Work by group at Australian university faces scrutiny

A journal is investigating research by a group in Australia, after receiving “serious allegations” regarding a 2017 paper about treating eye burns.

The journal, Frontiers in Pharmacology, has issued an expression of concern (EOC) for the 2017 paper while it investigates. The notice does not specify the nature of the allegations.  Meanwhile, several other papers by the three researchers, based at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, have also come under scrutiny. Late last month, Frontiers in Pharmacology retracted a 2015 paper by Kislay Roy, Rupinder Kanwar, and Jagat R Kanwar, citing image duplication. A 2015 paper in Biomaterials received a correction in May 2017, again flagging image duplication.

Roy, the first author on the papers, is a postdoctoral research fellow; Rupinder Kanwar, a middle author, is a senior lecturer; and Jagat R Kanwar, the corresponding author on all three, is head of the Nanomedicine-Laboratory of Immunology and Molecular Biomedical Research.

Gearóid Ó Faoleán, the ethics and integrity manager at Frontiers in Pharmacology, explained that the investigation into the flagged article is ongoing and the EOC “must serve as the extent of our public statement for the present.”

A spokesperson for Deakin University declined to comment on the allegations:

Deakin University is committed to academic rigour and the integrity of our research. We take allegations of this nature very seriously, and are investigating these claims. It would not be appropriate to comment any further at this stage.

Here’s the EOC for “Topical Ophthalmic Formulation of Trichostatin A and SurR9-C84A for Quick Recovery Post-alkali Burn of Corneal Haze:

With this notice, Frontiers states its awareness of serious allegations surrounding the article “Topical Ophthalmic Formulation of Trichostatin A and SurR9-C84A for Quick Recovery Post-alkali Burn of Corneal Haze” published on 5 May 2017. Our Chief Editors will direct an investigation in full accordance with our procedures. The situation will be updated as soon as the investigation is complete.

The paper, which explored the effectiveness of a drug to treat burns to the eye, was published online in May, 2017. The EOC was published in late June, 2017.

The paper has been discussed on PubPeer. In May 2017, one commenter suggested that the same rat may have been featured in a figure comparing one in a control group to one whose eye was exposed to a chemical.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Ophthalmic Combination of SurR9-C84A and Trichostatin-A Targeting Molecular Pathogenesis of Alkali Burn,” also published by Frontiers in Pharmacology:

The Journal and Chief Editors retract the 28 July 2016 article cited above. Based on information discovered after publication and reported to Frontiers in November 2016, the article was examined, revealing image duplication in Figures 4A,B.

As this duplication breaches Frontiers guidelines and could not be sufficiently explained by the authors, the article has been retracted. The Editors acknowledge the authors’ statement that these errors were the result of human error. The retraction of the article was approved by the Field Chief Editor for Frontiers in Pharmacology. The authors agree to the retraction and the notice.

The paper, which examined the same therapy to treat eye burns, has been cited twice, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science—once by the retraction notice and once by the 2017 paper flagged with an EOC. Frequent tipster Rolf Degen alerted us to this retraction.

Faoleán told us:

The duplication came to our attention via a concerned reader using our public complaints procedure.

The paper has also been questioned on PubPeer. In May 2017, a commenter pointed out three possible instances of image duplication. Two days later, a comment marked as “authors response” said:

We are aware of this mistake which happened during the configuration of powerpoint for our Figure 4A and B due to which the zoomed insets were placed as treatment images. We have written to the editors of Frontiers in Pharmacology and they have acknowledged the human error including a revised version of Figure 4A and B for corrigendum/erratum.

An earlier version of the retraction notice said “The authors do not agree to the retraction and the notice,” but the current one says they do agree. Faoleán told us:

When discussing a scheduled retraction with authors, two copies of the statement are prepared, based on whether or not the authors agree to the final retraction statement. In this case, the wrong file was uploaded first and shortly thereafter replaced.

The three authors also received an erratum for a 2015 paper published in the journal Biomaterials, again citing image duplication. Here’s the corrigendum notice, published online in late May 2017:

The authors regret that there were some editing mistakes made by us during setting the figures.

These errors are:

1) In Figure 6B, the image for stem cell array blot has been copied twice for both AEC-CP- Fe3O4-bLf NCs (NT) and AEC-CP- Fe3O4-bLf NCs (Tar).

2) In Figure 7A, the zoomed insert for Brain has been copied twice for both untreated and AEC-CP- Fe3O4-bLf NCs (NT).

3) In Figure 7B, the image for spleen has been copied twice for both AEC-CP- Fe3O4-bLf NCs (NT) and AEC-CP- Fe3O4-bLf NCs (Tar).

The correct Figure 6 and correct Figure 7 are shown below. We would also like to specify that these changes in the above mentioned images neither change the figure legends nor any of the conclusions and findings of our research article.

The 2015 paper, “LNA aptamer based multi-modal, Fe3O4-saturated lactoferrin (Fe3O4-bLf) nanocarriers for triple positive (EpCAM, CD133, CD44) colon tumour targeting and NIR, MRI and CT imaging,” has been cited 14 times.

Two other papers by Jagat Kanwar and Rupinder Kanwar have been questioned on PubPeer (1, 2). We also found another retraction for Jagat Kanwar, for a 2012 paper on which he was a middle author. Here’s the retraction notice for “Evaluation of the hepatoprotective effects of lantadene A, a pentacyclic triterpenoid of Lantana plants against acetaminophen-induced liver damage” published in Molecules in November 2012 and retracted in March 2013:

A recent Comment by M. Sharma published in the journal Molecules [1] raises issues with our previously published paper [2]. After reviewing its content, and although we respectfully stand by our experimental description whereby we were able to prepare stock and working solutions of the substance being tested, the arguments presented do raise concerns about the true identity of the compound actually used and hence the results and conclusions of our paper.

The paper has been cited five times, including by the comment from Manu Sharma, based at Jaypee University of Information Technology in India. Sharma’s comment, published March 14, 2013, questioned the accuracy of several statements in the paper and pointed out flaws in the referencing.

We reached out to all three authors—we spoke to Jagat Kanwar briefly by phone, who hung up before we finished asking for further information about the retraction and EOC.

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