“This retraction is one of the fastest I ever experienced after reporting a paper to a journal editor.”

Elisabeth Bik

A researcher who has had more than 40 papers questioned by scientific sleuths has lost a second to retraction.

On December 14, Elisabeth Bik reported problems in 39 papers coauthored by Hua Tang, of Tianjin Medical University in China, to the editors of the journals that had published the papers. PubPeer commenters found problems in several other papers, and Bik tallied the 45 articles in a December 18 post.

In May, Tang lost a paper from PLOS ONE that Bik had flagged for the journal all the way back in 2015 — a delay that is not unusual for the journal, but becoming less common.

But the response this time was swift, at least for one journal. DNA and Cell Biology, a Mary Ann Liebert title, retracted “microRNA-34a-Upregulated Retinoic Acid-Inducible Gene-I Promotes Apoptosis and Delays Cell Cycle Transition in Cervical Cancer Cells” this week. (The exact date of the retraction is unclear, as Bik notes below.)

Here’s the notice:

A report by an independent science integrity consultant was delivered to the Editor-in-Chief of DNA and Cell Biology whereby a set of 39 papers from the author group of Hua Tang at Tianjin Medical University ‘‘appear to contain identical or overlapping images that represent different experiments, mostly colony formation assays or transwell experiments. The problems in each individual paper might seem minor, but together, the large amounts of overlapping images might suggest a much broader problem.’’ A corresponding link to PubPeer.com was provided

The report noted that nearly all of the 39 papers in question have been funded by multiple grants of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. 

The Editor-in-Chief of DNA and Cell Biology reviewed the information and found that the digital manipulation of images in figures 1, 3, and 4 is scientific misconduct. The paper is officially retracted based on the image manipulation alone, but also due to the appearance of a pattern of malfeasance from this lab. 

DNA and Cell Biology is committed to upholding the standards of scientific publishing and the community it serves and will not tolerate any improprieties.

The paper has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Tang has not responded to a request for comment. [See update at end of post.] Bik tells Retraction Watch:

This retraction is one of the fastest I ever experienced after reporting a paper to a journal editor. Assuming it was retracted today, January 5, it took only 19 days from reporting to retraction.

This paper was part of a set of 39 papers, published in different journals, that I reported on December 14, 2020 to the journal editors. All papers had Hua Tang from Tianjin Medical University as a senior author. One of those papers was part of my original set of 782 papers found during my scan of 20,000 papers for image duplication, and had already been retracted in May 2020 (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064707; reported to PLOS ONE in October 2015). I am still following leads from that initial set, and I had found another paper by this group (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114021) and posted it onto Pubpeer in Dec 2019. That paper got an Expression of Concern in May 2020, but I still included it in the set of 39 papers reported last December. 

Bik says that most of the flagged papers “have overlapping microscopy photos, such as the one in the now retracted DNA and Cell Biology paper”: 

This particular paper, DOI 10.1089/dna.2015.3130, contains six sets of overlapping microscopy panels. While one or two sets of overlapping photos could be caused by an error, my rule of thumb is that three or more overlaps is beyond error. With six overlaps, one has to wonder if the lab is negligent in carefully keeping track of experiments and data, or if there might be an intention to mislead. So in that light, retraction is a good response by the journal editors, although it would have been great to hear a response from the authors. 

Bik continued:

The journal nor the publisher (MaryAnn Liebert) are a COPE member, so technically they do not need to follow COPE guidelines, but here is what could have gone better:

1. The now-retracted paper appears to have vanished from the journal’s website and replaced with the retraction notice. There does not seem to be a legacy or watermarked PDF copy of the original paper.

2. There is no retraction date.

Update, 1300 UTC, 1/8/21: Tang tells us:

When peer pointed out the errors in this paper, we immediately checked the raw data and found the correct data. It was inadvertently misplaced due to wrong labeling by our carelessness. We sincerely apologize for our inadvertent error and any inconvenience may have caused readers. Therefore, we think the NOTICE OF RETRACTION by DNA and Cell Biology should be based on the article itself, rather than exaggerating the event itself. This is just an academic challenge, not a news hotspot, not a hype event. As for other papers, we have timely checked the raw data and are applying to various journals for erratum. Some papers are under process of correction for error. We sincerely hope that the journal will not directly retract the article without giving us any opportunity to correction. Again, we sincerely apologize for inadvertently introducing this careless error and thank their peers for bringing this issue to their attention.

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2 thoughts on ““This retraction is one of the fastest I ever experienced after reporting a paper to a journal editor.””

  1. Some entity, be it a publisher, a university, a foundation, or some combination, should be supporting Dr. Bik’s work, both in terms of salary and tools for identifying fraud. Her impact on the field is so valuable.

  2. Thank you for not being afraid to speak the truth!
    That’s not very often that people stand up to China… And as a bonus being a female! YAY!
    I’m sorry I’m jumping up and down because I’m a grandma from the ’50s and I so appreciate this!! Keep up the great work I wish there was a Twitter or a share link here!!

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