other types of less readily detected misconduct or just journal club like commentary.

  11. The economic need for journals has all but disappeared (a preprint costs about $10, and Zuckerberg or Simons pays anyway). The current publishing model is living on borrowed time and journals will have to evolve fast or risk extinction. Undoubtedly this is a challenging environment for societies dependent on journal income.

    One of the few remaining arguments for retaining journals is that they (could) assure the quality of their papers. The ASM clearly has quite modest ambitions in this regard, both in terms of their back catalogue and editorial dynamism. But it is helpful that they have made their position public.

    Compare the ASM position with that of leaders such as JCI and EMBO J, whose imprimaturs are becoming synonymous with an aggressive approach to quality.

    1. I would add J Cell Sci to the list of journals taking an “aggressive approach to quality”.

  12. Then ASM should also implement that for any manuscript for the publication should not allow to cite mora than six years old. That’s fair!!


    “Molecular and Cellular Biology prospectively analyzes submissions for inappropriate image manipulation, and has done so for years. Last year, it stepped up its efforts to hunt for duplications within papers before they get published, and then took the unusual step of applying this process to already-published papers going back to 2010.”

    Why stop at 2010?

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    Inhibition of p63 transcriptional activity by p14ARF: functional and physical link between human ARF tumor suppressor and a member of the p53 family.

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