‘We decided to play it safe.’ Journal doesn’t retract paper even though the authors neglected to mention that they didn’t do the experiments themselves.

via James Heilman/Wikipedia

An eye journal has issued an expression of concern for a paper on glaucoma that, given the litany of problems with the data, could well have been retracted. Not least of the issues: The authors admitted to using an outside firm to conduct experiments they’d tried to pass off as having done themselves. 

The article, “Fisetin rescues retinal functions by suppressing inflammatory response in a DBA/2J mouse model of glaucoma,” came from a group at People’s Hospital of Rizhao. It appeared online last February in Documenta Ophthalmologica, the journal of the International Society for Clinical Electrophysiology and Vision. 

According to the researchers: 

We employed a DBA/2J mouse model which was treated with or without fisetin. Pattern electroretinogram (P-ERG), visual evoked potentials (VEPs) and intraocular pressure (IOP) were evaluated. Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) were used to measure the expression levels of TNF-α, IL-1β and IL-6. Western blotting was performed to assess the activation of nuclear factor kappa-B (NF-κB).

But those claims now seem shaky, at best. Per the expression of concern

It was brought to our attention that the electrophysiological results reported in this study could not have been obtained following the experimental approach described in the method section. Some concerns on the authenticity of the western blots were also expressed.

In order to remove any possible doubts as to the validity of their observation, the authors were asked to grant us access to their raw data (electrophysiological recordings and western blots). The authors informed us that the experiments had been performed by a company which had recently gone out of business and, consequently, the results were no longer available. Of note, there was no mention in their manuscript that a company had been involved in this research and none of the co-authors had been employed by this company. Similarly, original western blots were no longer available. Consequently, we were not able to verify the data that were reported in this study especially that used to generate Figures 1 and 2.

Based on the above, the readers are advised to interpret these results with caution.

Linlin Li, Jie Qin, Tingting Fu and Jiaxiang Shen agree with this editorial expression of concern.

We were curious why the journal opted to keep the paper viable rather than retract it outright, so we posed that question to the editor, Pierre Lachapelle. He told us by email: 

It is true that it would have been better to withdraw the paper but we (me and the publisher) felt that we did not have enough evidence to do so. Basically, we had no direct proof that they had cheated (only circumstantial) and they could not provide us with evidence that they had not. We decided to play it safe.

We emailed Shen for comment but didn’t hear back. 

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6 thoughts on “‘We decided to play it safe.’ Journal doesn’t retract paper even though the authors neglected to mention that they didn’t do the experiments themselves.”

  1. It is very telling that *not* retracting is considered “playing it safe” from a editor’s perspective. From this scientist’s perspective, “playing it safe” would mean removing any impossible and highly questionable results from the research record whenever the authors cannot adequately support what they’ve published, regardless of reason. IMO, this is an example that shows clearly how the publishing industry’s priorities and the priorities of science are in significant conflict.

    1. In this context – it is technically correct that “Documenta Ophthalmologica, [is] the journal of the International Society for Clinical Electrophysiology and Vision”, but more importantly, it’s a Springer-Nature journal. So no surprise here.

  2. I always thought the burden of proof was on authors to show their work was appropriate, not on the publisher to prove it wasn’t. Interesting cop out.

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