PLOS ONE retracts a paper first flagged in 2015 — and breaks the 100 retraction barrier for 2019

A team of researchers in Saudi Arabia, led by an ex-pat from Johns Hopkins University, has lost three papers for problems with the images in their articles. 

The three retractions pushed the journal — which has become a “major retraction engine” for reasons we explain here and hereover 100 for 2019.

In December, PLOS ONE retrcated three papers by the group, led by Michael DeNiro, of the King Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. First, the journal retracted a 2011 article, “Inhibition of reactive gliosis prevents neovascular growth in the mouse model of oxygen-induced retinopathy,” the co-authors were Falah H Al-Mohanna and Futwan A Al-Mohanna. According to the retraction notice

After this article [1] was published, concerns were raised about results reported in Figs 5 and 7.

Specifically:

–In the left panels in Fig 5, similarities were noted between the elongated GFAP-stained cells sections in the non-treated Oxygen-injured retinas and in the DMSO-treated Oxygen-injured retinas.

— In Fig 5, there appears to be a region of overlap in the left panels shown for non-treated Oxygen-injured retina (see area marked as B) and the DMSO-treated Oxygen-injured retina (see area marked as A). 

— Concerns were raised about the quality and presentation of western blot data reported in Fig 7. Given the brightness/contrast levels of images in this figure and the vertical lines separating lanes, one cannot confirm the integrity of the images or clarify whether the lanes for each experiment show data from the same blot and exposure. In addition, there appear to be horizontal discontinuities below bands shown in lanes 2, 3 of the upper GFAP panel, and vertical discontinuities around the bands shown in both β-actin panels.

The authors were unable to resolve these issues or provide the original data underlying the results in response to journal queries. Without the original data we cannot resolve the above concerns which call into question the validity of the reported results.

In light of these concerns, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this article.

Per FAAM and FHAM, the underlying data for this study were held by MD for whom current contact information is not available. The journal has not received confirmation that MD received communications about this case.

FHAM and FAAM replied to our notification but did not specify agreement or disagreement with the retraction. MD either could not be reached or did not reply.

We were curious about that last sentence. David Knutson, the senior communications manager for PLOS, told us:

We use this phrasing to indicate that we sent notifications to the available email address(es) for the indicated author but did not receive a reply. In such cases, we cannot distinguish whether our messages failed to reach the recipient or whether the recipient chose not to reply.

The other two retractions — for “Nuclear factor kappa-B signaling is integral to ocular neovascularization in ischemia-independent microenvironment” and “The Nexus between VEGF and NFκB Orchestrates a Hypoxia-Independent Neovasculogenesis” — appeared on December 30.

One paper first flagged in 2015

The expression of concern, which appeared barely a week after the first retraction, regards a 2012 paper by DeNiro and Futwan A Al-Mohanna titled “Zinc transporter 8 (ZnT8) expression is reduced by ischemic insults: a potential therapeutic target to prevent ischemic retinopathy.” 

According to the notice: 

After this article [1] was published, concerns were raised about the quality and presentation of western blot data reported in Figure 4B. Given the brightness/contrast levels of images in this figure and the vertical lines separating lanes, one cannot confirm the integrity of the images or clarify whether the lanes for each experiment show data from the same blot and exposure. Furthermore, the band in lane 7 of the ZnT8 panel appears to be of lower resolution than other bands in the same panel and has abrupt vertical and horizontal edges.

Figure 4C presents densitometric analysis of the western blot, and so the image concerns also have potential implications for the validity of these quantitative data.

The authors were unable to resolve these issues or provide the original data underlying the results in Figure 4B and Figure 4C in response to the journal’s queries. Therefore, the PLOS ONE Editors issue this Expression of Concern.

The notice adds that DeNiro’s co-author, Futwan A. Al-Mohanna, told the journal that 

the underlying data for this study were held by MD for whom current contact information is not available. The journal has not received confirmation that MD received communications about this case.

We tried the contact email for DeNiro on the papers, but it bounced back as undeliverable. We also emailed Futwan Al-Mohanna for comment but have yet to hear back. 

The retractions put PLOS ONE over 100 for 2019, according to our count. We asked Knutson why the journal opted to retract one study but leave the other one (for the moment, at least) under and expression of concern. He told us: 

For the retracted study (pone.0022244) we could verify concerns about similarities in the stated figure panels, along with concerns about western blot data reporting. For the other study (pone.0050360) there were no verified concerns about the reported results and conclusions except for general concerns with the quality and presentation of the blots and around the availability of data for these. We have flagged these issues to the reader as an Expression of Concern, but given the nature of these concerns did not consider a retraction to be warranted.

We also wondered why the journal took so long to act on the papers, given that questions about one of them were first reported to the publication in 2015. (The others were flagged by pseudonymous whistleblower Clare Francis in September of this year following comments on PubPeer.) Knutson said:

The delay is for the same reasons we mentioned previously here and here. Staff shortages at the time when these concerns were initially raised led to delays. We recognize the importance  of correcting the record as swiftly as possible, and regret the delay for these cases. Since, we have increased our staff resources, and have been able to resolve an increasing number of cases. We take all concerns raised to us very seriously, and are comprehensively investigating them per the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a tax-deductible contribution to support our work, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, or subscribe to our daily digest. If you find a retraction that’s not in our database, you can let us know here. For comments or feedback, email us at team@retractionwatch.com.

2 thoughts on “PLOS ONE retracts a paper first flagged in 2015 — and breaks the 100 retraction barrier for 2019”

  1. >100 sounds like a lot, but it’s the result of clearing a backlog and at least PLOS is retracting papers. In terms of publication volume it may not be a higher proportion than many other journals. Do we know this? If you’re calling PLOS ONE a major retraction engine I think you’d need to show that this is not simply confounded with being a major publication outlet.

  2. I agree with previous comment, PLOS ONE is at least willing to retract papers which have raised concerns. 100 retractions in a year is however quite telling about the level of misconduct in science today, appalling!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.