Harvard surgeon has five papers pulled following internal investigation

Edward Whang

Citing an investigation by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, two journals last week retracted five articles by Edward Whang, an associate professor of surgery at the school. 

The journals, Oncogene and Surgery, both refer to problems with images of Western blots that could not be resolved because “no underlying research data” were available, according to the investigation.

Questions have loomed over Whang’s research for a decade, and more than 20 of his studies have been flagged on PubPeer for possible image problems. As one commenter wrote in 2014 about one of the now-retracted papers, “It is perhaps fortunate that figure assembly and liver surgery require such unrelated skill sets.” 

It is not clear how many of Whang’s papers were affected by the investigation. We reached out to Harvard Medical School for more details, but it declined to share information about the investigation. 

In 2013, the German magazine Der Spiegel quoted a professor at a university there as saying that figures from two separate papers by Whang and his colleagues were sufficiently similar as to justify “the suspicion of manipulation.” Whang conceded the likeness, but said he could “vouch for the accuracy of the data.”

That same year, the well-known anonymous tipster writing under the pseudonym Clare Francis alerted Michael Sarr, then an editor of Surgery, to the same problem. After reviewing the papers and concluding that they described “totally different experiments,” Sarr reportedly replied to the tipster in an email: “Quite frankly, in the future, unless you wish to point out how these articles are exactly the same and unless you do your research, we (at Surgery) are going to ignore any further claims that you send us.”

A PubPeer commenter later pointed out that Sarr, an emeritus professor of surgery at Mayo Clinic, had once seconded Whang’s nomination for a surgical traveling fellowship. Sarr is no longer at Surgery

Here is a list of the retracted papers, which were published in 2004 and dealt with potential new cancer treatments:

(As of this writing, a retraction notice for the last paper has not yet been published “due to a technical issue,” according to Springer Nature, the publisher of Oncogene.)

The retraction notices issued by Oncogene on February 9 and 10 state that Whang and one of his coauthors, U.K. surgeon Mark Duxbury, did not agree to the retractions. Neither researcher responded to requests for comments from Retraction Watch.

A spokesperson from Springer Nature told Retraction Watch by email:

We became aware of issues with these papers when Harvard contacted us detailing the outcome of their institutional investigation and requesting the papers be retracted. Following this, the journal Editors and Springer Nature Research Integrity Group investigated and agreed that the papers should be retracted.

Springer Nature is not aware of other papers published in its journals that are implicated in the Harvard investigation, the spokesperson added.

A spokesperson from Elsevier, which publishes Surgery, said Harvard contacted them last year following the investigation:

After reviewing the materials, the Journal of Surgery [sic] Editors reached out to the corresponding authors and asked for a response. The Editors were not satisfied by the explanation and the papers were retracted at the end of last year. [Editor’s note: The notices are dated Feb. 10 and 11, 2023.]

Harvard Medical School’s media relations team declined to share the investigation report, but said in an emailed statement:

While we do not comment on individual circumstances, Harvard Medical School is fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of its research. Any concerns brought to our attention are reviewed thoroughly in accordance with our institutional policies and applicable regulations. The school’s policies on research integrity are outlined here.

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15 thoughts on “Harvard surgeon has five papers pulled following internal investigation”

  1. I am somewhat disappointed that Harvard has taken such a long time to retract Edward E Whang’s papers. If Harvard had acted within a year, or two, of the problematic data becoming public (on Pubpeer) it would have moved the whole area of scientific integrity forwards by several steps. I think this episode has been a missed opportunity.

    1. 10 years ago, the journal editors had the options of investigating concerns about the data; or of brushing off those concerns and waiting until data-retention time-out meant that the data were unavailable and any investigation was impossible.

      They chose… unwisely.

    2. The problematic Edward E Whang papers span the years 2003 to 2008, the peak year being 2004. Harvard’s 10 year delay in retracting 5 papers has given Edward E Whang and his co-authors, notably Mark Duxbury, 10 years without a true record of their scientific contribution. Having unwarranted papers in your CV helps you get jobs and keep jobs. The authors are now in the middle to late stages of surgical careers. They have been successful.

  2. Readers in the UK and the ROI may be interested in how clinical academic research and scholarship awards,let alone appointments,are not entirely free of ” being economical with the truth”, damaging science,patient care derived from good research, and the futures of other more deserving trainees.
    Moving between jurisdictions,with less than completely honest disclosures by employer referees,is a notorious method . Money and reputation is often the only way to uphold decency and improving knowledge,by alerting the scholarship committees and funders even after the award: some professors still have an ethical concern and object to having such candidates taking awards better deserved by others in the patronage networks,let alone the damage to their own and their own universities’ reputation to attract funds when the problems are exposed.

  3. https://academic.oup.com/bjs/article/91/9/1206/6143797?login=false
    Society of Academic and Research Surgery
    British Journal of Surgery, Volume 91, Issue 9, September 2004, Pages 1206–1207, https://doi.org/10.1002/bjs.4726
    Published: 20 August 2004
    Abstract
    The 4th meeting of the Society of Academic and Research Surgery in January 2004 was held at the Belfast Waterfront Hall, hosted by Mr Declan Carey and his colleagues from the Belfast City Hospital. The Patey prize was won by Mr Mark Duxbury et al. for a paper entitled “RNA Interference Targeting Carcinoembryonic Antigen-Related Cell Adhesion Molecule 6 (CEACAM6): A Novel Strategy For The Treatment of Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma”.
    “Here is a list of the retracted papers, which were published in 2004 and dealt with potential new cancer treatments:
    “CEACAM6 gene silencing impairs anoikis resistance and in vivo metastatic ability of pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells” (151 citations)”
    Sounds very similar to title of retracted paper below.
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41388-023-02625-6
    Retraction Note
    Published: 10 February 2023
    Retraction Note: CEACAM6 gene silencing impairs anoikis resistance and in vivo metastatic ability of pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells
    Mark S. Duxbury, Hiromichi Ito, Michael J. Zinner, Stanley W. Ashley & Edward E. Whang
    Oncogene (2023)

      1. I wonder if there will be any more Edward E Whang retractions. Harvard has taken 10 years to retract 5 papers. That might be the end of it.
        Perhaps surgeons should concentrate on manual dexterity, reducing post-operative mortality and morbidity, and stop using Photoshop. Give them colouring in books with the object of not going over the lines, and give them those tests you see at county fairs, where you have to pass a metal loop along an irregularly shaped length of wire without touching it. If you touch the wire an electric circuit is completed triggering a light to go on, or a jarring sound.

  4. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2023/3/9/hms-research-retractions/

    Ashley, the other HMS professor who authored the five retracted articles, wrote that an HMS inquiry committee’s investigation found he was not personally responsible for the publication of the data and dismissed him from the investigation.

    “I am not able to speak to their subsequent findings,” Ashley wrote in an email to The Crimson. “I did know that the committee had recommended retraction of the articles so I agreed with this recommendation when I was asked by the journal.”

    The buck doesn’t stop with [Stanley W] Ashley.

    https://bei.brighamandwomens.org/people/stanley-ashley-md-0

    1. You can study archeology at Harvard. It is something Harvard is familiar with.
      https://anthropology.fas.harvard.edu/archaeology
      Harvard retracted 5 papers this year by Edward E Whang from nearly 20 years ago. Harvard should be able to examine more papers by Edward E Whang from 20 years ago and come to conclusions.
      Think of it as archeology. There is published archeological evidence by Edward E Whang. Perhaps the lab books are no longer available, and the original data are not available, but the publications themselves are evidence of what was presented in those publications.
      More papers by Edward E Whang here:
      https://pubpeer.com/search?q=Edward+E+Whang+

  5. 6th retraction for Edward E Whang, Harvard.

    https://www.jbc.org/article/S0021-9258(23)02035-5/fulltext

    This article has been withdrawn by the authors. The journal concluded that four bands in Fig. 2B CEACAM6 panel in the article have been reused in a previous publication by the same authors. The issue could not be resolved due to the lack of original data. The withdrawing authors stand by the overall findings and conclusions of the study.

  6. Editorial expression of concern for Mark S Duxbury and Edward E Whang, Harvard.

    Oncogene . 2023 Jul 19. doi: 10.1038/s41388-023-02784-6. Online ahead of print.
    Editorial Expression of Concern: Overexpression of CEACAM6 promotes insulin-like growth factor I-induced pancreatic adenocarcinoma cellular invasiveness
    Mark S Duxbury 1, Hiromichi Ito 1, Eric Benoit 1, Michael J Zinner 1, Stanley W Ashley 1, Edward E Whang 2
    Affiliations expand
    PMID: 37468680 DOI: 10.1038/s41388-023-02784-6

    Editorial Expression of Concern
    Published: 19 July 2023
    Editorial Expression of Concern: Overexpression of CEACAM6 promotes insulin-like growth factor I-induced pancreatic adenocarcinoma cellular invasiveness
    Mark S. Duxbury, Hiromichi Ito, Eric Benoit, Michael J. Zinner, Stanley W. Ashley & Edward E. Whang
    Oncogene (2023)

    Editorial Expression of Concern to: Oncogene https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.onc.1207775, published online 21 June 2004

    The Editors-in-Chief are issuing an editorial expression of concern to alert readers that overlap has been noted between the actin bands of figures 2A and 4B. Due to the age of the article the authors have been unable to provide the original data.

    Hiromichi Ito, Michael J Zinner, Stanley W Ashley and Edward E Whang agree to this editorial expression of concern. Mark S Duxbury has not explicitly stated whether they agree to this editorial expression of concern. The editors were not able to obtain a current email address for Eric Benoit.

    Author information
    Authors and Affiliations
    Department of Surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 75 Francis Street, Boston, MA, 02115, USA

    Mark S. Duxbury, Hiromichi Ito, Eric Benoit, Michael J. Zinner, Stanley W. Ashley & Edward E. Whang

    Corresponding author
    Correspondence to Edward E. Whang.

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