Banning authors once a paper is retracted from the journal?

March 2, 2015

A post at Retraction Watch alerts us to to a paper retraction at the Journal of Neuroscience. The J Neuro notice on this paper reads:

The Journal of Neuroscience has received notification of an investigation by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which supports the journal’s findings of data misrepresentation in the article “Intraneuronal APP, Not Free Aβ Peptides in 3xTg-AD Mice: Implications for Tau Versus Aβ-Mediated Alzheimer Neurodegeneration” by Matthew J. Winton, Edward B. Lee, Eveline Sun, Margaret M. Wong, Susan Leight, Bin Zhang, John Q. Trojanowski, and Virginia M.-Y. Lee, which appeared on pages 7691–7699 of the May 25, 2011 issue. Because the results cannot be considered reliable, the editors of The Journal are retracting the paper.

From RetractionWatch we learn that the Journal has also issued a submission ban to three of the authors:

According to author John Trojanowski … he and Lee have been barred from publishing in Journal for Neuroscience for several years. Senior author Edward Lee is out for a year.

This is the first time I have ever heard of a Journal issuing a ban on authors submitting papers to them. This is an interesting policy.

If this were a case of a conviction for academic fraud, the issues might be a little clearer. But as it turns out, it is a very muddy case indeed.

A quote from the last author:

In a nut shell, Dean Glen Gaulton asserted that the findings in the paper were correct despite mistakes in the figures. I suggested to J. Neuroscience that we publish a corrigendum to clarify these mistakes for the readership of J Neuroscience

The old “mistaken figures” excuse. Who, might we ask is at fault?

RetractionWatch quotes the second-senior author Trojanowski:

Last April, we got an email about an inquiry into figures that I would call erroneously used. An error was made by [first author] Matt Winton, who was leaving science and in transition between Penn and his new job. He was assembling the paper to submit it, there were several iterations of the paper. One set of figures was completely correct – I still don’t know what happened, but he got the files mixed up, and used erroneous figures

Winton has apparently landed a job as a market analyst*, providing advice to investors on therapeutics for Alzheimer’s Disease. Maybe the comment from Trojanowski is true and he was in a rush to get the paper off his desk as he started the new job**. Maybe. Maybe there is all kinds of blame to go around and the other authors should have caught the problem.

Or maybe this was one of those deliberate frauds in which someone took shortcuts and represented immunohistochemical images or immunoblots as something they were not. The finding from the University’s own investigation appears to confirm, however, that a legitimate mistake was made.

…so let us assume it was all an accident. Should the paper be retracted? or corrected?

I think there are two issues here that support the Journal’s right to retract the paper.

We cannot ignore that publication of a finding first has tremendous currency in the world of academic publishing. So does the cachet of publishing in one Journal over another. If a set of authors are sloppy about their manuscript preparation, provide erroneous data figures and they are permitted to “correct” the figures, they gain essentially all the credit. Potentially taking credit for priority or a given Journal level away from another group that works more carefully.

Since we would like authors to take all the care they possibly can in submitting correct data in the first place, it makes some sense to take steps to discourage sloppiness. Retraction is certainly one such discouragement. A ban on future submissions does seem, on the face of it, a bit harsh for a single isolated error. I might not opt for that if it were my decision. But I can certainly see where another scientist might legitimately want to bring down the ban hammer and I would be open to argument that it is necessary.

The second issue I can think of is related. It has to do with whether the paper acceptance was unfairly won by the “mistake”. This is tricky. I have seen many cases in which even to the relatively uninformed viewer, the replacement/correct figure looks a lot crappier/dirtier/equivocal than the original mistaken image. Whether right or wrong that so-called “pretty” data change the correctness of the interpretation and strength of the support, it is often interpreted this way. This raises the question of whether the paper would have gained acceptance with the real data instead of the supposedly mistaken data. We obviously can’t rewind history, but this theoretical concern should be easy to appreciate. Maybe the Journal of Neuroscience review board went through all of the review materials for this paper and decided that the faked figure sealed the acceptance? For this concern it really makes no difference to the Journal whether the mistake was unintentional or not, there is a strong argument that the integrity of its process requires retraction whenever there is significant doubt the paper would have been accepted without the mistaken image(s).

Given these two issues, I see no reason that the Journal is obligated to “abide by the Penn committee’s investigation” as Trojanowski appears to think they should be. The Journal could accept that it was all just a mistake and still have good reason to retract the paper. But again, a ban on further submissions from the authors seems a bit harsh.

Now, I will point out one thing in this scenario that chaps my hide. It is a frequent excuse of the convicted data faker that they were right, so all is well. RetractionWatch further quotes the senior author, Lee:

…the findings of this paper are extremely important for the Alzheimer’s disease field because it provided convincing evidence pointing out that a previous report claiming accumulation of intracellular Abeta peptide in a mouse model (3XFAD) is wrong (Oddo et al., Neuron 2003), as evidenced by the fact that this paper has been cited by others for 62 times since publication. Subsequent to our 2011 J. Neuroscience paper, others also have found no evidence of intracellular Abeta in the 3XFAD mice (e.g. Lauritzen et al., J. Neurosci, 2012).

I disagree that whether the figures are correct and/or repeatable is an issue that affects the decision here. You either have the correct data or you do not. You either submitted the correct data for review with the manuscript or you did not. Whether you are able to obtain the right data later, whether other labs obtain the right data or whether you had the right data in a mislabeled file all along is absolutely immaterial to whether the paper should be retracted.

The system itself is what needs to be defended. Because if you don’t protect the integrity of the peer review system – where authors are presumed to be honest – then it encourages more sloppiness and more outright fraud.

*An interesting alt-career folks. One of my old grad school peeps has been in this industry for years and appears to really love it.

**I will admit, my eyebrows go up when the person being thrown under the bus for a mistake or a data fraud is someone who is no longer in the academic science publishing game and has very little to lose compared with the other authors.

26 Responses to “Banning authors once a paper is retracted from the journal?”

  1. […] There is one thing that concerns me about the Journal of Neuroscience banning three authors from future submission in the wake of a paper retraction. […]


  2. mytchondria Says:

    For a little perspective…. these are the folks that would routinely call out other AD researchers with different interpretations of data, findings that contradicted theirs or seemed to scoop them and make things very uncomfortable at conferences in the ‘fight’ over whether tau or abeta was the primary culprit in AD. These guys had shouting matches with each other (and they are married!) in the lab…. I shudder to think what they would do to someone they didn’t love. Are they horrible cheat fuckkers or super passionate screaming science folks who do take work extremely personally? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to be on the team trying to figure that out.
    I totally agree that a key point of this is that both Trojanowski and Lee feel entitled to a certain outcome. And that outcome was that J Neuroscience should agree with Penn. You nailed it in saying THEY DON’T HAVE TO. Having an internal review board at your Uni, where you are bringing in millions (and they are bringing in millions) decide on cases of ethical lapses is fraught with conflicts of interest. And yet, it happens everywhere. Seems like J Neuroscience just said they aren’t worth the hassle. Cross an editorial board* at your peril, kids.

    *Except Nature. Those guys are totally cool.


  3. becca Says:

    I don’t think it’s excessive to ban them for the times indicated.

    However, unless one of the authors posts here (and maybe not even then), I don’t expect to know the truth of what happened. The possible outcomes are AT LEAST:
    1) sloppiness
    2) outright fraud
    3) Antibodies that tell lies (but were much better validated than all the other antibodies in the field to date)
    4) enormous cognitive bias (seriously, this is an enormously tricky area of research that people approach with religious like intensity, precisely because we have so little certainty)
    5) a shift in the guard at J Neurosci that results in the scientific enemies of this group attempting to discredit the work that discredits them, based on almost entirely trumped up charges. Without seeing the “incorrect figures” vs. the “correct figures”, this one is possible.


  4. jean h Says:

    it appears very convenient to have the first author gone from science to place the responsibility on him. SFN should conduct an independent investigation. Trojanowski and wife Lee are very powerful people at Perelman and Faculty at the Department have always been very careful not to say or do anything that could upset them for fear of retaliation. It sounds convenient (if not disingenious) for them to say: “It’s not the American way to have a secret process investigating a potential wrongdoing”. Maybe there are situations (in which the risk of potential obstruction) require a secret investigative process for the truth to be known.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    5) a shift in the guard at J Neurosci that results in the scientific enemies of this group attempting to discredit the work that discredits them, based on almost entirely trumped up charges. Without seeing the “incorrect figures” vs. the “correct figures”, this one is possible.

    Absolutely. Could be nefarious actions on the part of some of the JNeuro players.

    Trojanowski and wife Lee are very powerful people
    these are the folks that would routinely call out other AD researchers with different interpretations of data, findings that contradicted theirs or seemed to scoop them and make things very uncomfortable at conferences in the ‘fight’ over whether tau or abeta was the primary culprit in AD.

    make me think that there needs to be extra special care taken in these situations so that JNeuro does not act capriciously just because someone is a jerk. I mean, yeah, we are all human and some of us would prefer not to encourage the sociopathic phenotype in science. But we are also therefore liable to take revenge on people we don’t like….kick ’em when they are down, so to speak. Take the opportunity to exclude them. when it may not be totally deserved.

    It does not in any way appear to be an easy call in this situation. I wouldn’t want to have to adjudicate something like this.


  6. boehninglab Says:

    Crap like this is exactly why I abandoned the AD field. It is one of the rare disciplines where the academic scientists are likely hindering the discovery of a cure. Amazingly, the pharm industry is still listening to them despite catastrophic failures. We have gone from plaques to tangles to the ethereal world of oligomers and the mantra of “we are not treating them early enough!!!”. Pretty soon they will start a Phase I trial of BACE inhibitors on infants with low scores on a mini mental exam. Preliminary results expected in 2085.


  7. Ola Says:

    Fuckit, when did MyT decide to come back?
    I thought she morphed into Namaste-ish and that was the end of the bluebird of happiness.
    Mor bluebird!


  8. Mytchondria Says:

    Yes, well someone took over my twitter account. If you ask for password reset the account is now registered to “aur******” and (615) ***-**33 phone number. Any ideas?

    So it’s @nameste_ish. Miss you too Ola. Keep up the trolling of Ted on this front.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    Not much more than what RetractionWatch posted here….


  10. louis Says:

    Nothing new under the sun DM. These authors have been in the local news since ancient times reporting on their ever ending biomedical breakthroughs and countless awards. Maybe they are now looking for public support in search of an apology from JNeuro for its misresponse to their reported misrepresentation of data….aggggg


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    Publicity Houndery is no legitimate reason for an author ban.


  12. louis Says:

    Don’t know what you mean by publicity houndery. But you’re right, if there are legitimate reasons for an author ban, those reasons should be stated in the open.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I mean you are talking about their publicity chasing. You never heard of a publicity hound?


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    an update to the retraction watch post reads:

    Update 3:40 p.m. EST 3/2/15: We spoke with Edward Lee, who was not a senior author but a post-doc at the time of the publication. He told us he received a letter from SfN in early February overturning his publication ban, and that he didn’t join the team until a year after the figures were assembled.

    emphasis added.

    Say what? So what did he do?

    From the Dean’s letter posted at RW, the figures in question appear to be 1 and 4, btw. I took a look and it is sure as heck not something as simple as a “placeholder” panel* being duplicated.

    *don’t get me started


  15. david Says:

    I worked in neuroscience group at Penn for a decade. This is a culture of cheating. It is all about money. The previous chair of neuroscience had a degree in zoology and was doing research on MS she moved to Pfizer for hefty salary after the MD scientist who was helping her in grants refused to collaborate more. The so called Glen Gaulton who investigated the matter has a salary of $800.000. Not much for a biologist doing work on HIV!


  16. louis Says:

    “I mean you are talking about their publicity chasing. You never heard of a publicity hound?”

    Yes. I’ve heard of publicity hound but not publciity houndery. Sorry, I forgot that you enjoy coming up with new English words.

    No concern about the banning. The authors will figure it out and come up with a positive solution.


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    See, david, this is what I mean about the whisper campaign. Maybe you are in the right and have witnessed things directly, up close and personal for years. Sure.Many of us have similar personal anecdotes that we believe very strongly.

    The problem is, I also have a lot of anecdotes of other people whispering about how some lab is all a bunch of fakers. And I have no way to evaluate that stuff, apart from how trustworthy I think the person is.

    Undoubtedly there will be some false alarms in whisper campaigns. Sometimes there will be intentional lies circulated to undercut a scientific competitor. Sometimes there is just jealousy, or unjustified disbelief that another lab could get some result that you cannot.

    The principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty is a deep, deep bedrock one for me, for many in the US culture and probably for many people across all worldwide cultures.

    Whisper campaigns are corrosive and should be unnecessary.

    This is why I think the Journal of Neuroscience editorial board needs to explain themselves a little bit better.


  18. DJMH Says:

    I was interested in the comment at Retraction Watch that the dean who investigated this, coming up with the “findings are correct” and “no intent to deceive,” has co-authored a previous paper with Trojanowski and Lee. Turns out it’s only a position paper on AD research centers, but still it highlights the problem with having the university investigate its own people. There are existing relationships complicating objectivity.

    Note to self, try to get the dean involved on at least one review that I write.


  19. david Says:


    I did not say that John and Virginia are fakers even though I have never ever see any changes in their mice models in terms of lifespan and in terms of pathological changes. May be it is just a miscommunication giving the fact that all Lee lab and department of pathology at Penn are from china and are her relatives

    What you said is true in the court and criminal justice system however in science it is all about reputation. Furthermore, it is also about the ability of those who actually do the work to reproduce results. Not those who benefit from obtaining money in millions of dollars and I am talking here about average neuroscience faculty’s salary.

    So you want to apply innocent until proven otherwise rule and the untouchable tenure professor in Ivy League rule together? I saw first hand why young American students leaving the field of science. It is all about obtaining grants and a closed circle of faculty who are married to each other and relatives with each other and who approve funding and papers for each other. It works like this I approve your grants, you approve mine. I accept your paper, you accept mine. However reputation is very important. Virginia lee would grill any person who made a simple mistake in a presentation but is careless when it comes to two figures in a manuscript. I think the system works fine: SFN found the mistake and retracted the paper. After all it is about 18th century Europe way of conducting science, tenure and peer review.

    So let’s take it in a simple way; SFN peer reviewed the paper and decided NOT to accept it. in the meanwhile my salary was 50k while glen is 800k


  20. plaques&tangelas Says:

    “Crap like this is exactly why I abandoned the AD field. It is one of the rare disciplines where the academic scientists are likely hindering the discovery of a cure.”

    boehninglab I had so hoped that your first sentence was referring to the fact that the validity of these results are being called into question even though these results have been recapitulated and that alternate investigation has found that the scientific findings of the paper still hold. As to your indirect assertion that Lee and Trojanowski are in some way responsible for hindering the discovery of the cure, I am sure there are many, many people familiar enough with their work will tell you that their research has fundamentally altered the way people think not only about AD but neurodegeneration as a whole. The biochemical evidence for the importance of tau in AD pathology is so convincing and well replicated that many people have jumped ship from abeta since Lee’s pioneering work.

    This is not to say I do not empathize with your frustration when it comes to effective clinical outcomes, but I do believe your fingers are pointed in the wrong direction as you will not find stronger patient advocates.

    Likewise, I agree with david’s point that there is way too much politics in science in general, and that Lee and Trojanowski’s tremendous influence would definitely play into that. As to his seemingly racist remarks, easily disproven accusations of nepotism(?), and inappropriately strong negative emotional response from perceived personal insult, I will not say much.


  21. anonymous Says:

    “.their research has fundamentally altered the way people think not only about AD but neurodegeneration as a whole”.

    Indeed. And we will soon celebrate their upcoming Nobel Prize.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    That would be hilarious.


  23. david Says:


    I am not sure what do you mean by “inappropriately strong negative emotional response from perceived personal insult” I was never insulted in any way.

    As for your comment “seemingly racist remarks” please note that the majority of biomedical researchers in PENN are Asians and all of Lee’s lab are Asians and are her relatives as I was working in a close group and I know them by person

    Finally “easily disproven accusations of nepotism” is wrong as I can easily write the names of the faculty and their spouses and cousins . However, forum rules do not allow that. By the way Lee and Trojanowski are partners. He does not refer to her as wife. Rather he keeps saying “my partner”

    Lee and Trojanowski has not done anything to the field of neurodegeneration expect slices in mice brains. The beta amyloid theory of neurodegeneration has proved to be very wrong. Please refer to comments made by Bloomberg’s analysts and by pathologists following the failure of embryo transplantation for the treatment of PD. Only Lee and Trojanowski results were not in line with the other to publications done by famous MD pathologists. Virginia lee usually becomes very upset when anybody mention any theory that does not involve synculein and amyloid. Time proved that all of her results are not right. She should have been prudent in her publications


  24. […] she said. Trojanowski said the understudy, who has since left the scholarly world, was Matthew J. Winton, the first creator named on the paper. A solicitation for input left on the voice message for a man […]


  25. anonymous Says:

    See also comments in:

    “A puzzle in another paper from same lab (different from the mistake they published in the Erratum): Yoshiyama et al. 2007 Neuron 53, pg 337–351”

    Fig 7 E and F are almost identical.


  26. david Says:

    Fig I and J are also identical take a close look. Virgina lee and Nanci Bonini images are all fabricated if you would use comparsion software for images.


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