An article claiming to uproot the evolutionary tree of leeches has received an expression of concern after a reader notified the journal about potential problems with the data.
The article, “Phylogenomic analysis of a putative missing link sparks reinterpretation of leech evolution,” appeared online in Genome Biology and Evolution, an Oxford University Press title, on June 19 of this year. According to the authors — an international team that includes researchers at the National Museum of Natural History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Florida State University and University of Gothenburg in Sweden — their results:
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.
What Caught Our Attention: Quite frankly, anything with “gorilla gorilla gorilla” in the title will catch our eye, even if it is just the scientific name of the western lowland gorilla. In this case, the journal issued an expression of concern over an “unintended discrepancy” that may have affected the paper, which validates the use of a tool to measure oxytocin in the apes’ urine and saliva. The authors voluntarily notified the editors of Primate of the potential issue, and the journal issued an Expression of Concern only one month after the article was published — which is pretty fast for a notice, although not a record (see this one, issued six days after publication).
Readers of Retraction Watch will be no strangers to the practice of issuing Expressions of Concern — editorial notices from journals that indicate a paper’s results may not be valid. While a good idea in theory — so readers can be aware of potential issues while an investigation is underway — in practice, it’s a somewhat flawed system. As we (and others before us) have shown, so-called EOCs can linger indefinitely, leaving researchers unsure how to interpret a flagged paper.
A JAMA journal has issued an expression of concern for a 2013 paper after discovering “substantial overlap” with a recently retracted paper in another journal.
In April 2017, the editors of JAMA Otolaryngology − Head & Neck Surgery received allegations that the paper included data that had been published in other journals. After investigating, the editors discovered extensive overlap between several sections of the JAMA paper and a now-retracted 2015 paper by the same group. The 2015 paper, published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons (JACS), was pulled in July 2017, after the editors determined the statistical results were “incorrect” and “the data do not support the conclusions of the article.”
Given the overlap between the two papers, the JAMA editors contacted the University of L’Aquila, where the authors work, to request a formal investigation to evaluate the “integrity of the research.” Jay Piccirillo, the editor of JAMA Otolaryngology − Head & Neck Surgery,told us:
The paper found that the presence of weapons increased people’s aggressiveness, but not feelings of anger. However, the corresponding author, Arlin James Benjamin, who works at University of Arkansas–Fort Smith, told us:
we would urge considerably more caution in interpreting the impact of weapons on behavioral outcomes based on those initial re-analyses.
Despite losing a lawsuit against his former mentor, a researcher hasn’t stopped his efforts to discredit his mentor’s work. These efforts have led to new editorial notices — including, most recently, a correction and expression of concern for one paper by a former colleague, who wasn’t even the subject of the lawsuit.
In the 2014 suit, former Brown University postdoc Andrew Mallon said research misconduct by John Marshall — his lab director and former business partner– tainted a 2013 paper published in PLoS Biology. Though the case failed to trigger the retraction Mallon sought, it put his concerns into the public record; the text of the lawsuit includes an accusation of misconduct against Cong Cao — Marshall’s former mentee and the first author of that 2013 paper.