Carlo Croce, a cancer researcher who has faced numerous research misconduct allegations, recently accused a former lab member of misconduct. Although an institutional probe did not support that allegation, Croce’s efforts have led to a retraction.
In November 2015, Croce and another cancer researcher at Ohio State University (OSU), Ramiro Garzon, contacted PLOS ONE, alleging that the paper’s corresponding author, Stefan Costinean, published data without their knowledge or permission and without “accurately acknowledging their contributions to the research.” Although the PLOS ONE paper mentioned Croce’s and Garzon’s contributions in the acknowledgements section, the two were not included as co-authors. We have obtained a copy of the report describing OSU’s preliminary probe; it did not find evidence of misconduct, but recommended the paper be retracted for using data without permission. Although Costinean disagreed, the journal has since retracted the paper.
Croce has been on the other side of this process: Seven of his papers have been retracted for issues including manipulation and duplication. After a New York Times article, published in March, explored misconduct allegations against Croce, OSU said the university is “instituting an independent external review.” Croce is currently suing the New York Times, alleging that the newspaper defamed him in the story.
Croce and Garzon first brought their accusations to PLOS ONE, saying Costinean used their data without permission. Unable to resolve the dispute, in February 2016, the journal asked OSU to take over. OSU’s research integrity officer, Jennifer Yucel, initially said Croce’s allegations against Costinean did not warrant an inquiry because they represented an authorship dispute, not research misconduct. She forwarded the matter to the College of Medicine.
But Robert Bornstein, vice dean for academic affairs in OSU’s College of Medicine, had a different take: In April 2016, Bornstein recommended the paper be retracted and that the university conduct an inquiry to explore the allegations.
In May 2016, OSU began its inquiry. According to the inquiry report, the plagiarism allegations amounted to “intentionally and knowingly publishing data belonging to” Croce and Garzon without “permission or proper acknowledgment.” Croce and Garzon also said “Costinean made false statements to the journal regarding the knowledge of and approval of the submission of the manuscript by the other co-authors,” what they claimed constituted “falsification.”
As detailed in the report, Croce and Garzon wanted to take over the project, about the role a family of molecules, called miR29, potentially plays in replenishing and depleting bone marrow cells. According to Costinean, they offered him co-first authorship on future work if “I did not interfere.” Costinean, who had presented his initial findings at a meeting in 2012 and included Croce and Garzon as authors on that abstract, told OSU:
This struck me as odd…
Costinean explained that he declined Croce’s and Garzon’s offer, but:
That, of course, did not imply that I would be recusing myself from my own project. I made clear to both Croce and Garzon my intention to publish.
Garzon and Croce contended that “Costinean had been told that he was off the project and could not publish.” However, in their interviews with OSU, Croce did not remember these communications, and Garzon admitted he did not tell Costinean “he could not publish and he didn’t know if Dr. Croce had.”
Thus, “based on the evidence and conflicting testimonies,” the committee found:
the expectations regarding authorship and publication were unclear and it is possible that Dr. Costinean believed he was still able to move forward with a separate, parallel publication for the work that he had previously completed.
In August 2017, the committee dismissed the allegations against Costinean, finding that none should move forward to a formal Investigation, but ruled the paper should be retracted.
“Does not agree”
Here’s the notice for the PLOS ONE paper, “Gradual Rarefaction of Hematopoietic Precursors and Atrophy in a Depleted microRNA 29a, b and c Environment:”
The PLOS ONE Editors retract this publication, as we have been advised that the authors did not have appropriate rights or permissions to publish the data.
After publication, concerns were raised about the ownership of data reported in this article. This matter was reviewed by the Office of Research Compliance at Ohio State University, where the research took place. The Office of Research Compliance advised that the data were generated in laboratories at Ohio State University and were published without permission of the principal investigators, in breach of the University’s Research Data Policy.
In the light of the recommendation of the Ohio State University, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this publication.
The corresponding author, Stefan Costinean, does not agree to this retraction.
The paper, published in July 6, 2015 and retracted on Oct. 30, 2017, has been cited one time, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Costinean, who left Croce’s lab in December 2010 to start his residency, disagrees with the retraction and the committee’s assessment about who owned the data.
Costinean told OSU that he had “exclusively generated the hypothesis and designed the experiments” for the project and that Croce had “agreed that I would continue my project using the infrastructure and researchers in his lab.”
According to Costinean and the inquiry report, Croce sent Costinean an email in June 2014 (in Italian, which the committee translated with Google translate), affirming that the project in question, the mir-29 project, “is and was yours.” Croce also told the committee that it “was his normal practice to allow postdoctoral fellows to take their research with them.”
Costinean told OSU that Croce only “helped with the housing of the experiments and paying for reagents,” and Garzon helped “mostly by putting me in contact with the researchers” who performed some of the experiments.
Ultimately, OSU decided Croce owned the data.
Croce did not respond to our request for comment.
Costinean left his residency at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in 2014 for a fellowship at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha. He said that Croce sent a letter to his boss at UNMC in November 2015, accusing Costinean of academic misconduct. And when Costinean was trying to get a job, he said Croce contacted the person interviewing him and said OSU was going to request the retraction of the PLOS ONE paper. Costinean did not get the job.
Costinean, who now works as a clinical pathologist in Arizona, says the whole ordeal “disgusted me enough to decide to give up research altogether:”
My dream towards which I worked for the past 10-12 years, was to find a position in the academia that would allow me to do 80% research and 20% clinical work. … I decided to give up that dream after seeing how powerless I was in front of the academic hierarchy.
Is it surprising that after all this, I decided to move away from the academia and dedicate myself entirely to patient care?
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