Retraction or correction?
Case text (Anonymised)
A reader contacted us with evidence that a number of western blots in a manuscript published by us in 2007 had been duplicated from other published papers; in one case, the same gel was duplicated in the paper itself. I compared the original papers and agreed with the reader. Some of the blots had also been duplicated in other papers but all had been published previous to being published in our journal. In the meantime, I received a forwarded email from the reader in which the editor of another journal, apparently involved, told this reader that the two affected papers in its journal were being retracted by the author.
I then contacted the two senior authors, Dr X and Dr Y (both listed as corresponding authors), as well as the heads of department (two departments listed) of Dr X. I could not find similar information for the institute of Dr Y (I later learned that Dr Y is the president of that university). I presented the evidence I had received and requested an explanation.
Dr X contacted me to say that he had started to investigate the issue a few weeks earlier (presumably after being contacted by one of the other journals). He said that it appeared that all "scientific wrongdoings identified so far" were caused by his laboratory staff. Although he had recently reproduced the data published in our journal and in other journals, "the mistakes have already appeared in these papers". He said he was willing to take full responsibility for this 'misconduct' and had decided to withdraw all papers involved, including the one in our journal. Dr Y contacted me to say that he and all the other co-authors agreed that Dr X would take responsibility for answering the required questions. I did not hear from either of the heads of the institutes.
I then emailed Dr X, copying in Dr Y and the heads of the institutes, with suggested text for the retraction, asking him to make any changes he felt necessary. He instead wrote back to ask that we consider allowing him to publish a correction, showing the correct bands for each of the relevant experiments. He said that the results in the paper are accurate, and he had all of the original data available for inspection. He had also reproduced the experiments, achieving the same results. He cited a number of papers by other groups in which some of his findings had been replicated. He again admitted that there was ‘misuse’ of bands, and gave a number of explanations for what might have happened (based on inexperience of his technicians). He said that, ultimately, however, he took full responsibility for what happened, but would like the opportunity to publish a correction. Dr Y also emailed me to support Dr X’s request, vouching for Dr X as an honest scientist. Again, I have not heard from the heads of the institutes.
Although I think, in principle, the article should be retracted because of redundant publication of data, does it best serve readers if the conclusions are, in fact, sound? This paper has been well cited in the literature, and some results do indeed seem to have been reproduced by others.
I would very much appreciate advice on whether we should retract this article, issue a notice of redundant publication or involve the original handling (academic) editor and the editor-in-chief. In the latter case, I would most likely ask Dr X's institute to verify the results based on the documentation provided by Dr X, and then ask the the editor and editor-in-chief for their opinions. If the editor and editor-in-chief agree that the data are still sound, then we would issue a correction.
The Forum suggested that this was a case not only of redundant publication but also of image manipulation and fraud and agreed with the editor that the paper should be retracted. The author admitted wrongdoing, the editor has the evidence, and if he believes there are grounds for retraction, then he should retract the paper. However, the Forum did caution that it was unusual not to wait for the results of the investigation being carried out by the institution. Although the author blamed his laboratory staff and claimed the data were sound, the Forum agreed that the editor does not have to include this information in the retraction notice. In any event, the principal investigator is ultimately responsible for the data and if the gels were duplicated then clearly the principal investigator was not involved enough in the study.
The Forum agreed this was a difficult case but the editor had handled it correctly.
We retracted the article on the basis of redundant publication and image manipulation, avoiding any finger pointing. The institute completed their investigation and told us that they would have requested that we retract the article anyway. The PI was fired from his post.