A paper retraction and a strange blog post

25 Jan

My pubmed email alerts had a retraction notice recently. Enhanced Polyubiquitination of Shank3 and NMDA Receptor in a Mouse Model of Autism now shows “retracted”.

Per a tweet from Steve Silberman:

It turns out a blog called “Autism Researchers” noted that figures in the paper included identical data, but in non-identical places. For example:

Aside from the odd possibility that a blog may have contributed to the downfall of a paper (not too odd if you recall ERV’s analysis of an XMRV paper), is the fact that the blog has one real entry. They have a first “hello world” entry, which is a throwaway WordPress first blog entry, and the one discussing this paper (Alleged Image Data Falsification in a CELL Paper). Looks to this observer like someone created a throwaway blog to note the possible problems with this paper.

This is a top journal (Cell), and a top research group and insitution (Johns Hopkins, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and Sichuan University, Chengdu). The paper has been cited 54 times. Retraction Watch reports that the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is aware if thus case.

The “improperly assembled” figures all appear in the same paper in Cell. This is unlike the case of (non autism researcher) Jan Hendrik Schön of Bell Labs, who had what could be phrased as “improperly assembled” figures (in his case, duplicated data) in multiple papers.

We don’t have the time and the money to have multiple researchers pursuing projects based on “improperly assembled” figures in a high profile paper. The Cell paper hasn’t led to public health scares, as another case of improperly assembled research data. But with NIH funding and 54 citations, it may be wasting time and money that are both very scarce in the autism world.


By Matt Carey

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6 Responses to “A paper retraction and a strange blog post”

  1. Joshua January 25, 2013 at 04:17 #

    Is your title supposed to reflect a strange — .. title?

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) January 25, 2013 at 04:33 #

      I saw that mistake when I got the email for your comment (for the record, the title originally had “an” for “and”)

  2. Emily L. Williams January 25, 2013 at 12:42 #

    As background for the above, the actin results are not “true results” but are used as a normalizer. Nowadays with newer equipment the levels of protein in your different samples can be quantitated individually and precisely, but before this the protein, actin, was used for a normalizer upon which to measure all the other proteins mainly because researchers noticed it tended to have a fairly consistent expression as compared to other proteins. And since the production of these lovely images required films and exposures (which can vary considerably) it has been common practice to use the actin as a reference point.

    While this was poor methodology to reuse an actin sample, my guess is the actin, for whatever reason on those films, didn’t turn out, but the other results looked usable. So somebody took the easy way out (most likely a grad student who was more focused on getting their mentor results– an incentive always present, believe me– than on performing good science) and they reused a better actin sample.

    This experiment definitely needs redoing, but I would say that the results, though fabricated, are probably not too far from the truth and would simply need to be redone. I hope the team kept their tissue samples from this project!

    Just to say that this is obviously poor science, but it’s not as scandalous as is made out and– though I definitely don’t condone it– it probably happens a bit more often than we’d like to assume it does.

    • catherinajtv January 29, 2013 at 14:30 #

      Emily – that is certainly not the case. Have a look at the blog post. There is evidence of 8 alterations. Even one is not excusable, but 8 scream intention rather than negligence and the retraction blurb is lacking, in my opinion.

      • Emily L. Williams January 29, 2013 at 14:48 #

        I stand corrected. Thanks for the info. That really is completely unacceptable.

  3. budowa przyrządów June 24, 2013 at 12:31 #

    Adjectives that I will be use are repetitive, sloppy, and bland.
    Have you running the Philadelphia marathon this every 12 months?

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