The Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) has retracted a 2003 paper that resulted from the PhD thesis of Maryanne Demasi, an Australian journalist whose reporting on statins and the risks of cancer from cell phones has been a lightning rod.
The move, for what the journal says was attempts to reuse images to represent different experiments, follows an investigation by the University of Adelaide into allegations of image manipulation in Demasi’s thesis. In the investigation, Demasi
admitted that she had duplicated or probably duplicated the relevant impugned images. However, she understood that duplication was acceptable at the relevant time for the particular category of images at issue. The relevant experts agreed, albeit they considered duplication was not best practice.
Demasi’s work as a journalist — including reporting that cast doubt on cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins and an episode of a science program called Catalyst on possible links between wi-fi and brain tumors — has earned criticism, which she and her co-authors on the JBC paper say have made the study a target of allegations.
The JBC article, “Effects of hypoxia on monocyte inflammatory mediator production: Dissociation between changes in cyclooxygenase-2 expression and eicosanoid synthesis,” was subject to an expression of concern in late 2017 “to inform readers that credible concerns have been raised.” The retraction notice, published Friday, reads:
This article has been retracted by the publisher. An investigation by the Journal determined the following. In Fig 4, the “no LPS” lanes in the GAPDH Northern blots were duplicated between normoxic and hypoxic conditions. In Fig. 6A, several bands were duplicated in the COX-2 immunoblot. In Fig. 10, the first lanes between normoxic and hypoxic conditions were duplicated in the phosphorylated cPLA2 immunoblot. Additionally, in Fig. 10, lane 3 of the normoxic panel was reused in lane 2 of the hypoxic panel.
The duplications map closely to allegations posted on PubPeer within days of the appearance of the expression of concern. The paper has been cited 38 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. And the researcher who brought forward the allegations offered kudos to the journal for retracting the paper.
Authors stand by their work
In a statement to Retraction Watch, which we’ve made available here, Demasi and three of her co-authors, Michael J. James, Leslie G. Cleland, and Gillian Caughey, said that they
respectfully disagree with the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) regarding an article published in the year 2003. The Authors stand by the veracity of the work and its conclusions which are unaffected.
The authors go on to say that
…it was universally accepted practice in 2003 to reuse baseline/control values when they did not represent different experimental conditions. This is the crux of the issue.
duplication in Fig 4 and Fig 10 were deliberate since they were used to demonstrate the same baseline values (accepted practice in 2003) and not different experimental conditions as claimed by the journal
the authors write. They say they
repeatedly asked for an explanation of the evidence for the alleged duplication of the other blots but the journal did not not supply this. In Fig 6A all of the blots have similar morphology as expected on the home-made gels but they are visually different. This is also true for the Fig 10 allegation of lane 3 of the normoxic panel and lane 2 of the hypoxic panel, i.e. they are not duplicates.
The main problem was that only degraded images generated on 1990s technology were available and the Authors could not supply the JBC with original films of the experiments performed over 16 years ago, even though they had retained them for a period beyond the journal’s current requirements.
They say that they would have liked to have explained the duplications “in an addendum to the article,” but that the journal did not allow it:
Given the only choice offered was either voluntary withdrawal or retraction the Authors have chosen to force a retraction as a show of confidence in the work.
The statement — which can be read in full here — also says that the Adelaide investigation “found no motivation, rationale, intent or any actual wrongdoing of any kind and rejected the complaint as baseless” and that the allegations were made by a “professional complainant and activist” who had also submitted a complaint about the investigation panel. Those comments echoed an earlier blog post by two of the paper’s authors, who, in a discussion of post-publication review, anonymous whistleblowing, and other issues referred to the allegations as “vigilantism” and said that the case “demonstrates unethical behaviour.”
Asked for evidence for all of those assertions — the word “baseless” does not appear in the published summary report — Demasi told Retraction Watch that the authors would not have any further comment.
The complainant, David Vaux of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne (and a member of the board of directors of The Center for Scientific Integrity, our parent non-profit organization), told Retraction Watch:
The authors Maryanne Demasi, Michael James, and Les Cleland, maintained that duplicating data, i.e. to use the same images to represent different samples, was acceptable practice. In a blog post,
James and Cleland said that even to voice concern, e.g. by posting on PubPeer, is vexatious, and a form of vigilantism.
The University of Adelaide established an inquiry panel to consider concerns of possible fabrication and falsification of images in three publications and a PhD thesis by Dr Demasi. Investigators from Monash University, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales agreed with the authors that such duplications were acceptable.
Although the authors of the paper say that the complainant “failed to appear at this investigation for cross examination,” Vaux said that
The inquiry panel refused hear from me about the substance of my concerns, despite multiple requests and protests.
Vaux also said:
So kudos to the JBC for retracting this paper, and for listing the falsified blots in Figures 4, 6 and 10 in the retraction notice. Their standard of research integrity stands in stark contrast to those of the authors, inquiry panel members and University of Adelaide.
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