Nature walks back mentorship prize for Spanish scientist with nine retractions

Carlos Lopez-Otin

Nature is rescinding an award to a Spanish researcher whose group has at least nine retractions for problems with their published images. 

The journal in 2017 gave Carlos López-Otín, of the University of Oviedo, its mid-career achievement mentoring prize for Spanish scientists — along with a physicist from Barcelona — citing

the ability of these scientists to instil confidence in self-doubting trainees, and of their motivational skills. 

But two years – and a slew of retractions — later, it seems Nature’s own doubts about López-Otín’s skills as a mentor were too great to ignore.

In a statement issued today, Magdalena Skipper, the journal’s editor-in-chief, and Sir Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Springer Nature, and editor emeritus of Nature, write: 

In 2017, Professor Carlos Lopez-Otin was one of four scientists chosen for the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science in Spain (see https://www.nature.com/nature/awards/mentorship). Following the announcement of the award, concerns about a number of papers of which Professor Lopez-Otin was a co-author were raised with Nature, following initial criticisms about some on PubPeer.  Concerns about a paper published in Nature Cell Biology  were also investigated and the paper was retracted

Nature initiated an investigation into 97 papers originating from Professor Lopez-Otin’s lab between 2012 and 2019.  18 papers were found to contain problems with images, including some that had already been identified on PubPeer, and Professor Lopez-Otin was corresponding author on nine of these.

We have not attempted an in depth investigation of these issues, but we have alerted the journals concerned in the new cases. Our task has been to draw a conclusion about how these issues reflect on the mentoring in the laboratory of Professor Lopez-Otin. 

… 

The corresponding author on a paper is responsible for the research group which contributed mostly to each paper, therefore the nine papers on which Professor Lopez-Otin was the corresponding author are of particular significance.

Following consideration of all the available information, judges of the original awards and the previous and current Editors-in-Chief of Nature concluded that the issues identified are not commensurate with high quality mentorship of the originating lab, and that the mentoring award should accordingly be withdrawn. 

The statement adds that: 

No other assessment of the scientific validity or value of Professor Lopez-Otin’s work was undertaken and the decision to withdraw the award should not be considered to be a criticism of any other aspect of his research.  

Nature has assessed its own procedures relating to these awards and is implementing strengthened  due-diligence with regard to nominated mentors.

Earlier this year, after the Journal of Biological Chemistry pulled eight of his papers, all published between 2000 and 2007, López-Otín — winner of the 100,000 euro National Research Award in 2009 — told us

those articles contained some faults in specific panels that did not affect any of the conclusions of the study. We were not aware of the existence of those errors until the journal contacted us. When we realized about these issues, we sent the journal the original images, showing that the original data fully supported the results presented in those figures. In some cases in which original data was not available, as most articles were published more than 14 years ago, our lab repeated those experiments, obtaining the same results. 

He added that: 

we acknowledged those mistakes for which we feel embarrassed, and even though they affected minor figure panels, with no effect on the main message of the article, we requested the journal to publish a correction. Unfortunately, when dealing with these issues, JBC does not take into account whether the study is valid or whether it had been reproduced by the authors or other groups, and they requested from us to withdraw the articles.

One of Lopez-Otin’s retracted papers, from Nature Cell Biology, included George Q. Daley, now dean of Harvard Medical School, as a co-author.

López-Otín did not respond to a request for comment in response to the rescinded award. But the researcher told El Pais earlier this year that he was being unjustly persecuted (per Google translate): 

The biochemist feels victim of a mysterious persecution. “For a year and a half, the situation has become unbearable. Someone dedicated himself for months to examine in more unusual detail the more than 400 articles I have published in the last 30 years of my scientific career. As a result of this gigantic magnifying glass placed on our laboratory, errors were detected in some articles,” he explains from Paris, where he claims to seek an “intensive mental repair” in a sabbatical stay in a French laboratory.

El Pais also reported that “molecular biologist Juan Valcárcel, of the Center for Genomic Regulation of Barcelona…has coordinated an initiative of fifty scientists to request the Journal of Biological Chemistry not to withdraw the eight studies of López Otín, but has not been successful.”

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7 thoughts on “Nature walks back mentorship prize for Spanish scientist with nine retractions”

  1. “For a year and a half, the situation has become unbearable. Someone dedicated himself for months to examine in more unusual detail the more than 400 articles I have published…”
    Why would that be unbearable? I am happy when people read my papers and flattered when they do so in more than usual detail.

    1. It is obvious that for cheaters it is “unbearable” that “someone dedicated himself” to find wrongdoing cases and cheating. Cheaters are mostly work in a zone secured by a mafia and circle of friends. They don’t expect “someone” spend time investigating their cheating. These friends trade: Authorship, citation, proposal, research grants, and endorsement for awards like this mentorship prize. It is interesting to know the names of people who endorsed him for this prize and what they gained in response.
      The returned prize must be given to that “someone” who dedicated himself/herself to disclose misconduct and shamed the cheater(s).

  2. Is Nature going to release the conflicted papers list, any time soon? Is there a way we can get that list to see which 18 papers are flawed with image integrity issues? Right now, there are ongoing contests for tenure-track positions at the University of Oviedo which people from Otin´s lab (and potentially signing those papers) are applying to. It won’t be fair with the rest of candidates from other honest labs. Everybody nows that in Spain, once you get a tenured post you´ll never get it withdrawn regardless how fraudulent you are found to be thereafter! Thank you.

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