Rejected paper pops up elsewhere after one journal suspected manipulation

Figure 1F

In the autumn of 2022, a researcher in Turkey was reviewing a paper for a cardiology journal when an image of a Western blot caught her eye: A hardly visible pair of “unusual” lighter pixels seemed out of place. Magnification only bolstered her suspicion that something was off.

“This image made me think that the bands were cut one by one and pasted on a membrane background,” Şenay Akin, of Hacettepe University in Ankara, wrote in her comments to the editor of Cardiovascular Drugs and Therapy, a Springer Nature journal. “If this is the case, it indicates a manipulation [of] the results of this study.”

The editor, Yochai Birnbaum of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, made a note to check the figure, adding below Akin’s comments in the editorial-management system: “I agree with the reviewer. It could be that the I/R band was manipulated.”

Akin followed up with Birnbaum to ask why the paper was eventually rejected. He wrote: 

We emailed the corresponding author using his email addressed to ask clarification and data concerning the western blots. As he did not responded, I finally rejected the manuscript

We asked Birnbaum whether the rejection was related to the alleged manipulation, but he and a spokesperson for Springer Nature, which publishes the journal, declined to comment, citing confidentiality concerns. 

A few months after the manuscript was rejected by Birnbaum’s journal, however, it appeared in the pages of the European Journal of Pharmacology, an Elsevier journal, under the same title, “Inhibition of MALT1 reduces ferroptosis in rat hearts following ischemia/reperfusion via enhancing the Nrf2/SLC7A11 pathway.” 

The image Akin had flagged in the rejected paper “had been modified” in the published version, she told us, softening the suspicious features in the original. Some of the error bars and P-values in the paper also differed from the material she had reviewed.

Akin took it upon herself to alert the journal’s editor-in-chief, Frank Redegeld of Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, to her misgivings. But Redegeld dismissed her concerns. 

In an email to Retraction Watch, Redegeld wrote that he had investigated the allegations about the Western blots with “very sensitive AI image analysis software.” 

“The analysis did not detect any issues with the western blot images as published,” he told us. “Therefore, we have no reason to assume the published figure was manipulated and we have closed this case accordingly.”

Ya-Qian Jiang of The Third Xiangya Hospital of Central South University in Changsha, China, lead author of the paper and one of the authors credited for conducting the experiments, told us by email:“We actually provided all the raw data for [the Western blots] as the supplemental materials in the process of review.” Jiang also sent us the image purported to be the original Figure 1F.

“Anyone [who] has the hand-on experience in doing WB should understand why he/she does not use the full-size membrane to incubate with the antibody and why there [are] some peculiar features — haloes around the bands,” Jiang said.

But David Sanders, a scientific sleuth and biologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said the blots published in the European Journal of Pharmacology had “clear discontinuities,” adding that “some of the bands appear to be pasted on to other bands as background.” 

While Sanders could not rule out legitimate image processing had caused the anomalies, magnifying the image revealed clear rectangular outlines for the bands that were posted on a background, he told Retraction Watch. 

“The addition of those smudges in the upper left hand corners of each of the lanes is certainly not consistent with this being a normal immunoblot image,” Sanders said.

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2 thoughts on “Rejected paper pops up elsewhere after one journal suspected manipulation”

  1. In my experience, European Journal of Pharmacology has not taken concerns about potential errors or manipulation very seriously. Here’s a link to a paper with obvious issues that was flagged on PubPeer first in 2019. After multiple attempts to bring this to the editors’ attention since then, I sent Elsevier’s research integrity team an email today.

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