Researcher loses battle with Cell over wording of retraction notice

For months, a researcher has wrestled with a journal over the wording of an upcoming retraction notice. It appears that she has lost.

Earlier this week, Cell retracted the paper, despite the protests of first author Shalon Babbitt Ledbetter. When Ledbetter learned the journal was planning to retract the biochemistry paper over image manipulations, but wouldn’t name the culprit in the notice, she shared her concerns on PubPeer. Although a 2015 letter sent to Cell from Saint Louis University identified last author Dorota Skowyra as responsible for multiple manipulations, the journal wasn’t planning to say Skowyra was responsible in the retraction notice. Which would leave all other authors — particularly Ledbetter — under a cloud of suspicion.

Now, Cell Press has finally retracted the paper, along with another paper in Molecular Cell that lists Skowyra as corresponding author. Both notices describe image manipulations that were investigated by Saint Louis University (SLU). Neither identifies who is responsible.

Ledbetter and the first author of the Molecular Cell paper both told Retraction Watch they were disappointed with the journal’s decision to retract their papers. Ledbetter also reiterated her concern that the journal’s decision not to identify who was responsible for the manipulations could hurt her, as first author:

I viewed this selective omission on their part as both unfair and deceptive, especially since Cell had official documentation from SLU providing accountability for the alleged data manipulations uncovered in the paper.  But Cell chose to proceed with the version of the notice they crafted, and there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise.

A spokesperson for Cell Press declined to comment. At press time, Skowyra told us she was working on a response to our questions with her coauthors. The two retracted papers share three authors in common: Skowyra as last and corresponding author, along with two middle authors.

Last month, a spokesperson for SLU sent us a statement from Matthew Christian, associate vice president for research, saying that “a SLU author” of the Cell paper was investigated and “was cleared of research misconduct by SLU and [Department of Health and Human Services].” That statement appeared to contradict the 2015 letter to Cell from SLU, which noted:

…the committee found that Dr. Skowyra did engage in image manipulation as alleged, a practice that they deemed consistent with research misconduct…

When we contacted SLU about the two retractions, we received another statement from Christian:

Saint Louis University has been notified by Molecular Cell about its April 19, 2018 retraction of a 2006 article co-authored by a SLU scientist. In 2014 , SLU’s Research Integrity Office thoroughly investigated concerns raised about the article by a journal reader and promptly reported its findings to Molecular Cell. SLU’s investigation found cosmetic changes were made to two images in the paper but did not find manipulation of the underlying data. Further, SLU’s findings cleared the scientist of research misconduct, as did an independent investigation by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity. We respect the journal’s right to make an editorial retraction on a paper, according to its standards.

We know much of the backstory behind the Cell retraction — in March, we spoke to Ledbetter, who forwarded us email correspondence with the journal that included draft text of the upcoming notice. The published text is somewhat different — there are some wording changes, and the final text specifies that “the manipulations did not affect conclusions drawn from the data.”

Ledbetter told us:

In regards to my agreement or disagreement of the retraction itself, I have always objected to the retraction of this paper on the grounds that the science was and still is sound.  Although I could appreciate the position of the Cell editors in wanting to distance themselves from any appearance of being complicit in any alleged impropriety by allowing the paper to remain as originally published, a retraction of the article from the scientific record gives the appearance that the data and conclusions in the paper were fundamentally invalid, which is simply not true.

Cell continually made the claim that they needed to “correct the scientific record,” and to do so, retraction of the paper was the only reasonable course of action.  However, despite these claims, Cell continually delayed the retraction. I first learned from Cell in November 2017 that they were retracting this paper. In the few months I had to gather the facts, I later learned that this ordeal with Cell had been going on since 2014.  This extensive delay by Cell to retract this paper leaves me unconvinced about their purported motives to “correct the scientific record.”

Here’s the retraction notice for “Destabilization of Binding to Cofactors and SCFMet30 Is the Rate-Limiting Regulatory Step in Degradation of Polyubiquitinated Met4,” published by Molecular Cell:

Molecular Cell is retracting this article. In response to concerns raised by a reader, we contacted the corresponding author for original data and investigated the issues. The Research Integrity Office at Saint Louis University also investigated the matter. Both investigations determined that data in two figures had been inappropriately manipulated. In Figure 4A, a section from one part of the image was duplicated and placed over another part of the image. In this instance the authors could not locate the original data; thus we cannot determine whether the alteration obscured any relevant, underlying data. In Figure 5B there is a splice between lanes 2 and 3. While the splice in itself does not necessarily indicate inappropriate manipulation, the investigations found that what is depicted in lane 3 is not what appears in the original data image. Additionally, in Figure 5B, one of the lanes (labeled “alphas”) was inappropriately manipulated to remove blemishes. Given these issues, we are retracting the paper. The authors do not agree to the Retraction.

The 2006 paper has been cited 23 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

The first author of the Molecular Cell paper, Srikripa Chandrasekaran, told us:

I want to state that I was not involved in alterations of the images in question. I wish those image changes could have been spotted either by me, other coauthors, reviewers, or editors of cell press before the manuscript was accepted for publication. In my opinion, while the image adjustments should not have taken place, they have no bearing on the scientific validity of the paper, and it would have been a better course of action from the journal’s perspective to allow an erratum of this work.

In 2016, the journal Cell Division published an erratum for a paper by Skowyra, also citing “unacknowledged modifications” to images.



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