Exclusive: How a dean went about correcting the scientific record even when at least one journal said he didn’t need to 

Russell Taichman

Less than a year after he became dean of the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Dentistry, an uncomfortable email landed in Russell Taichman’s inbox.

Overlapping and duplicated panels in one of Taichman’s 2005 papers were among a list of complaints relayed by the publisher of Cellular Signalling in the April 2020 correspondence – complaints which were publicly posted on PubPeer by Elisabeth Bik

“The substance of the complaint is image manipulation, which if true, would violate our publishing policies,” the email stated. “Please note that if we do not have an adequate and timely response, we may be forced to conclude that the allegations are truthful.”

The paper, “Diverse signaling pathways through the SDF-1/CXCR4 chemokine axis in prostate cancer cell lines leads to altered patterns of cytokine secretion and angiogenesis”, eventually became the first of five of Taichman’s papers to be retracted. We first reported on the retractions last September.  Since then, following a public records request, we’ve obtained 20 pages of redacted emails that reveal the story behind the retractions. 

As it turns out, Taichman himself pushed for one retraction, although the journal editor deemed an investigation unnecessary, and he initiated at least another two of the five of the retractions in an apparent bid to correct the scientific record. The emails reveal the now-former dean – who remains a professor at UAB after stepping down from his leadership post in July “to focus on teaching and scholarship” –  began to suspect that his postdoctoral student at the time, Jianhua Wang, was to blame for the problematic data. 

All five of the retracted papers were published when Taichman was a professor of periodontics and associate dean for research at the University of Michigan. He took on the role of dean in Alabama in July 2019. 

The exchanges between Taichman, Wang and several journal publishers offer a rare look behind the scenes of the process of scientific correction. 

Just two hours after receiving the first email from the publisher, Taichman forwarded it to Wang. Taichman wrote: 

Hope all is well. I received this below. I am not sure how to handle it but on the surface there looks as if there are issues which I did not know. Can you please help explain these or I am going to have little choice but to address this which could mean withdrawing the paper. 

Wang, who did not respond to our request for comment, replied: 

I agree that this is a very serious charge. I double check my copy of notebook kept in my office and found the raw data is limited. Most of data were kept in UM lab. I will answer the concerns point to point as shown below in bold black. However, based on current situation of USA, the best way is that you make a final decision to withdraw the paper. Sorry for bringing this trouble to you AND I am also self-blamed.

Given the date – April 2020 – Wang may have been referring to the COVID outbreak in the US at the time as the “current situation.” 

Wang was a postdoctoral fellow in Taichman’s lab at the University of Michigan from 2005 to 2010. He was the first author of the five retracted papers, and was responsible for the primary generation of data and assembly of figures, according to the University of Alabama’s Open Records office. 

Wang returned to China in 2010.

In June 2020, the journal publisher contacted Taichman again, writing that the editor-in-chief would not take the investigation of the paper further. But that wasn’t good enough for Taichman. 

In September the same year, Taichman wrote back saying he had been “mulling the issue”:

I appreciate that the Editor in Chief has concluded their investigation into our work. Never the less, I would like to request retraction of the paper. Letting the record stand as incorrect, just does not sit right with me. I have corresponded with all the authors, they have suggested multiple fixes but in the end, I am not in a position to repeat the experiments, and I am still not able to travel during the pandemic to obtain the primary data. 

He goes on to suggest two versions of a retraction notice, the first of which placed the blame squarely on Jianhua Wang. 

The corresponding author of the paper Wang et al, Cellular Signalling, Volume 17, Pages 1578-1592, 2005 would like to retract the above paper as he has become aware that the some of the figures including Figure 1B, and Figure 6A were duplicated by the first author. The corresponding author wishes to convey sincere regret to the editor and readers of the journal of Cellular Signaling.

The retraction notice that was eventually published in January 2021 does not blame Wang, instead crediting Bik for discovering the image duplications. 

Inspired by the initial complaints from Cellular Signalling, Taichman combed through papers from his lab in search of other anomalies in the work that Wang had contributed to, according to the FOIA emails. He spotted an image from the Cellular Signalling paper that was replicated in a later Cancer Research paper, “A Glycolytic Mechanism Regulating an Angiogenic Switch in Prostate Cancer”

In May 2020, Taichman sent an email to the editors at Cancer Research describing his findings and attaching other complaints about the paper made on PubPeer, again by Bik.

“I am intent on correcting the scientific record,” he wrote. “Many of the images were duplicated and while I might not agree with all the issues, there are enough which are indisputable from my perspective.

The next sentence revealed the incident was apparently not isolated to Taichman: 

Further, this AM I reached out to one of my major collaborators [redacted] who published a paper with Dr. Wang independent of my involvement. Sadly, this issue with Dr. Wang was not unique to me, and apparently the issue was flagged some time ago. 

Obviously, I am embarrassed and not clear how I missed these issues. 

The paper was eventually retracted in March 2021. Wang and two other authors did not respond to the journal’s correspondence about the notice. 

Two more of Taichman and Wang’s papers in the journal were later retracted in September 2022, “Characterization of Phosphoglycerate Kinase-1 Expression of Stromal Cells Derived from Tumor Microenvironment in Prostate Cancer Progression” and “CXCR6 Induces Prostate Cancer Progression by the AKT/Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling Pathway”, for similar issues with duplicated images. Wang and several other authors did not respond about those retractions, either. It is not clear from the emails we obtained whether these retractions were prompted by Taichman. 

In September 2021, Taichman again alerted staff at the Journal of Biological Chemistry to several problems in the paper “The Role of CXCR7/RDC1 as a Chemokine Receptor for CXCL12/SDF-1 in Prostate Cancer.” 

“As it turns out Dr. Jianhua Wang (1st Author) who was a post-doc in my laboratory when I was at U/ Michigan in the early 2000s, duplicated several pieces of the data,” he wrote. “Clearly I am embarrassed. But I am committed to doing the right thing.” 

A notice published in the journal in July 2022 stated that the authors had opted to withdraw the paper “to correct the scientific record,” except for Wang who could not be contacted. The paper was the most highly cited out of the five retractions, with 454 citations since its publication in 2008, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. 

Taichman says that the emails obtained through a Alabama Open Records Act request “speak for themselves” in showing that Wang admitted guilt and that he worked diligently to correct the scientific record as soon as he became aware of the issues. 

“Dr. Wang took advantage of trust, and it is safe to say the team and our collaborators certainly wish we had identified the issues in real time,” he wrote in an email in response to our questions. “We remain committed to proactively correcting the scientific record wherever necessary.” 

Another seven of Taichman’s papers on PubPeer have been flagged for potential image anomalies, Wang is listed as a co-author on one of them. So far, two of the seven have been corrected. 

“I am aware of opinions shared in Pub peer, and where errors were identified, we published a correction,” Taichman wrote to us in an email. “For those in which comments were not made, legitimate concerns/misconduct were not identified after a close examination.”

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14 thoughts on “Exclusive: How a dean went about correcting the scientific record even when at least one journal said he didn’t need to ”

    1. The article makes it clear that he originally became aware of the issue while he was a dean and his efforts to redact the papers continued even after he was no longer a dean. The headline is not incorrect.

  1. Many people operate in the same way as him. He has obviously benefited from those problematic papers, now blamed the postdoc. Even though he retracted the papers, he got to keep most the benefits.

  2. This really reads as throwing Wang under the bus, to me. Another seven papers have been flagged with Wang involved in only one of them? I wonder why he’s being so proactive about the papers where the primary author is absent.

    1. What a commendable stance on the part of Taichman. He pursued the issue despite there being no reason to, literally. True, he may have gained from the publication incentives that cannot be returned. Nonetheless, he has done the amicable thing.

  3. The PI is ultimately responsible for papers published from his/her group, because the PI usually gets the most credit for the work, which is perhaps fair but comes with the responsibility. How could a PI not read closely papers from his/her group and miss problematic images so many times? A major failure of his duty to say the list!

    1. We need more good guys like Taichman, he went out of his way to make sure the information out there, that other workers rely on, was corrected.
      People claiming he threw Wang under the bus are being silly. Wang isn’t responding, and Taichman is being open, and it involves other papers Taichman wasn’t on. Wang clearly fabricated this. Preventing a mistake is nice but I bet a lot of people who are saying Taichman should’ve caught it wouldn’t go out of their way to correct it afterwards.

  4. This should be criminal. The people involved seem to be facing no real repercussions for commiting what is essentially fraud. There is already growing distrust of the scientific community because of politics, allowing the type of behavior described in the article to go unchecked just shows that there actually is a real reason to distrust (at least part of) the scientific community. If the scientific community cannot be trusted to police itself then perhaps actual police should get involved.

  5. Let’s just call it what it is: fraud. Money was taken to do a study but the end result given is fundamental flawed and unusable because of fabricated data. Clearly no one is to be held responsible though, that would be crazy for people to be held accountable for their own actions. And you better not try to point it out here or the AI will delete your comment.

    1. What is the point of saying ‘this comment will be deleted’ when it isn’t? It makes the rest of your points look foolish.
      You want vengeance. Cool. Who do you get it from? What does it look like? How do you do this in a proportional way, which doesn’t just prevent people from doing research out of fear?

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