“No wrongdoing had occurred,” says Karolinska, following investigation of cancer research

A journal has removed an expression of concern for a 2011 paper after Karolinska Institutet (KI) “concluded no wrongdoing had occurred.” 

In June, Journal of Cell Science (JCS) issued the expression of concern, after a reader contacted the editors with questions about the data in one of the figures. JCS investigated but could not resolve the issue, and in March 2017 turned the case over to KI where the authors are based.

The 2011 paper had already received a correction in 2016, citing inadvertent figure duplication.

In late August, KI concluded its investigation into the 2011 paper by last author Boris Zhivotovsky; JCS has now updated the expression of concern with a publisher’s note:

This Publisher’s Note updates and replaces the Expression of Concern (J. Cell Sci. 2017 130, 1979; doi: 10.1242/jcs.205559) relating to the article ‘Chromosomal breaks during mitotic catastrophe trigger γH2AX–ATM–p53-mediated apoptosis’ by Gabriela Imreh, Helin Vakifahmetoglu Norberg, Stefan Imreh and Boris Zhivotovsky. J. Cell Sci. 2011 124, 2951-2963 (doi: 10.1242/jcs.081612).

Concerns were raised regarding some of the data in Fig. 1A of the above-named paper. An investigation carried out by Karolinska Institutet concluded that no wrongdoing had occurred, and that no further action was required. An in-house review of the original data by Journal of Cell Science reached a similar conclusion.

Journal of Cell Science is publishing this Note to alert readers that the concerns raised about this paper have been resolved.

Chromosomal breaks during mitotic catastrophe trigger γH2AX–ATM–p53-mediated apoptosis” has been cited 33 times since 2011, including once by the 2016 correction, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

In February 2017, Zhivotovsky and second author Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg retracted a 2008 paper from Oncogene over potential image duplication. The retraction was prompted by the paper’s 2016 correction, which was also retracted.

KI sent us the investigation report about the JCS paper, which is in Swedish. A lawyer at KI also sent us an English summary of the decision, which states the institution re-opened its investigation into the paper after additional questions arose. The second investigation confirmed the conclusions of the first:

On 27 March 2017, the executive editor of the Journal of Cell Science, Sharon Ahmad, raised concerns about the article “Chromosomal breaks during mitotic catastrophe trigger yH2AX-ATM-p53-mediated apoptosis”. This article is treated in the present case.

Karolinska Institutet investigated the same paper in 2016, but for other concerns raised by comments on pubpeer.com. No breach of research integrity could be identified at that time.

The summary goes on to address:

…new questions regarding the content in “black boxes” in the pictures of the article are criticized on Pubpeer. The Journal requested KI to step in to investigate Fig. 1A untreated p53, Fig. 1D siCaspase-2 72 h, Fig. 1A sip53, 3C and 3D.

After visiting Zhivotovsky’s lab and reviewing the images, KI concluded that the “investigation does not show that there is anything wrong with the pictures” and that the black boxes “have technical explanations.” Thus, the institute decided not to pursue the matter further and informed the journal.

The summary also mentions a previous investigation on papers by Zhivotovsky and Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg:

On 9 October 2016, Andreas Muller reported ten scientific papers published on pubpeer.com written by, amongst others, Professor Boris Zhivotovsky and research associate Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg. Nine of the articles have been investigated and Vice-Chancellor Karin Dahlman-Wright decided on 20 June 2016 that the case did not warrant further considerations in that part.

We contacted the four authors, all of whom are based at KI, but did not hear back.

Zhivotovsky has received other corrections for image issues (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), as has his co-author Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg (1, 2). Several other papers from Zhivotovsky have been questioned on PubPeer.

This isn’t the first time KI had to reopen a misconduct investigation after initially clearing a researcher. But a previous instance had a decidedly different outcome. After concluding former star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini had not committed misconduct in 2015, KI re-opened its investigation, again after additional allegations arose about his work. This ultimately led to Macchiarini’s dismissal, and the resignation of KI’s vice-chancellor.  

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