Bad blood at a lab leads to retraction after postdoc publishes study without supervisor’s permission

A former postdoc at Stony Brook University who was moonlighting in a different lab has lost a study after a university investigation found issues with the work, including “overlap” with prior grants and an earlier study that her supervisor had published, as well as misreported data.

The supervisor — neuroscientist Joshua Plotkin, who was the complainant in the investigation — said that the study was published without his permission, according to an email seen by Retraction Watch. The former postdoc, Catarina Cunha, has denied wrongdoing and called the investigation a “witch hunt,” claiming that the university ignored her exculpatory evidence and that the paper’s findings are valid and original. 

Cunha, the study’s corresponding author, was working in Plotkin’s lab at Stony Brook University when she submitted the paper, titled “Amelioration of obsessive-compulsive disorder in three mouse models treated with one epigenetic drug: unraveling the underlying mechanism,” to Scientific Reports in October 2018. The paper was accepted and appeared online in June 2019. It has been cited three times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Unbeknownst to Plotkin, Cunha had begun volunteering on weekends at New York University with her PhD supervisor, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, before the study was submitted in October 2018. Cunha also began volunteering, around that time, at The Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, in Orangeburg, NY, where she is now employed as a research scientist in Christopher Cain’s lab. Cain was previously a post-doc in LeDoux’s lab

Cunha tells Retraction Watch:

I volunteered for over a year in parallel (without DR. Plotkin’s knowledge) on weekends at NYU and [The Nathan Kline Institute] which helped my colleagues get grants and publications. In return, they helped me with my own ideas and [LeDoux] ended up supporting my K99 grant (which consisted of my epigenetic projects). I had the support of another lab to perform all my genetics and qPCRs. Additionally, I got funds from a research pharma company to buy supplies and drugs. I decided to publish the data I had so the odds of getting a K99 would increase, and that’s how this paper got published.

Cunha’s affiliation on the retracted study is listed as the Emotional Brain Institute at the Nathan Kline Institute. In response to an email from Retraction Watch, asking whether the study’s experiments were performed at the Nathan Kline Institute, Cain said:

Dr. Cunha conducted these studies at Stony Brook before joining our dept – though I think the publication came out while she was at [the Nathan Kline Institute]. My understanding is that she disagrees with these accusations and attributes this to a falling out with her post-doc advisor at Stony Brook (Dr. Plotkin). 

On July 1, 2019, shortly after the study was published, Cain emailed Cunha and said that Plotkin had “requested that Scientific Reports retract the paper you just published – says all the data was collected in his lab and you did not have permission to publish, especially without him (among many other points of contention),” according to an email shared with Retraction Watch.  The email continues: 

Was this the project you were telling me was approved for you to publish by somebody at Stony Brook? We should talk about it tomorrow since he’s leveled some very serious accusations like fraud and plagiarism.

The email also says that the study was submitted in October 2018, while Cunha was still working in Plotkin’s lab, and that the Nathan Kline Institute helped with publication costs.

Sometime after the study was published, Stony Brook University’s Research Integrity Office began an investigation into the case with Plotkin as the complainant, according to three photographs of parts of the report that were shared with Retraction Watch. The study’s retraction notice, posted February 23, includes four findings, starting with:

some of the methodological and experimental descriptions in the paper show significant overlap with NIH grant application R01-NS104089, NARSAD grant application 23840, and a previously published article by Plotkin et al.

Plotkin, who declined to comment for this story, is listed on the two grants. The “published article by Plotkin et al.” refers to a 2011 study in Nature Neuroscience, titled “Synaptically driven state transitions in distal dendrites of striatal spiny neurons.” The notice continues:

the Authors incorrectly reported results for Slitrk5 knockout mice. Due to problems with genotyping of these animals, the genetic identity of the individual animals was impossible to determine;

the Authors incorrectly reported results for Sapap3 knockout mice. The animals used in these experiments were Sapap3 conditional knock-in mice;

the experimental conditions in the behavioural tests were also incorrectly reported: the experimenters were not blind to experimental conditions as reported in the paper.

The Editors therefore no longer have confidence in the integrity of the data presented in this Article.

Catarina Cunha disagrees with the retraction. German Todorov, Karthikeyan Mayilvahanan and David Ashurov did not respond to the correspondence about this retraction.

A preprint posted to PsyArXiv, with the same four authors, was also retracted after a Stony Brook investigation found improperly genotyped animals were used for experiments and that observers were not blinded in those experiments as stated in the paper.

In an email to Retraction Watch, Cunha argued that her animal experiments were properly blinded, contrary to the investigation’s findings, and said that her study in Scientific Reports did not overlap with Plotkin’s grants:

The focus of this study is epigenetic mechanisms which is not at all the scope of this grant. 

I have worked on the amygdala and fear memory since my Ph.D. in Dr. LeDoux’s lab. This paper is focused on epigenetic mechanisms using optogenetic stimulation of the BLA-DLS pathway. Like in many other papers, there might be some overlap that uses the amygdala, optogenetic stimulation, and electrophysiology.

Rebecca Dahl, Stony Brook’s assistant vice president for research compliance, declined to share the full results from the investigation, stating that “we followed our process and all actions that were appropriate have been taken,” and that “the University will not comment on specific cases.”

In response to requests for comment, both Plotkin and the Stony Brook department chair, Alfredo Fontanini, directed our questions to Teresa Flannery, Stony Brook’s vice president for marketing and communications. Responding to Cunha’s claim that the study was her own idea and work, Flannery said:

We followed our process.

In response to an email from Retraction Watch, asking if Springer Nature performed their own investigation before retracting the study, a spokesperson for the publisher said:

As mentioned in the retraction notice, the editors have retracted this article following an investigation by the Research Integrity Office at Stony Brook University which concluded that there was significant overlap with previous grant applications and a published article, as well as incorrect reporting of results and behavioural tests. Based on these findings, we concluded that a retraction was the most appropriate course of action to correct the scientific record.

On Twitter, some scientists celebrated the retraction. Eric Prager, a former Plotkin lab post-doc, tweeted, “So glad to see this trash was finally retracted.” Josh Goldberg, a neuroscientist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who previously worked in the same office as Plotkin at Northwestern University, tweeted, “Yeah, the wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” 

Goldberg also tweeted a screenshot of a passage from the Book of Esther, in which King Xerxes says that Haman — who tried to exterminate Jews in Persia — had been impaled on a pike. That Biblical event is the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Cunha still stands by the study’s findings. In a lengthy email, she argued that her data were sound because “another completely independent publication that came after this paper from a lab I never worked with shows similar results.” She also explained that the retracted study “has important translational applications,” which she is following up on, and that:

Even with this paper retraction, the path is moving in this direction, so whatever happens to this paper or my career isn’t important anymore.

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11 thoughts on “Bad blood at a lab leads to retraction after postdoc publishes study without supervisor’s permission”

  1. This one definitely makes the case for transparent reporting of investigations. Was the post-doc a rogue or did the university just stand by their senior rainmaker? Hard to tell.

  2. Wow, a postdoc volunteering in other labs on weekends without their supervisor’s knowledge? Something went seriously wrong here. I would assume that the second labs would not take a postdoc volunteer without understanding that the supervisor was OK with it or without a desire to help the postdoc escape a bad situation. PIs tend to know each other.

    The Stony Brook investigation is not convincing to me. If someone has been working in a lab and then wants to study something else of course there will be substantial overlap in methods! What would be concerning is a substantial overlap in results. And the way the postdoc sorted out their own funding and resources for the study would not normally be necessary if the supervisor was supportive.

    I also wonder how they managed to run an animal study, which would require IRB approval, without anyone noticing? A functional lab where the boss is paying attention does not have random animals coming in.

    All in all, a very weird situation, with a lot pointing towards bad and possibly abusive supervision.

  3. This is really unfortunate for everybody involved. I suspect that Cunha behaved in this way because she wanted a shot at good job by juicing up her publication record as much as possible. I suspect some of that stuff in that retracted paper is correct, perhaps not all of it.

    I see the main problem here is a system that drove her toward this behavior out of desperation for a decent career. If the US stopped minting PhD’s like we do, or better yet, countries outside of the US supported science to the degree that the US does, this would be far less likely to happen.

  4. Postdocs and PhDs can only rise to the top when they transcend their supervisors. Claiming a postdoc’s work should be published with the supervisor’s name, and permission under any circumstances is outrageous and fraudulent. People have the most sacred right to the fruit of their thought, labor, and network.

    Many of the current employment problems in academic research can be solved if the postdocs and PhDs drop the name of absentee supervisors from their papers and claim their exclusive right to their intellectual work. This way, it will be extremely difficult for the manager-class professors to build their Ponzi scheme and sit on its top.

    Forget about predatory journals; let’s talk about predatory professors!

    1. Well said!

      The system will not change until leadership (PI’s, admins at the NIH) wants it to change. But that is unlikely to happen, as the leaders are quite happy with the way it is. Why? The leaders have great pay, job security, and benefits that provide a nice lifestyle that PhD’s and post docs cannot have: having enough money raise a family and being able to retire at the same time, for example.

      And then, because of the great lifestyle, PI’s don’t want to retire, and the postdocs want out as soon as possible (!). Its sort of a interesting model on how in science, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, paralleling everything else living under the neo-liberal capitalism.

    2. Science is a team sport. Being a postdoc in most cases means you are part of a group, and you make use of resources that others worked hard to secure for you. Irrespective of authorship, no way you should ever feel it’s ok to turn into a freelancer and publish your own papers without anyone else’s knowledge.

      1. That arrow goes both ways. The PI should be actively training the post-doc and helping them build a publication record that will give them a shot at a good career. Not to mention fair pay, reasonable working hours, and a respectful workplace. The post-doc should have be allowed to collaborate outside the lab if they have ideas and are fulfilling their responsibilities.

  5. Based on what is reported it seems clear that the work was done in Plotkin’s lab, using his resources, equipment, animals models, animal protocols etc. At the very least, he has to be made aware of this paper before it’s being submitted. Same goes for the two stony brook students listed asauthors, I wonder if they knew there is a paper submitted with their names on it. Also rather fishy that someone at Nathan Kline thought it’s fine to help with publication costs without even doing the most basic check on this paper.

  6. This appears to be an open and shut case of a former postdoc publishing (and falsifying) data collected in her former PI’s lab without his knowledge or permission. Her current supervisor is unequivocal in stating that the data were collected in her former PI’s lab, and his email makes it clear that he was surprised to learn she attempted to publish the data without the consent of her former PI.

    It’s interesting to see so many commenters make very large leaps beyond the stated facts to side with a postdoc that is clearly acting inappropriately. A PI had data funded by his lab stolen, misrepresented, and published behind his back; he is clearly a victim of intellectual property theft. The comments of others involved in the research, and the postdoc’s current advisor, only further substantiate the basic facts of what happened here.

  7. “Stolen” really?? The postdoc should have equal rights and claim (if not absolute) of the data, if it were his/her idea that was implemented in achieving the results. More often than not, Science doesnot work according to proposal ( even if the PI completely contributed to it), and the nuances of steering the project to logical conclusions rests with the researcher at the bench ( be it a PhD/Postdoc/PI).

    1. Zulkifli, it should be clarified that in the US, data are owned by the institution that employs the PI and at which the data are collected. It is the PI who received the funding or the one under whose supervision those data were collected who are normally given custody of the data. But, neither the PI nor the individual/s who collect data ‘own’ the data.

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