Posts Tagged ‘Retraction Watch’

A quick fix for plagiarism

November 8, 2013

It doesn’t seem right. In fact it sounds like an abdication of responsibilities and like covering up a crime if and when the crime is discovered.

But it also sounds a simple fix. A stroke of genius – somewhat crooked but very clever. Just eliminate the plagiarism by punctuation!

If accused of plagiarism, just put the impugned text within quotation marks!

Retraction Watch has the story:

PNAS has a curious correction in a recent issue. A group from Toronto and Mount Sinai in New York, it seems, had been rather too liberal in their use of text from a previously published paper by another researcher — what we might call plagiarism, in a less charitable mood.

To paraphrase Beyoncé: If you like it, better put some quotation marks around it. But we’re pretty sure she meant before, not after, the fact.

The article, “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” had appeared in May 2012, in other words, some 17 months ago. It has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.


Parthun is Mark Parthun, a professor at Ohio State University. It was he who brought the misused text to PNAS’s attention. He tells us:

I read this paper with great interest because my lab also studies the Hat1 enzyme.  While reading this, a number of the passages in the Introduction and Discussion sections started to sound very familiar.  These passages were familiar because they were plagiarized from a review article I had published earlier (Parthun, M.R. Oncogene 26:5319–5328, 2007).  I also found some sentences that were plagiarized from another manuscript from another lab (Campos, et al, NSMB 2010).  I brought this plagiarism to the attention of the editors at PNAS and suggested that this manuscript be retracted.  After more than a year, PNAS published a correction (  This correction lists all of the passages that were plagiarized and simply says that they should have had quotation marks around them.  This seems like a woefully inadequate response.  PNAS has essentially made plagiarism irrelevant because if you are caught, all you have to do is retroactively say that you should have used quotations.  Is this a common practice with journals.  I hope not because I think this represents a serious step in the erosion of scientific ethics.


We asked Daniel Salisbury, a PNAS editor, why the journal opted to correct rather than retract the paper. This was his reply:

In light of recent concerns from the author of the plagiarized text, we are following up with the PNAS authors’ institution.

Parthun, who said he received a similar message, was not impressed:

My problem with his response [is] that they are simply passing the buck.  I would have thought that PNAS had the ultimate responsibility for the manuscripts that it publishes.  I don’t understand why they need Mount Sinai to tell them when something is improper.

To which we say, we agree.

We’ve emailed Plotnikov for comment and will update this post if we hear from him. Meanwhile, although we think there might be room in science publishing for correcting improperly attributed text, an instance of multiple examples of frank plagiarism such as this probably isn’t the test case.

Publish to Retract: A new paradigm for research?

October 11, 2013

Retraction Watch has a story about a retraction accompanied by a blog post by the senior author – who requested the retraction. The senior author receives great credit for her transparency and integrity – no doubt well deserved.

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper

But this is not the first time that a senior author has found a “mistake” in a publication and has then initiated a retraction. I observe that a paper retracted at the request of the author(s) usually leads to the general and admiring approval of the Journal and of peers. It has none of the stigma attached to a paper retracted by the Journal for plagiarism or data falsification or some other wrongdoing.

But looking through my jaundiced and cynical eyes, I wonder if this is just the start of a new paradigm in a brave new transparent world of research publication and retraction. Publish or Perish then gives way to Publish to Retract (or more accurately Publish quickly – to Retract if bad) which is then the name of the game.

  1. Dispense with time consuming data replication and other quality checks
  2. Rush to publication (but keep the retraction request ready)
  3. If any mistakes are subsequently suspected, warn the learned journal  that something is untoward and which is being investigated (best for the senior author to raise the suspicion about a potential mistake)
  4. Maximise citations of the work in question
  5. Find the mistake and request a retraction
  6. Retract in a blaze of publicity and gain brownie points for transparency and integrity

Junior authors – especially post-docs – are of course to be thrown under the proverbial bus. They only represent an acceptable level of collateral damage. Lists of publications may continue to include the retracted paper as long as it is done in the proper form

Author1, author 2….,Senior author x, Journal, Vol., page, date (retracted on date at the request of Senior author x)

Publication can then be very much faster and the potential downsides of mistakes or faulty analysis getting through to publication can be converted into the perceived benefits of transparency and integrity if the failings are ever discovered.

A hundred or so years ago it was not unknown for applicants to the Indian Civil Service to include something like this in their CV’s.

BA, Aligarh University, 1909, (fail)

It was of value for the applicant then to show that he had been accepted to sit for the exam. Having successfully run the gauntlet of peer-review in getting a paper accepted for publication (even if later retracted) could similarly be of some value.

Upstate Medical University researcher fabricated data to benefit his own company

October 10, 2013


Stem cell scientist says data in retracted paper “is not falsified or fabricated”


Researchers are not angels.

Just normal human behaviour from a man in a white coat.


Gerold Feuer, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Upstate Medical University

A scientific journal has retracted a study by an Upstate Medical University researcher accused of using fake data.

The paper was authored by Gerold Feuer, who was found guilty last year of using state money and employees to benefit his private biotechnology company.

The article, first published in 2008, was retracted Oct. 4 by the journal Stem Cells. It focused on a virus that causes cancer in humans.

The retraction notice was published today by Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers. The notice said the article was retracted after an investigation by Upstate’s research misconduct committee showed data used in the study had been “fabricated and/or falsified.”

Feuer, 53, of the town of Onondaga, landed $6.2 million in state grants in 2009 for stem cell research at Upstate. He oversaw a lab that bred mice without immune systems, then “humanized” them with stem cells to mimic the human immune systems. The mice are used in research studies.

Upstate suspended Feuer without pay in late 2010 while investigating his management of a research contract and the way he was operating his lab at Upstate. In 2008 Feuer had started his own private company to develop the same kind of mice for use in testing by universities and companies.

Upstate brought 53 charges of misconduct against Feuer, accusing him of using Upstate’s employees to perform services for his company and charging the cost to a state grant.

An arbitrator reviewed the case and in an Aug. 20, 2012 decision found Feuer guilty of 30 of the 53 misconduct charges. But the arbitrator said Feuer never intended to personally profit from the arrangement and should be reinstated.

Upstate reinstated Feuer, a tenured professor of microbiology and immunology, Feb. 18 at an annual salary of $116,196 and placed him in an undisclosed off-campus assignment.
It’s unknown what effect the latest misconduct finding will have on his employment status, said Darryl Geddes, an Upstate spokesman.

Upstate officials said they completed a separate investigation in April that found Feuer and Prabal Banerjee, a co-author of the paper, guilty of scientific misconduct. Banerjee now works for Feuer’s company, HuMurine Technologies Inc. Upstate officials said two other researchers involved in the study, Michelle Sieburg and Elizabeth Samuelson, did not do anything wrong.

Upstate has requested retractions of two other papers by Feuer published in other journals.

Fifty shades of fraud in Flanders

May 3, 2013

Following on from the publicity surrounding the Diedrik Stapel case, a new survey of medical researchers in Flanders confirms that fraud is fairly prevalent. This takes the form of making up data, manipulating data to make it match a hypothesis, plagiarism, double publishing (self-plagiarism), withholding undesirable research results, undeserved authorships or dividing research into as many separate science articles as possible (salami slicing). The article by Reinout Verbeke and Joeri Tijdink was produced with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism. One in twelve medical scientists admits to making up or ‘massaging’ data in order for it to match a hypothesis. And almost six in twelve see such fraudulent practices happening around them. They identify high publication pressure as one of the causes. Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch points out that for the medical research fraternity the high rewards from pharmaceutical companies can also play a role.

In November and December 2012 Belgian  science journalist Reinout Verbeke (editor of Eos Magazine) spread an anonymous survey on fraud and pressure to publish among scientists of the Medical Science faculties of all Flemish universities. ……..  Psychiatrist and researcher Joeri Tijdink (VU University Medical Center Amsterdam) collaborated on the survey. He did another sounding in 2011 in the Netherlands, before the scandal surrounding Diederik Stapel had broken out – the social psychologist who had made up data and experiments. For years nobody had been on to him. Stapel and his unsuspecting doctoral students and co-authors even made top magazines with their fictitious studies. Luckily though, such large-scale fraud is rather rare. ……..

Fifty shades of fraud

Fifty shades of fraud

The results of the Flemish survey are striking. Of the 315 participating scientists, four (1.3%) admit to having made up data at least once in the last three years. If what they say is true, this probably concerns fraud that is still undiscovered. 23 respondents (7.3%) admit to having selectively removed data or results to make research match a hypothesis, so-called ‘data massaging’. Overall, about 8% of the Flemish medical scientists admits to recently having made up and/or massaged data. The figures are worse than the international average. A meta-analysis of 18 scientific studies on fraud by Daniele Fanelli showed that on average 2% of all scientists (from different fields of study) admitted to having done similar practices at least once (PloS ONE, 2009). Why are the results among Flemish respondents even worse? “That doesn’t surprise me, because we are talking about medical scientists”, says American journalist and fraud expert Ivan Oransky from RetractionWatch. com. “Cooperating with the pharmaceutical industry gains researchers financial rewards. That could pressurise scientists to cut corners.” André Van Steirteghem, a pioneer in reproductive medicine and secretary of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), thinks there is something else at play. “There’s is a significant lack of openness on fraud and malpractice at Flemish universities. This survey asked scientists about their perceptions for the very first time. They were able to vent their feelings. I think that explains the high figures in Flanders.” We can even suspect malpractices in Flanders to be more wide-spread still. “Surveys have their limits”, says Daniele Fanelli. “Many cheaters won’t admit to having done it, or will falsely assume they have a clean conscience.” …… 

Scientific American reports on this story here.

Update on Matsubara

March 13, 2012

In December I posted about the suspicious goings on at Kyoto Prefectural University:

A Japanese investigative website ( has found 12 published articles where manipulation of images is very likely. The suspicious images in the papers published by the Matsubara lab are carefully deconstructed by Abnormal Science in an ongoing series of posts: herehere and here.

Today Retraction Watch reports that the efforts of M3 (now discontinued) and Abnormal Science have not gone unnoticed:

The American Heart Association, which publishes a number of journals, has issued an Expression of Concern about five papers in three of their publications, following allegations of image manipulation. All of the papers include Hiroaki Matsubara, of Kyoto Prefectural University, as a co-author.

The notice begins:

It has come to the attention of the American Heart Association (AHA), in a public manner, that there are questions concerning a number of figures in several AHA journals’ articles…

The “public manner” was three posts last year on the Abnormal Science blog… alleging that images were manipulated in the manuscripts, and that histology slides were reused.

The notice continues:

After reviewing these concerns, we have asked the institution, Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, to investigate the allegations. Until we learn the outcome, we feel it is best to post this Expression of Concern to alert our readers that concerns about these articles have been raised.

Further shenanigans at Singapore’s Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*)

October 15, 2011

Singapore was recently rocked by the Melendez affair where a much vaunted scientist was found to have manipulated data and 70 of his scientific papers are now under investigation. An excellent summary of the situation is here at Retraction Watch. Alirio Melendez who is currently employed by the University of Liverpool has been suspended pending the results of the investigation. In the strait-laced Singapore society which is utterly convinced about its own excellence in all things, this has come as a rude shock and shattered the complacent view of the academic world that “misconduct does not happen here”. There is now some concern that the reputation of the academic world in Singapore may be seriously tarnished.

But the misconduct may be rather more widespread than they would like to think. The “rotten” core was revealed by an “anonymous whistleblower” but it may be just the opening of the lid of a Pandora’s box.

Joerg Zwirner, an immunologist and associate professor at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen reports further cases of misconduct at Abnormal Science. He reports – courtesy of the whistleblower again – on 3 further papers where image manipulation is apparent. This time the common author is Kong-Peng Lam, of  the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Immunology, Biomedical Sciences Institutes, Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

Singapore and scientific misconduct: No end in sight

The three papers where image manipulation is apparent are:

1. Ng CH, Xu S, Lam KP.
Dok-3 plays a nonredundant role in negative regulation of B-cell activation.
Blood. 2007; 110: 259-66.

2. Tan JE, Wong SC, Gan SK, Xu S, Lam KP.
The adaptor protein BLNK is required for b cell antigen receptor-induced activation of nuclear factor-kappa B and cell cycle entry and survival of B lymphocytes.
J Biol Chem. 2001; 276:20055-63.

3. Wong SC, Chew WK, Tan JE, Melendez AJ, Francis F, Lam KP.
Peritoneal CD5+ B-1 cells have signaling properties similar to tolerant B cells.
J Biol Chem. 2002; 277: 30707-15.

Prof. KP Lam’s profile at A* is here. He has Minnesota, Columbia and Stanford behind him and a long list of publications in major journals.

Scientific retractions increasing sharply but is it due to better detection or increased misconduct?

October 5, 2011

Retractions of scientific papers is increasing sharply.

I am a strong believer in the Rule of the Iceberg where “whatever becomes visible is only 10% of all that exists”. And while I do not know if the number of retractions of scientific papers is increasing because detection methods are improved or because scientific misconduct is increasing, I am quite sure that the misconduct that is indicated by retractions is only a small part of all the misconduct that goes on.

What is clear however is that the world wide web provides a powerful new forum for the exercising of a check and a balance. It provides a hitherto unavailable method for mobilising resources from a wide and disparate group of individuals. The success of web sites such as Retraction Watch and Vroniplag are testimony to this. And the investigative power of the on-line community is particularly evident with Vroniplag as has been described by Prof.  Debora Weber-Wulff’s blog. And this investigative power – even if made up of “amateurs” in the on-line community – can bring to bear a vast and varying experience of techniques and expertise which – if harnessed towards a particular target – can function extremely rapidly. The recent on-line investigation and disclosure that an award winning nature photographer had been photo-shopping a great number of photographs of lynxes, wolves and raccoons and had invented stories about his encounters was entirely due to “amateurs” on the Flashback Forum in Sweden who very quickly created a web site to disclose all his trangressions and exactly how he had manipulated his images.

Nature addresses the subject of retractions today:

This week, some 27,000 freshly published research articles will pour into the Web of Science, Thomson Reuters’ vast online database of scientific publications. Almost all of these papers will stay there forever, a fixed contribution to the research literature. But 200 or so will eventually be flagged with a note of alteration such as a correction. And a handful — maybe five or six — will one day receive science’s ultimate post-publication punishment: retraction, the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature. … But retraction notices are increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 (see ‘Rise of the retractions’) — even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade. …. 

…… When the UK-based Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) surveyed editors’ attitudes to retraction two years ago, it found huge inconsistencies in policies and practices between journals, says Elizabeth Wager, a medical writer in Princes Risborough, UK, who is chair of COPE. That survey led to retraction guidelines that COPE published in 2009. But it’s still the case, says Wager, that “editors often have to be pushed to retract”. …… 

In surveys, around 1–2% of scientists admit to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE4, e5738; 2009). But over the past decade, retraction notices for published papers have increased from 0.001% of the total to only about 0.02%. And, Ioannidis says, that subset of papers is “the tip of the iceberg” — too small and fragmentary for any useful conclusions to be drawn about the overall rates of sloppiness or misconduct.

Instead, it is more probable that the growth in retractions has come from an increased awareness of research misconduct, says Steneck. That’s thanks in part to the setting up of regulatory bodies such as the US Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services. These ensure greater accountability for the research institutions, which, along with researchers, are responsible for detecting mistakes.

The growth also owes a lot to the emergence of software for easily detecting plagiarism and image manipulation, combined with the greater number of readers that the Internet brings to research papers. In the future, wider use of such software could cause the rate of retraction notices to dip as fast as it spiked, simply because more of the problematic papers will be screened out before they reach publication. On the other hand, editors’ newfound comfort with talking about retraction may lead to notices coming at an even greater rate. …… 

Read the article

A graphic of retractions is here.

The academic and scientific community will – perforce – mirror the surrounding society it is embedded in. Standards of ethics and instances of misconduct will follow those of the surrounding environment. But the scientific community is somewhat protected in terms of not often having to bear liability for what they have published. Having to bear some responsibility and face liability for the quality of what they produce can be a force which will improve ethical standards immensely. Bringing incompetent or cheating scientists to book is not an attack on science. And it is what science needs to regain some of the reputation that has been tarnished in recent times. With the spotlight that is now available in the form of the world wide web, I expect the level of scrutiny to increase and this too can only be a force for the good.

Jatinder Ahluwalia – End-game in progress

August 27, 2011

Jatinder Ahluwalia’s career of scientific misconduct has cut a swathe through academia over the last 15 years but is now approaching its end-game as Imperial College reviews the award of his PhD.

At Cambridge University he lost his studentship funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at the end of 1997, and was dismissed from the graduate studies program in 1998. He then went on to “earn” his PhD at Imperial College after which he was employed at University College London. An investigation at UCL  found that not only had he faked experimental results but also that he had sabotaged the experiments of some of his colleagues. He resigned or was dismissed by UCL in 2009 but then turned up as a senior lecturer at the University of East London. As retractions of his papers and allegations by co-workers mounted, UEL also investigated and Imperial College started checking the experiments which had led to the award of his PhD. Earlier this year he “left” UEL. Retraction Watch has documented the entire, sorry story.

This week another paper of his was retracted and Imperial College announced that the results on which his PhD were based could not be replicated. Imperial will now set up a committee to review the award of his doctorate.

The academics asked to independently re-run the experiments were unable to replicate the findings published in the paper Activation of capsaicin-sensitive primary sensory neurones induces anandamide production and release and so the authors decided to withdraw this from the Journal of Neurochemistry. The findings also formed the basis of Dr Ahluwalia’s PhD. The College has therefore written to Dr Ahluwalia to notify him that it believes it has grounds to investigate the validity of the data in his PhD. It will be convening a panel to review the award in accordance with its policy for investigating allegations of research misconduct.

I find it an incredible waste that in so many cases of scientific misconduct there is such a great deal of misplaced creativity and ingenuity – and even hard work – which goes into the misconduct and in then covering it up.

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