Cancer researcher who once tried to sue critics is up to 40 retracted papers

Fazlul Sarkar

Welcome to the Top 10, Fazlul Sarkar.

Sarkar, the cancer researcher formerly of Wayne State University who once tried to sue critics on PubPeer, has had another seven papers retracted. That makes a total of 40, and places him in the Top 10 of our leaderboard of authors with the most retractions.

Three of the retractions appear in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics and four are from PLOS ONE. All involve falsification of data; one article had been corrected earlier, in 2014.

The papers were cited between 22 and 231 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Sarkar’s move up the leaderboard may be coming to an end. An investigation at Wayne State recommended that 42 of his papers be retracted.

A report of that investigation was first made public by The Scientist in 2016 — but PLOS ONE tells us they didn’t see it until last month, after a reader alerted them to its existence:

PLOS ONE was notified in 2015 of an ongoing investigation into Sarkar’s work, and that this included a PLOS ONE article for which concerns had been raised. However, we only became aware of the investigation’s outcome and the concerns with the other three articles when a reader notified us in late August, 2018 of the public investigation report.  The institution recommended the retraction of 42 articles by Sarkar and his colleagues. In light of the institution’s findings, PLOS ONE is retracting four studies due to concerns including image manipulation, duplication, and data falsification.

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16 thoughts on “Cancer researcher who once tried to sue critics is up to 40 retracted papers”

  1. “PLOS ONE was notified in 2015 of an ongoing investigation into Sarkar’s work, and that this included a PLOS ONE article for which concerns had been raised.”

    Why didn’t PLoS One ask to see the report in 2015?
    Waiting until 2018 in not timely.

    1. I would say it is the responsibility of the university to forward its findings to the journals in question, not the responsibility of journals to file FOIA requests with every university where there has been a rumor of misconduct.

      Wayne State has a couple of things to answer for here. Why did they allow Sarkar to “rescind” his resignation and resume working there after the misconduct was confirmed? Why did they allow him to continue working for 2 years until he “retired” in 2016? Did he apply for grants or supervise students during this time? Why did Wayne State not directly notify the journals in question?

      And where is the ORI in all this?

      1. Recovery of funds is, unfortunately, purely an NIH decision, not ORI’s. And it is not clear that a PHS decision meets the requirement to determine which funds to recover, if only because the priority (orientation of fact finding) of ORI’s investigative review targets a different purpose than parsing out dollars and cents. Consider a related issue, as to whether financial recovery secondary to a fraud decision by DOJ (based on dollars) would ever result in needed corrections to the literature?

        1. “Recovery of funds is, unfortunately, purely an NIH decision, not ORI’s. ”

          Surely they can talk to each other, or is it one of those imaginary “walls”, for example the one which stopped branches of the intelligence community talking to each other before 9/11?

          Science is a stake. Smooth lawyer talk does not help.

          “ORI’s investigative review targets a different purpose than parsing out dollars and cents.”

          Don’t you mean millions of dollars? Does that count as parsing?
          Why dismiss things so lightly?

          1. FYI: No, not ‘lawyerly’ talk, but a few observations offered from 20 years of hard (but irreplaceable) experience in the trenches (at ORI), and those following 20 yrs at the bench in academic research. Recovered funds go back into the general treasury, so NIH has little motivation to act. It ain’t rocket science.

            The bigger topical question for a blog devoted to ‘retraction’ ought to be “who/what induces correction of the scientific literature when (and unlike at ORI) the orientation of fact-finding (for falsification) is driven by money (i.e. such would have been done in the $10 M DOJ settlement?” Did none of the figures in that case ever find their way into the literature?

        2. Ivan’s contribution reiterates my point. Relative to the actual case that RW covered, did RW ever ask the institution my question?

          1. What question, “Harvey?” You asked if any of the figures in this case ever made it into the literature. There have been multiple corrections to the literature, as we reported.

          2. Again, were there any figures that were the basis of the DOJ finding that have not been corrected? Should be an easy question to get an answer to.

          3. Thanks for clarifying what you meant by “case,” since your previous comments seemed to suggest that there had been no corrections to the literature, as if other investigations — which did lead to such corrections — wouldn’t happen if the DOJ stepped in. If you have access to the complete DOJ findings, we’d be interested in seeing them. But the DOJ told us that it was Harvard/Partners/etc. who came to them with the allegations, and it was those institutions that went to journals, too. So how is the DOJ investigation preventing corrections?

            We are also interested in other questions, such as why the ORI has not made a finding in this case. If the ORI is — as you seem to be suggesting — interested in correcting the record, while the DOJ is interested in clawbacks, then that seems relevant.

    1. NIH has no enforcement arm with the authority to do so. The Dept of Justice can levy fraud charges against individuals, as they did in the Iowa State case. Such actions are extremely rare, due to the unlikelihood of recovering large sums from the personal funds of individual scientists and the much higher legal standard for making criminal convictions compared to administrative determinations like misconduct findings.

  2. Unfortunately the researchers involved may well be the tip of the iceberg in cancer research. Some of the present cancer researchers may see these science-frauds as role models and do likewise to gain grants and promotions. Sadly the billions spent on cancer research have probably done more good than the billions about to be spent.

  3. The message from the publishers, publice grant providers and research institutions is clear as crystal: do whatever you want to get as many publications as you can to secure a permanent position. If it will include data manipulation and falsification it doesnt’t matter. The liklihood of getting caught is close to zero and if you get caught you will retire with honor.

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