‘We apologize again for the inadvertent mistakes during the assembly of data due to our carelessness’

Last December, Elisabeth Bik notified journals about 45 articles by a researcher in China which struck her as suspicious. Within weeks, one of those journals — DNA and Cell Biology — had retracted the paper she’d flagged.

That reassuringly brisk response appears to have been an anomaly in the case of Hua Tang, of Tianjin Medical University in China. Only two other retractions have followed, by our count (Tang had a retraction in 2020, bringing his total so far to four). However, FEBS Letters, which published three articles by Tang that Bik had identified as problematic, has now issued expressions of concern for the papers.  

The notices for the articles, which appeared between 2011 and 2014, raise questions about the “data integrity” in the work. Here’s the one for “Downregulation of PPP2R5E expression by miR-23a suppresses apoptosis to facilitate the growth of gastric cancer cells,” from 2014: 

This Expression of Concern is for the above article, published online on July 2, 2014, in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com), and has been published by agreement between the journal Editor in Chief, Michael Brunner, and John Wiley & Sons Ltd. The Expression of Concern has been agreed due to concerns about data integrity raised by an independent source regarding possible duplications between Figs 2D, 3E, and 6C. In addition, in Fig. 2B, there are potential splice marks in the PPP2R5E panel, whereas the loading control does not appear to have any splice sites.

The authors’ institution, Tianjin Medical University, has been contacted, and an investigation of this paper and several others from the group of Hua Tang is underway. While the conclusions of this investigation are awaited, the journal has decided to issue this Expression of Concern.

The other two articles are “MicroRNA-142-3p, a new regulator of RAC1, suppresses the migration and invasion of hepatocellular carcinoma cells,” and “PIWIL4 regulates cervical cancer cell line growth and is involved in down-regulating the expression of p14ARF and p53.”

Michael Brunner, the editor-in-chief of FEBS Letters, told us that after learning about the problematic images from Bik: 

Our Image Integrity Analyst [Jana Christopher] carefully examined the figures in all three articles and confirmed the issues, and we contacted the authors for raw data underpinning these figures.

We also notified the Director of the Dept of Science and Technology at Tianjin Medical University, who acknowledged receipt of our letter and confirmed that an investigation is under way.

As you are aware, the three papers published in FEBS Letters are part of a large group of papers from Hua Tang’s group with image-related issues, flagged on Pubpeer. 

Our Publisher Wiley is investigating the Tang papers published in Wiley journals as a whole, in order to reach a contextual and coordinated decision. In the meantime, we published Expressions of Concern on the papers in FEBS Letters in order to make our readership aware of the issues at hand, while the investigations are ongoing.

Tang told us: 

We received the email from the editor office of FEBS Lett about our article on Dec. 18, 2020. I immediately asked the first authors to check data, and provided the correct image and their original data and applied for correction on Dec. 29, 2020. But we have not received and are waiting for the information. We apologize again for the inadvertent mistakes during the assembly of data due to our carelessness.

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a one-time tax-deductible contribution or a monthly tax-deductible donation 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.

One thought on “‘We apologize again for the inadvertent mistakes during the assembly of data due to our carelessness’”

  1. There are many fans of Elisabeth Bik including myself –
    her work has resulted in several retractions – science has certainly gained immensely.

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.