A journal has retracted a 2014 paper after a university investigation found that the first author only reported certain data points that supported the paper’s conclusion.
Based on a whistleblower’s tip, the University of Florida investigated work by Huabei Jiang, a professor of biomedical engineering, and Lei Yao, a former postdoc and scientist in Jiang’s lab, for research misconduct. According to documents obtained by Retraction Watch through a public records request, in 2015 Yao confessed to selectively choosing data in an email to the whistleblower.
Those data were included in a paper by Yao and Jiang, “Finite-element-based photoacoustic imaging of absolute temperature in tissue,” originally published Sept. 10, 2014 in Optics Letters. The paper described an algorithm for analyzing data obtained through a certain type of biomedical imaging.
Yao, the first author, confessed to the journal in July 2016 that his data selection methods “might not be consistent” with OSA ethical guidelines and UF’s investigation committee declared a month later that Yao — but not Jiang — had committed research misconduct. But the retraction wasn’t finalized until June, as the journal’s’ publisher, the Optical Society of America (OSA), had a specific requirement: a letter of support for the retraction from UF.
In a May 2, 2017 email, Anthony Campillo, chair of OSA’s editorial ethics review panel, told Yao that even though “It appears you ‘cherry picked’ experimental data … in order to confirm your model,” OSA “does not ordinarily allow paper retractions.” However, Campillo wrote:
we do make an exception when unethical behavior occurs during the research or writing phase of the manuscript.
Campillo informed Yao that OSA would need the support letter from UF. A week later, UF research integrity officer and assistant VP for research Irene Cooke sent a letter of support saying Yao committed misconduct and that UF supported the retraction request. The journal retracted the paper a month later, on June 16.
Here’s the full notice for the retraction:
The article has been retracted at the request of the authors. This manuscript should not have been submitted for publication because the data was inappropriately and selectively reported, which is against OSA Ethical Guidelines. The investigation by the Office of Research, University of Florida, confirmed research misconduct due to data falsification by the first author, Lei Yao, and that Dr. Yao’s actions were a significant departure from the accepted scientific practices.
From inquiry to investigation
Exactly when UF received the whistleblower’s tip and when it launched a research misconduct inquiry remains unclear. The whistleblower first raised concerns directly to Yao and Jiang by email in January 2015, but none of the documents we received indicate when UF received the research misconduct complaint. The inquiry committee, which oversees the first stage of an institutional response to research misconduct allegations, met with the complainant on Jan. 27, 2016 and conducted a “detailed discussion” with Yao on Feb. 5, 2016. The inquiry report, issued later that month, concluded that the matter warranted a full-fledged investigation.
The investigation committee finished its draft report by June and issued its final investigation report on Aug. 16, 2016. It found:
Yao chose three specific data sets which appeared to support the algorithm and rejected the others, nine of which would not have supported the algorithm…
…overall data was very noisy and random, and data points appeared to have been “selected” to fit the known algorithm. It was also clear that Dr. Yao rejected data based on trends that did not fit the expected results.
The inquiry report noted that Yao told the whistleblower in an email dated Jan. 27, 2015:
I ignored bad results and only picked those good ones…
While it found Yao committed misconduct, the investigation report cleared Jiang, saying he was:
not aware of or involved closely with this experiment or the analysis, nor did he closely review the paper to ensure that the data supported the paper’s conclusions.
During the investigation, Jiang drafted an erratum for the paper; however, the UF committee reviewed it and wrote in the final report:
the erratum does not adequately address the misconduct committed by Dr. Yao.
The investigation report said the research was funded by the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Endowment. UF’s named its department of biomedical engineering in honor of Pruitt in 2006 after he donated $10 million to support it.
The documents said Yao left UF in 2015 and is now working in China. UF’s biomedical engineering department said that Jiang no longer works there; he appears to work at the University of South Florida. The report did not discuss any other papers published by either Jiang or Yao.
To view all documents we obtained, follow this link.
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