Commenter jmz4 made a fascinating comment on a prior post:

It is not the journals responsibility to mete out retractions as a form of punishment(&). Only someone that buys into papers as career accolades would accept that. The journal is there to disseminate accurate scientific information. If the journal has evidence that, despite the complaint, this information is accurate,(%) then it *absolutely* should take that into account when deciding to keep a paper out there.

(&) Otherwise we would retract papers from leches and embezzlers. We don’t.

That prior post was focused on data fraud, but this set of comments suggest something a little broader.

I.e., that fact are facts and it doesn’t matter how we have obtained them.

This, of course, brings up the little nagging matter of the treatment of research subjects. As you are mostly aware, Dear Readers, the conduct of biomedical experimentation that involves human or nonhuman animal subjects requires an approval process. Boards of people external to the immediate interests of the laboratory in question must review research protocols in advance and approve the use of human (Institutional Review Board; IRB) or nonhuman animal (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee; IACUC) subjects.

The vast majority (ok, all) journals of my acquaintance require authors to assert that they have indeed conducted their research under approvals provided by IRB or IACUC as appropriate.

So what happens when and if it is determined that experiments have been conducted outside of IRB or IACUC approval?

The position expressed by jmz4 is that it shouldn’t matter. The facts are as they are, the data have been collected so too bad, nothing to be done here. We may tut-tut quietly but the papers should not be retracted.

I say this is outrageous and nonsense. Of course we should apply punitive sanctions, including retracting the paper in question, if anyone is caught trying to publish research that was not collected under proper ethical approvals and procedures.

In making this decision, the evidence for whether the conclusions are likely to be correct or incorrect plays no role. The journal should retract the paper to remove the rewards and motivations for operating outside of the rules. Absolutely. Publishers are an integral part of the integrity of science.

The idea that journals are just there to report the facts as they become known is dangerous and wrong.

Additional Reading: The whole board of Sweden’s top-ranked university was just sacked because of the Macchiarini scandal

Via the usual relentless trolling of YHN from Comrade PhysioProffe, a note on a fraud investigation from the editors of Cell.

We, the editors of Cell, published an Editorial Expression of Concern ( earlier this year regarding issues raised about Figures 2F, 2H, and 3G of the above article.

two labs have now completed their experiments, and their data largely confirm the central conclusions drawn from the original figures. Although this does not resolve the conflicting claims, based on the information available to us at this time, we will take no further action. We would like to thank the independent labs who invested significant time and effort in ensuring the accuracy of the scientific record.

Bad Cell. BAD!

We see this all the time, although usually it is the original authors aided and abetted by the journal Editors, rather than the journal itself, making this claim. No matter if it is a claim to replace an “erroneous placeholder figure”, or a full on retraction by the “good” authors for fraud perpetrated by some [nonWestern] postdoc who cannot be located anymore, we see an attempt to maintain the priority claim. “Several labs have replicated and extended our work”, is how it goes if the paper is an old one. “We’ve replicated the bad [nonWestern, can’t be located] postdoc’s work” if the paper is newer.

I say “aided and abetted” because the Editors have to approve the language of the authors’ erratum, corrigendum or retraction notice. They permit this. Why? Well obviously because just as the authors need to protect their reputation, so does the journal.

So everyone plays this game that somehow proving the original claims were correct, reliable or true means that the original offense is lesser. And that the remaining “good” authors and the journal should get credited for publishing it.

I say this is wrong. If the data were faked, the finding was not supported. Or not supported to the degree that it would have been accepted for publication in that particular journal. And therefore there should be no credit for the work.

We all know that there is a priority and Impact Factor chase in certain types of science. Anything published in Cell quite obviously qualifies for the most cutthroat aspects of this particular game. Authors and editors alike are complicit.

If something is perceived to be hott stuff, both parties are motivated to get the finding published. First. Before those other guys. So…corners are occasionally cut. Authors and Editors both do this.

Rewarding the high risk behavior that leads to such retractions and frauds is not a good thing. While I think punishing proven fraudsters is important, it does not by any means go far enough.

We need to remove the positive reward environment. Look at it this way. If you intentionally fake data, or more likely subsets of the data, to get past that final review hurdle into a Cell acceptance, you are probably not very likely to get caught. If you are detected, it will often take years for this to come to light, particularly when it comes to a proven-beyond-doubt standard. In the mean time, you have enjoyed all the career benefits of that Glamour paper. Job offers for the postdocs. Grant awards for the PIs. Promotions. High $$ recruitment or retention packages. And generated even more Glam studies. So in the somewhat unlikely case of being busted for the original fake many of the beneficiaries, save the poor sucker nonWestern postdoc (who cannot be located), are able to defend and evade based on stature.

This gentleman’s agreement to view faked results that happen to replicate as no-harm, no-foul is part of this process. It encourages faking and fraud. It should be stopped.

One more interesting part of this case. It was actually raised by the self-confessed cheater!

Yao-Yun Liang of the above article informed us, the Cell editors, that he manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results in Figures 2F, 2H, and 3G. The corresponding author of the paper, Xin-Hua Feng, has refuted the validity of Liang’s claims, citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility. In a continuing process, we have consulted with the authors, the corresponding author’s institution, and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and we have evaluated the available original data. The Committee on Scientific Integrity at the corresponding author’s institution, Baylor College of Medicine, conducted a preliminary inquiry that was inconclusive and recommended no further action. As the institution’s inquiry was inconclusive and it has been difficult to adjudicate the conflicting claims, we have provided the corresponding author an opportunity to arrange repetition of the experiments in question by independent labs.

Kind of reminiscent of the recent case where the trainee and lab head had counter claims against each other for a bit of fraudulent data, eh? I wonder if Liang was making a similar assertion to that of Dr. Cohn in the Mt. Sinai case, i.e., that the lab head created a culture of fraud or directly requested the fake? In the latter case, it looked like they probably only came down on the PI because of a smoking-gun email and the perceived credibility of the witnesses. Remember that ORI refused to take up the case so there probably was very little hard evidence on which to proceed. I’d bet that an inability to get beyond “he-said/he-said” is probably at the root of Baylor’s “inconclusive” preliminary inquiry result for this Liang/Feng dispute.