Why journal editors should dig deeper when authors ask for a retraction

Imagine you’re a journal editor. A group of authors sends you a request to retract one of their papers, saying that “during figure assembly certain images were inappropriately processed.”

What do you do next? Do you ask some tough questions about just what “inappropriately processed” means? Do you check your files for whether the author’s institution had told you about an investigation into the work? Do you Google the author’s names? Do you…search Retraction Watch?

It seems unlikely that any of those things happened in the case of a recent retraction from Nature Communications, or, if they did, they don’t seem to have informed the notice. We don’t know for sure, because, as is typical, the journal isn’t saying much. But here’s what we do know.

On August 9, 2017, Uthra Rajamani and colleagues at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, and UCLA, published a paper in Nature Communications titled “Endocrine disruptors induce perturbations in endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria of human pluripotent stem cell derivatives.” The paper earned a press release (now removed) from Cedars-Sinai, as well as some media coverage.

Sometime after that, some of the researchers realized the data behind the paper had problems, and Cedars-Sinai — as they told us last year — “launched a review and, consistent with Cedars-Sinai values, immediately reported the results to the attention of the peer-reviewed journal and federal scientific agencies.”

In December of last year, the relevant federal scientific agency — the Office of Research Integrity — announced that

Findings of research misconduct have been made against Uthra Rajamani, Ph.D. (Respondent), former project scientist in the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Core Facility, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (CSMC). Dr. Rajamani engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant UL1 TR000124.

And then, on February 2, the paper — which has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — was retracted, along with this notice:

We the authors are retracting this Article as it has come to our attention that during figure assembly certain images were inappropriately processed in Figs. 3d, 4b and 6a of the Article. These data integrity issues undermine our full confidence in the integrity of the study and the authors therefore wish to retract the Article.

All the authors agree with the retraction.

You will notice that there is no mention of misconduct, nor of the ORI findings announced six weeks earlier. We asked Nature Communications why. A spokesperson responded:

Maintaining the accuracy of the scientific record is of primary importance to us. In this instance, the journal was not aware of the ORI findings at the time the retraction notice went to press, and, as noted in the retraction statement, the request to retract the study came from the authors.

We covered the ORI findings on December 20, and a Federal Register notice was published on December 22. (The dates on such notices — in this case, December 26, are often a few days after they’re initially published, particularly when the intervening days include a holiday like Christmas, or a weekend.) That made us wonder: When exactly did the retraction notice go to press? The journal wouldn’t say exactly, but told us:

The retraction notice went to press after the ORI notice was published, but before the journal was informed of the investigation or findings.

We realize that not everyone reads Retraction Watch, but we do fairly well on Google search result rankings — and ORI notices and Federal Register notices generally score even better. That leaves us wondering whether journal editors looked into what happened in this case themselves — or paid attention when Cedars-Sinai alerted them to their findings.

Compare that with what happened in 2015 when a cancer researcher wrote to the Journal of Biological Chemistry asking to correct one of his papers. As we reported in 2016:

The journal responded by requesting the raw data used to prepare his figures. Then, in a follow-up request, it asked for raw data behind the figures in 20 additional published articles.

And when all was said and done six months later, Jin Cheng ended up with far more than just a single correction: Last month, the journal issued withdrawals for 19 of his papers — including the paper he originally asked to correct — along with one correction.

Whose process is better for the scientific record?

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4 thoughts on “Why journal editors should dig deeper when authors ask for a retraction”

  1. This short article from ‘Science Editor’, https://www.csescienceeditor.org/article/ethical-editor-research-misconduct-notifying-journals-about-retractions-and-corrections/,
    provides some interesting insights:

    From the article:

    “U.S. federal regulations require that an institution not reveal the identity of the respondent (the accused researcher) and complainant during a research misconduct investigation except to those who have a need to know (42 C.F.R. §93.108). The Federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) does not deem a journal editor to be a party with “a need to know” about a research misconduct allegation. Accordingly, these confidentiality regulations often are cited as a reason for not providing early notice to an editor of an allegation of misconduct or a flawed publication”.

    The article ends with the following quote:

    “Journals, institutions, and authors should consider their larger obligations to the scientific community to promptly correct the literature”.

    Shouldn’t the federal agencies also share these obligations?

    1. As usual, a good question from Miquel Roig: “Shouldn’t the federal agencies also share these obligations?” OK, but then to what extent should ORI action’s trespass on prerogatives that are jealousy (and rightly) protected by the academic community?

      Technically a federal agency’s authority is limited to something like maintaining “proper stewardship of public funds.” (Uffdah!) Moreover, the average civil servant is not positioned to make decisions about correcting the literature (by that, I mean specific language in the correction, which I intuit is your main point). That seems also to be the subtext of the excellent the CSE policy that you linked.

      But even given the constraint(s), in the event that a PHS finding is made ORI does have the ability to affect corrections in a little discussed (but powerful) manner. Whether or not this happens is contingent on the precise wording in a Federal Register Notice (FRN). Given the right wording, the technical details underlying the PHS finding are made available by NLM attaching a “Comment” Link in results of a PubMed search. See: “Further Correcting the Literature: PubMed “Comments” Link Publications to PHS Research Findings.” https://ori.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/sep_vol19_no4.pdf . (This process was codified about a year later by the NIH.) Importantly, 1) the link to the FRN happens irrespective of a Journal’s decision about correction; 2) the link is an NLM decision (thus the need for correct phrasing in the FRN); and 3) it generally occurs a few weeks after the FRN is published.

      So “Yes.” There is an obligation in the sense that the Federal Agency does have a role, albeit one that is suitably proscribed, but also one that can motivate a journal to get it right.

  2. If the authors are directed to retract/correct the publication as a result of an ORI finding, this fact should be included in their statement to the publishers. Likewise, if the retraction comes as a result of an institutional investigation (prior to an ORI finding), this should also be explained in the notice to the editors. Not doing so would clearly be a lie by omission. Did RW request a copy of the retraction statement as sent from the authors to the publisher? Did the publisher amend it at all?

    I place more blame on the authors for not disclosing everything they knew about the circumstances of this retraction. In this instance, perhaps the journal could have done some Googling, but in other instances, it may not yet be possible for the journal to discover this information on it’s own.

    The above comment references allegations of misconduct, not completed investigations. Although ORI will not discuss cases they are working on, nothing precludes an institution/authors from disclosing the results of their completed investigation even before hearing from ORI.

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