In March 2017, a group of researchers in Vancouver, along with a colleague in Philadelphia, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concluding that a particular antibiotic might be useful for treating conditions in people with rare mutations.
Then, this past July, while continuing the work, they had an unexpected result. That made them suspect that the antibiotic they thought they had ordered, gentamicin, wasn’t what they thought it was. With the help of a different company that sells the antibiotic, they confirmed they were studying a different compound — and retracted the paper.
Sometimes, corrections are so extensive, they can only be called one thing: Mega-corrections.
Recently, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) issued a four-page correction notice to a paper about a compound that appeared to reduce the chances a cancer will recur. The notice describes figure duplication, problems with error bars and figure legends — as well as the loss of statistical significance for some data.
According to the authors’ statement in the notice:
Adeel Safdar was once a rising star in the field of kinesiology. After completing his doctorate degree at McMaster University in Canada, working with one of the titans of his field, Safdar took a postdoc at Harvard, then accepted a newly created chair position at another university in Ontario.
That all came crashing down last year, when Safdar went on trial in Canada, accused of horrifically abusing his wife. Over the course of the trial, allegations arose about his research, prompting two journals to flag papers he co-authored with his former mentor, Mark Tarnopolsky.
When researchers submitted a paper about a type of microparticle to PNAS, they wanted to give credit where it was due, and cite an unpublished manuscript that helped guide their work. But the journal’s policy forbid citing unpublished work, and the reference was removed before publication. Now, concerns from the authors of that unpublished work have prompted the journal to have a change of heart.
PNAS has corrected a highly cited paper after an investigation found evidence of misconduct.
The investigation—conducted jointly by the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center—uncovered image manipulation in Figure 2D, which “could only have occurred intentionally.” The institutions, however, could not definitively attribute the research misconduct to any individual.
According to the notice, the UCSF-VA committee determined that a correction to the 2008 PNAS paper—which explores the genetic underpinnings of prostate cancer—was “appropriate,” and the authors have now replaced the problematic figure with a corrected version. The 2008 paper has been cited 630 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
When Alexander Harms arrived at the University of Copenhagen in August 2016, as a postdoc planning to study a type of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, he carried with him a warning from another lab who had recruited him:
People said, “If you go there, you have to deal with these weird articles that nobody believes.”
The papers in question had been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 and Cell in 2013. Led by Kenn Gerdes, Harms’s new lab director, the work laid out a complex chain of events that mapped out how an E. coli bacterium can go into a dormant state, called persistence, that allows it to survive while the rest of its colony is wiped out.
Despite some experts’ skepticism, each paper had been cited hundreds of times. And Harms told us:
I personally did believe in the published work. There had been papers from others that kind of attacked [the Gerdes lab’s theory], but that was not high-quality work.
When the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesretracted a gene therapy paper in December, it declared that some of the data had been falsified and mentioned a research misconduct investigation. But the notice said nothing about who was responsible.
Via a public records request, Retraction Watch has obtained investigation documents from the University of Florida, which show the focus had been narrowed down to two of the paper’s three co-first authors. But the investigation committee didn’t assign blame to either one. According to their final report, dated Oct. 24, 2016:
there was not enough direct evidence to either implicate or exonerate either of these individuals.