‘My egregious delay’: Science journal takes more than three years to retract paper after university investigation

The editor of a Science family journal waited three years before beginning the process of retracting a paper after learning that the University of Wisconsin at Madison had found duplication and mislabeling but no misconduct, Retraction Watch has learned.

As we reported last November, the paper, “The receptor tyrosine kinase AXL mediates nuclear translocation of the epidermal growth factor receptor,” was published in 2017 in Science Signaling. It was retracted this past November, and the notice referred to a university investigation.

That prompted us to submit a public records request on November 12 for the investigation as well as any correspondence between the university and the journal. In a response on January 12, the university denied our request for the report of the investigation, saying that “There is a review still underway at the federal level regarding this issue.” (That is a good reminder of how long the U.S. Office of Research Integrity can take to review such investigations.)

But the university released correspondence between Deric Wheeler, the corresponding author of the paper, and John Foley, the editor of the journal, which we’ve made available here. The thread begins on July 6, 2021 – just one month shy of three years after Foley learned of an investigation into the research – with an email from Foley in which the editor acknowledged “an egregious delay”:

As you are well aware, this paper was the subject of an investigation by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, whose findings were forwarded to me in August of 2018 by the Research Integrity Officer, Dr. Brian Fox. 

The findings of this investigation were that various data in Figures 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6, as well as in figs. S2 and S4 were duplicated, mislabeled, or had other anomalies. The committe [sic] found that these issues were due to carelessness and lack of attention to detail rather than through any intent to deceive, and so they concluded that no research misconduct was committed. However, the published record still needs to be corrected. 

Despite my egregious delay in handling this situation, I am writing to you to let you know that I am starting the process of correcting the record by whatever means I find most appropriate, be that through an Erratum or a Retraction. The report detailed that the original data were found in many cases, so it is conceivable that these data might be used to replace the incorrect data in the original publication in the form of an Erratum. However, the report also states that in some cases, the original data were not available. Whereas in those cases, the Inquiry Committee members were satisfied that these issues did not affect the overall conclusions of the study, the lack of such data presents very serious problems when it comes to correcting the publication record. An inability to replace the incorrect data in the original paper would have more serious consequences. 

As a starting point, I am reaching out to ask whether any of the missing data have been found since the investigation was concluded. I would appreciate a response at your earliest convenience.

Wheeler wrote back right away, and the resulting correspondence suggests that Foley, Fox and Wheeler were all hoping to have some input from ORI. It appears the three spoke on the phone – or at least they did in pairs – the very same day, after which Foley wrote:

As I discussed with Deric on the phone, I am very happy to work together with you, Deric, and ORI to draft, edit, and finalize any text before publication so that the reasons for the retraction (assuming that’s the route taken) are as transparent and as helpful to readers as possible.

On July 18, nearly two weeks later, Wheeler asked Foley to draft a retraction notice, and Foley responded with one on July 25. (The university did not include the draft in the material they released to us, but we will request it again.) Foley noted that he would want consensus from all of the authors, or would note which ones did not agree.

On the 26th and 27th of July, Wheeler and Fox both signed off on the notice, which was published more than two months later, on November 9.

Between August 2018, when the university notified Science Signaling of the investigation’s outcome, and July 2021, when Foley contacted Wheeler about correcting the record, the paper was cited 21 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. PubPeer commenters had flagged the paper in March 2019 – almost a year after the university investigation was already complete, but nearly three years before the retraction notice would eventually appear.

We asked Foley about the delay:

Upon learning from the RIO report that there was no evidence of fraud in this case, I took the view that I might be able to afford the authors the possibility of correcting the record, so I didn’t give the issue the urgency it deserved. Unfortunately, my procrastination drifted on until we began to experience the effects of the pandemic and working from home. By that time, I became consumed with maintaining our weekly publication schedule and looking after my team members as best I could. By the time I returned to this matter, I had realized that the authors were not going to be able to correct the record and that the paper would need to be retracted. I contacted the corresponding author, and he and his co-authors worked diligently to retract the paper. I am very sorry for any inconvenience that the delay in issuing the retraction caused. Indeed, it was for that reason, and to make clear that the authors were not responsible for the delay, that I added an apology to the Retraction notice. As ever, we promoted the author Retraction widely, including to global press.

Postscript: On Nov. 10, 2021, our Adam Marcus wrote to Wheeler asking him to respond to a few questions about the retraction. Wheeler never responded to us.

We now learn, however, that Wheeler forwarded the email to Fox less than an hour after receiving it. He wrote, in part:

I am guessing I should do nothing, but wanted to follow your policies. I think we have the right to refuse disseminating any information.

To which we might say: Having the right doesn’t always make things right.

We don’t know what happened next. It’s possible Fox picked up the phone and talked to Wheeler. Fox did write back, more than six weeks later, on December 29. Here’s what he said:

Well, that clears things right up.

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a one-time tax-deductible contribution by PayPal or by Square, or a monthly tax-deductible donation by Paypal 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.

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.