Pitt researchers sue journal for defamation following retraction

A pair of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are suing the Journal of Biological Chemistry for defamation after the publication retracted one of their papers for problematic images. 

Raju Reddy and Aravind Reddy Tarugu, who are not related, claim the JBC and its publisher, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, defamed them by retracting their 2014 paper on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Raju Reddy

Reddy is a visiting associate professor of medicine at Pitt and chief of pulmonology at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Aravind Targugu, also identified as Aravind T. Reddy, is employed by Pitt. 

According to the suit, filed in August and first reported by the The Pennsylvania Record, the researchers say the retraction “severely” harmed their reputations and caused:

each to suffer significant mental anguish and personal humiliation. 

The suit, filed in Allegheny County, Penn., claims that an investigative committee at Pitt cleared the two researchers of misconduct in February 2016. However, in what came as a “great surprise” to the authors, in April 2016 the school reopened the matter because research integrity officials at the VA had “lingering reservations” about a particular figure (labled 5E) in the paper. 

That led to renewed inquires about the paper, and whether Targugu Reddy had misused the figure in question. Eventually, according to the suit, Pitt officials concluded that no misconduct had occurred. But VA investigators disagreed, and in May 2018, their joint investigation with Pitt found that Targugu Reddy had indeed fudged the image. Targugu Reddy was ordered to contact the JBC and request the journal retract the article, which it did, but not before conducting its own investigation into Figure 5 and other images, as well. 

The journal eventually concluded that the paper contained reused images. As the retraction notice for the paper reads: 

This article has been retracted by the publisher. The right pAcK-H3 and H3 immunoblots from Fig. 6A were reused in Fig. 1A as PPARγ. The right Lamin B1 immunoblot from Fig. 3C was reused in Fig. 4C as the right H3 immunoblot. In Fig. 5E, the first lane from the lower β-actin immunoblot was reused in the right pMSK1 immunoblot. 

However, Reddy and Targugu Reddy say that conclusion was based on “woefully inadequate” evidence. They argue in the suit that their own analysis showed the figures to be “unique and distinct.” 

That view purportedly gets some support by two former ORI officials, Alan Price and John Dahlberg, who consulted on the case for the plaintiffs and in letters appended to the suit said they did not think JBC should retract the paper. 

Kaoru Sakabe, the data integrity manager at JBC, said the journal had

no comment at this time.

The Pitt researchers are not the first to sue publications or critics to protect their reputations. Another researcher, Mario Saad, unsuccessfully sued the American Diabetes Association to prevent the retraction of four of his papers in one of their journals. He was unsuccessful, and has now had 18 papers retracted.

Paul Thaler, whose firm, Cohen Seglias of Washington, DC, is representing Reddy and Targagu, also represented energy scientist Marc Jacobson in a $10 million defamation suit against another journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson, who claimed he was defamed by an article in the journal, dropped the suit in 2018. Thaler has not responded to our request for comment about the Pitt case.

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13 thoughts on “Pitt researchers sue journal for defamation following retraction”

  1. The suit will fall on its face. Nowhere in the retraction notice does it reference misconduct. It simply states the images have been duplicated, a point that the authors have failed to adequately rebut. The journal would have every right to retract this paper based on their assessments alone with or without an institutional finding. It’s also very disappointing that respectable former ORI heads have decided to switch teams, but I suppose that’s where the money is…

    1. My concerns are that journals will (wrongly) look even more now to ORI regarding correction of the literature in misconduct cases. That will only delay information the research needs in a timely fashion, as we have seen recently elsewhere.

      All (of us) ‘ X’rs‘ don’t speak for ORI. But still, let me opine that ORI can exert positive pressures to correct literature by spelling out the details of falsification in a PHS misconduct finding (and this info is linkable to the results of a ‘Comments’ line added by NLM to a PubMed search result).

      But here, ‘not correcting’ the literature is another matter. IMHO it is the Journal’s role, not ORI’s, to opine if/when/how to correct their own literature. (When I was there we were just happy enough that they took notice!) My concern is that this case not undermine their initiatives.

      Finally, ORI’s forensic tools were not meant as a ‘test‘, as implied in the lawsuit, but rather as a visualization tool that overcomes limits of human physiology and perception. The resultant standard is not whether two images are identical, pixel for pixel, but whether their respective features are too similar to have been results derived from separate experiments. Positive results are much more significant than negative results. That decision is made by those experienced in the field, such as referees.

      Would not the real ’test‘ regarding correction be whether there was data to back up the questioned image (which I assume the journal requested)? (My comments here reflect ’process’ alone, rather than ’merit’ in this case.)

      1. Dr. Krueger, your nuanced comments are appreciated, but some of your stated “concerns” are perplexing. In particular, you say “My concerns are that journals will (wrongly) look even more now to ORI…”, and “My concern is that this case not undermine their initiatives”. Yet, it is unclear what aspect of this case suggests to you that journals will become more dependent on ORI, or how their initiatives will be undermined. Instead, the available evidence suggests the journal made its own effort to assess the legitimacy of the concerns.

        In particular, you state “IMHO it is the Journal’s role, not ORI’s, to opine if/when/how to correct their own literature.” Indeed, this seems exactly what happened here — once the journal was alerted, they conducted their own investigation and made the decision to retract. That seems to fit with your view, doesn’t it?

        Most importantly, it is worth emphasizing that the journal’s retraction notice describes FOUR SEPARATE INSTANCES of apparent duplication. The institutional inquiries appear to have noticed only one of them, and letters from two former ORI officials (appended to the lawsuit) both emphasized that only a single suspected band had been identified at the time they reviewed the case, which led them to argue against retraction. Yet, it appears that the result of alerting the journal was that they identified multiple additional irregularities, and that they made the decision to retract based on the total evidence, not a single band duplication.

        The bottom line is that, despite the potential borderline nature of the initial concern, alerting the journal seems to have allowed them to uncover further irregularities (and presumably the authors could not provide the journal with exculpatory information). This seems like a good example of the journal taking responsibility.

        (P.S., in addition to the text of the retraction notice, graphical annotations of the irregularities can be found at PubPeer: https://pubpeer.com/publications/A4F7992822FBB0C771A367A175F3D7#2 )

        1. Thanks. Agree fully with your comments, and partially with Jondoe (after qualifying what was actually said by the experts).

          Interpret my comments in the context of too many past conversations with journal editors telling me they were deferring correction until there was an ORI decision. (I speculated in one ORI newsletter – I miss those!- that might be one reason a recent study had showed retractions were taking longer.) But opinion about the nature of any correction is a journal prerogative, and fully are outside ORI regulatory authority and thus its experience. Thus it is doubly weird to rely on ORI experience in seeking an opinion to do nothing.

          1. Dr. Krueger: I so, so, so much agree with you and thank you for your contributions to these comments. I think this illustrates the exact reason journals are hesitant to act unilaterally; namely, that someone will try to sue them. Perhaps JBC is big and established enough to sustain the potential hit (although IMO again, I fail to see any grounds here), but one could easily see a smaller journal being unable to sustain itself if its spending money on legal fees and judgments.

            One wonders what they would do if the project had not been federally funded. Whose external authority would they then rely on, absent a formal oversight body like ORI?

            Admittedly, I’m not familiar with JBC’s author agreements at the moment, but it seems to me that it would be easy for a journal to rely on language in such an agreement to allow them to unilaterally retract papers if they’re not satisfied with author responses to integrity questions in the future.

            There are what, two or three dozen (maybe?) ORI findings per year? But >1,000 retractions per year? Clearly, we cannot restrict ourselves to retracting only papers subject to formal misconduct findings, and we don’t.

    2. Jondoe is quite right: Wouldn’t a Journal (correcting its own product based on their observations about questioned images) be as immune from defamation as were the anonymous commenters making factual observations As was resolved in the PubPeer case?

      1. Dr J: Yes! A “prenuptual agreement” that would give journals the right to retract -without squabble or whimper- anytime authors are unable to provide the primary data to address reasonable questions about a questioned image. That might also nudge institutions toward serious data retention measures. The CSE should come up with Common language. JK

  2. “Tarugu” or “Targagu”? Both spellings are used here.

    Also, is it Aravind T. Reddy, or Aravind Reddy Tarugu? Both versions are used here.

  3. Apparently everything goes in the wrong direction. Instead of feeling shame due to some very-hard-to-explain “errors”, they sue the only journal that handle image manipulation seriously.

    Research institutes should show some responsibility and initiate retractions if something is seriously wrong and hard to explain in a publication.

    When the US president and the majority of Republican politicians no longer care about what is right or wrong, as long as they get can secure their positions, why should we expect that the leadership at research institutes and scientists will do so?

    No one cares about the science anymore – it is publish and prestige.
    Real science is dying, it rots from the head down.

    1. Well, the ones running about the lab do care about the science if you have positive and interesting results—makes them look good, even if they had little contribution in generating it. If you don’t have that, well, then get lost. Science nowadays reflect American culture.

    2. Morty: Inserting politics into a discussion about research ethics is very 2019, but your argument is rather weak. In fact you better prove the opposite in your attempt to score partisan points: The paper at issue here was *published* during the previous administration and *retracted* during the current administration.

      I don’t see that politics played any role in this case, and although there may be a tie between the breakdown of leadership in politics and one in research ethics, that doesn’t seem demonstrated here.

  4. These folks are on the wrong direction. The journals usually do not ask the authors to retract papers without solid evidence. This is nothing to do with defamation anyway. It is a waste of time for Reddys to pursue The institution should investigate this case with assistance from the ORI to determine whether this is a simple error or misconduct.

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