Following Retraction Watch and PubPeer posts, journal upgrades correction to a retraction

A year ago, we posted on the case of a paper in the Journal of Cell Science in which editors:

allowed a group of researchers in Italy to correct a 2016 paper with questionable images after a faculty member in their institution — and a frequent co-author of the group’s — said his investigation found no reason to doubt their integrity. 

At the time, the journal told us they were unaware that Fulvio Magni — to whom they were directed “as the person who oversees ethics issues for the institute” — was a frequent co-author with the researchers who had authored the corrected paper.

The same day we posted on the case — Oct. 29, 2019 — a PubPeer commenter pointed out new issues in Figure 4 of the paper. And now, the journal has retracted the paper:

Following the publication of a correction concerning Figs 5E, 6A and 7A, members of the community highlighted that Professor Fulvio Magni, who had been assigned by the Dean of the School Medicine and Surgery to oversee problems related to research in the absence of a research integrity office, and who investigated this case on behalf of the University Milano-Bicocca, had co-authored articles with the corresponding author.

New concerns were also raised regarding a possible splice in Fig. 4B and band duplication in Fig. 4F. Original data provided by the corresponding author, Professor Roberto Perego, before acceptance in 2016 when the paper was first investigated, were at low resolution; higher resolution images of replicate experiments were also provided. Re-inspection of the data for Fig. 4F led to the conclusion that the image was of too poor quality to conclusively match it to the published figure, or to confirm or exclude band duplication. For Fig. 4B, the original data could not rule out any inappropriate manipulation, and the relative alignment of the rows of bands in the original full blot was inconsistent, raising further concerns.

Journal of Cell Science contacted the institute to request another independent investigation of the case, including these two new concerns.

Professor Guido Cavaletti the Vice-Rector (Research) at the University of Milano-Bicocca, nominated a committee of three independent experts working at external institutions to investigate this case. Once the committee completed its investigation, Journal of Cell Science was sent the report, which stated:

‘We have carefully checked the details of the experiments reported in the [paper]. We could not individuate a possible explanation and ensure that the data reported are derived from the same gel used. However, it seems to us that there is no intentional alteration of the results.’

They further stated that as the corresponding author has replicates for the experiments in question, he should supply replacement figures. They also confirmed that the conclusions of the paper were confirmed by the original data.

Unfortunately, the journal found that neither this report, nor the original data or explanation supplied by the corresponding author, adequately addressed our concerns about suspected inappropriate image manipulation. We are therefore retracting this paper.

In the meantime, the paper has been cited twice, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — including once by many of its co-authors.

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