Journal retracts paper by controversial Australian journalist

Maryanne Demasi

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This article has been retracted by the publisher.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.

The

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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10 thoughts on “Journal retracts paper by controversial Australian journalist”

  1. The University of Adelaide summary report demonstrates the hallmarks of most sham university investigations, viz. 1) she firmly denied misconduct and we believed her, 2) her dog ate her homework, so we had to believe her, and 3) we willfully avoided evidence (proffered by the complainant as per the RW report) so we could believe her.

    1. I am more than a little uncomfortable with equating the researcher’s claim that the physical data from 16 years prior is unavailable, with a “dog ate the homework” excuse to cover up misconduct. If all that remains is the duplication of baseline images, and that was considered not best practice but acceptable at the time, then if I were in her place I would have responded exactly the same way, with a firm denial of misconduct.

  2. In the first place, the paper in question is a THESIS, not a peer-reviewed paper by an experienced researcher. A thesis is not meant to advance knowledge, though some do. It’s just a big final exam, an evidence of competence. It was accepted by the examiners, and that’s the only acceptance that counts. Now you’re treating it as an attempt to advance knowledge and get grants. You’re committing a serious category error.

    1. 1) The paper in question is a paper published in JBC, not a thesis.
      2) A thesis is not simply a “final exam” it is supposed to be a comprehensive monograph that describes original research and new knowledge.
      So, I think that the category error is yours.

    2. This is simply untrue.
      The issue here is a paper that was *published* in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal (The Journal of Biological Chemistry), not her original thesis.
      It is the journal that has retracted the publication.

  3. Contrast the University of Adelaide Demasi investigation report with the Diederick Stapel investigation report from Tilburg University https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/3ff904d7-547b-40ae-85fe-bea38e05a34a_Final%20report%20Flawed%20Science.pdf

    The Tilburg University committee collected available datasets, questionnaires, stimulus material, hypotheses and email correspondence for each publication, and interviewed whistleblowers, present and former PhD students, co-authors, colleagues and present and former members of the faculty boards. Where the original datasets were unavailable committee members and statisticians evaluated the probability of fraud in each paper on a scale from “none” to “strong” from a statistical perspective. A list of the 93 people interviewed was provided.

    The University of Adelaide got reports from an unidentified expert in forensic image analysis and two unidentified experts in standards of presentation of blot images at the relevant time. The forensic image expert warned it would be “dangerous” for the panel to make any findings of duplication in the absence of original films, and the “presentation standards” experts reported that duplication of images was acceptable practice for the three duplications which Demai admitted. Four witnesses were interviewed: Demasi, her thesis supervisors and a senior researcher in the laboratory at the relevant time.

    1. It is worth noting there is a rather important difference between the two cases: this is about a single article, whereas the investigation into Stapel involved a very large body of research.

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