Action Potential

Retraction reaction

Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Linda Buck has retracted a 2001 Nature paper. In the retraction in this week’s Nature, the authors report difficulty replicating the data and ‘inconsistencies’ between the original data and figures and data printed in the paper. Buck told Nature reporter Heidi Ledford that the figures and data in question were contributed by the first author, Zhihua Zou, who was unavailable for comment.

This is the highest profile retraction that I can recall in neuroscience, but so far, there has been little fallout. Perhaps that’s because the original findings were notable only in the neuroscience community rather than in the general public. Regardless, it indicates that neuroscience and its well known labs are not immune from fraudulent data. Although I admire Buck’s swift and direct action, it concerns me that the first author has been assigned the lion’s share of the blame. This seems like a familiar refrain, and I find it troubling.


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    DrugMonkey said:

    One thing that is not entirely clear to me is whether or not all authors signed or otherwise endorsed the retraction?

    Second thing is to point out that the retraction and news focus pieces could use some expansion.

    With respect to the retraction, clearly the addition of the author contributions is supposed to imply “The first author faked up all the data and we were none the wiser”. Why not just say this? And while doing so, tell us how people who work together enough to share first-authorship in a situation like this may not have any review of the quality of one another’s data? etc. Things just don’t add up, there is so much that is left up to the imagination. This is not a service to science, imho.

    The new focus should actually go a little deeper. What is the point of a couple of random quotes? What people outside the field want to know is if the overall impression within the field is that this lab is upstanding or generally dodgy. That’s reporting a story. The Ledford piece barely goes beyond the fact of the retraction itself…

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    Michael said:

    I am not sure why putting the lion’s share of the blame on the first author would be troubling in this particular case. Without knowing all the details it seems to me that something happened to the original data as they made their way into the published figures. I think many, if not most PI’s would trust their postdocs to do this in an honest, ethical manner, without having to go over every single data point themselves. So while the other authors could be blamed for either being too naive or trusting, that’s not quite as serious as manipulating data (if that’s indeed what happened here).

    Besides, regardless of who is being blamed here, the fallout will be more severe for Dr. Buck. Case in point – today’s AP write-up published in the New York Times: “It was not immediately clear how important the retracted research, done in mice, was to the body of work that led to her Nobel.”

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    Eric Thomson said:

    I admire Buck’s integrity. I know of a couple of labs where people realize that previous results are wrong but the PI wants nothing to do with a retraction or modification.

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    Fruitflies said:

    Linda Buck at least has the gut to face a potentially ‘troubled’ publication. In my field, one person published a high-profile paper in Nature, got him a position at MIT, and then published another Science paper a few years later just to say that the Nature paper was 100% wrong. Yet, reviewers and Science editors let this ‘new’ paper to be published without asking for retraction of the previous Nature paper. Many of us are still waiting for a formal retraction of this Nature paper because it is misleading to young students who do not know the history of these two ‘great’ high-profile papers! Will this PI follow Linda Buck (not to get a Nobel, but to retract his trash from Nature)?

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    Maxine said:

    The Nature journals, which include Nature and Nature Neuroscience, share a common retraction and correction policy (see the author and referees’ website at . All authors have to sign any corrected material. On the rare occasions when the journal concerned publishes a correction without all authors’ signatures, the text of the correction itself will be explicit about who has not signed.

    (These particular corrections are almost always peer-reviewed, or if not, advice is taken from independent scientists in the community concerned which the editors take into account when making their decision).

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    DSK Samways said:

    “…And while doing so, tell us how people who work together enough to share first-authorship in a situation like this may not have any review of the quality of one another’s data?”

    How? indeed. I think every author on that paper must concede that each of their hands are dirty to some extent.

    I’m not sure I’m inclined to let PI’s off the hook based on the idea that they must trust their workers completely. A certain level of trust is, of course, a requirement if a PI is to avoid micromanaging his lab. However, although PI’s need not be actively involved in the analytical process all the way through, it is very much in their interests to demand to see raw data in lab meetings from time to time, just to check that it gels with the pooled data being presented in the presented figures. This is important because grad students are fallible in terms of competence, and postdocs can be fallible in terms of worrying about their career progression, and how much they need this particular project to “work out”.

    “Yet, reviewers and Science editors let this ‘new’ paper to be published without asking for retraction of the previous Nature paper.”

    Well, it’s a bit cheeky that the contradictory study came out of the same lab, but just because a study is proven to be wrong does not mean it should be retracted. New work overturning old conclusions from previous studies is, after all, a fairly standard aspect of the scientific process. A paper should only be retracted if their is clear evidence of either fraud, or gross incompetence.

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    pablo said:

    @Michael > The problem is that the second author shared the fame by being “co first author” but when problems arise, suddently, her responsibility is minimal. You have to choose: either your contribution is equal to that of the first author or you just brough some ideas and reagents!

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    Linc said:

    First of all, I really appreciate Linda Buck’s courage to retract her own paper. However, I also want to ask whether she was as clean as she claimed?

    Imagine if Dr. Zou was not caught like many others! Years later, he probably will be one of the authorities in the field. At that time, he would have power to put his name in the paper without taking any responsibility.

    I don’t believe that Dr. Zou and Dr. Buck’s other papers are clean. I don’t believe that there is no misconduct. I don’t believe that Dr. Zou was innocent. I don’t believe other authors were innocent. Usually in this kind of case, the PI likely was the head of the conspiracy. Likely Dr. Zou was just a genuflector to the fallacious ecosystem of bioscience. Due to his bending, he got the reward from the bosses.

    The Harvard Investigation Committee very very likely will cover all things up for Dr. Buck. To the ecosystem, Zou is dispensable, but not Buck. Let us watch!

    I am working in one of the most prestigious institutes in Boston and the world as Dr. Buck did. In the work, I could not be able to recapitulate and develop a major story in the field. I then found out that some of the important data which were published and used by the laboratory to apply for NIH(National Institutes of Health)grants were falsified and fabricated. I presented the evidences and made complaints to the principle investigator of the laboratory and the officials in the institute. However, I was retaliated against for my whistle blowing and was asked to leave my position. I have made research misconduct allegation and retaliation allegation in Office of Research Integrity in US Department of Health and Human Services.

    ORIatDHHS asked the institute set up self-investigation panels for both allegations. After my complaining, the institute egregiously engaged in the retaliation and threatening, attempting to intimidate me. Before any real investigation and any conclusion to my allegations, the institute dismissed me from my position.

    If the research misconduct is covered up, millions dollars of taxpayers’ money could be in danger of being wasted, the public health could be in danger of unprotected, and the truth might be buried by the lies. And my career is ruined.

    Therefore, I am seeking for urgent assistance from anyone who will be able to give me a hand on this matter.

    Your kind assistance and/or information will be highly appreciated by all honest and hard-working scientists.

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    Alex said:

    To Linc: I am afraid to say so, but your situation is hopeless. Even journalists are not interested in revealing fraud stories, not to mention insitutions. The Science is no-law territory, it is not covered by normal laws. Example? As you wrote: investigation of scientific crimes (which cost real money) is done by amateurs appointed by organisations where crime was committed and by officials who are partly responsible for this crime in their own insitutions (if we vbelive that director takes responsibility for his institution). In case of bank fraud: can you imagine that police forward accusations to bank and bank appoints own managers to investigate it? What is the most likely result of this investigation? Right, removing whistleblower from his job and covering whole story to save busness reputation of bank. In science there is no police and this practise is standard. “Nature” itself is not eager to investigate misconduct accusations and forward them to relevant institutions.

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    Noah Gray said:

    Alex, you have quite a distorted view as to how journals view misconduct. There is no incentive for the journal to ignore the issue of potential misconduct involving one of their publications. On the contrary, most editors are eager to “clean up their own trash” as opposed to having another journal publish a separate paper refuting or dismissing a suspect manuscript.

    Journals and editors have little power or ability to police the data provided to them in a submission. Even reviewers usually have to take the authors at their word. However, at the first sign or indication of inconsistency or potential malpractice within a study, you can be assured that the journal will act swiftly to get to the bottom of the issue.

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    Michael said:

    The issue of scientists trying to replicate a study done previously in the same lab and coming up with different results is certainly not uncommon. As a scientist I would admit that things can get somewhat delicate for all parties involved and that there is a large ethical grey zone on how to deal with this. In some cases, there might be “innocent” reasons for a discrepancy, in other cases it could be a sign of something more serious. However, those issues do not apply if somebody finds inconsistencies in a study done by another group. There simply isn’t a science fraternity where everyone is held to code of silence to cover up cases of incompetence or misconduct. If a study has enough importance, either by making a big leap on a basic science issue or by being clinically relevant, it will be replicated by other groups, who have little incentive to cover up for mistakes or misdeeds made by others.

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    alex said:

    To Noah Gray: well, my view is based on experience with one top rated journal. Well respected Editor promised in several e-mails to invesigate suspected misconduct, to inform me about results of investigation etc., but in two years time nothing happened. For every reminder which I sent to him I had a reply that case is not closed and note of final decision will be sent to me. During these two years I was asked to send again files which were lost, heard that they are too busy investigating other cases of misconduct etc. Nothing happened, I gave up. I asked people around and found that my experience is not unique, many stories like that come up.

    You are right that Editors want to clean up…but only when information about their problems leaks to broad public. At least in some journals.

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    Action Potential said:

    Retraction reaction redux

    I apologize for the long time between posts. Things have been busy and I hope to have more for you soon. In the meantime, I wanted to toss out something to tide you over. A recent Nature editorial extends the…

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    Flüge said:

    @DSK Samways. I totally agree with you that the common procedure is to admit the fault and publish a new paper with the correct data. You are also right by claiming that there should be a certain level of trust in the workers, but their no excuse for failing to control their work, since every human being slips up with something. A simple double check would have helped to avoid this awkward situation. In my eyes it is not entirely clear that the situation was caused because someone wanted to obtain a fraud.