A scientific article with several Wageningen authors was withdrawn last week. It was thought that illustrations had been tampered with by one or more authors from outside Wageningen. Now an official enquiry has been set up.
At the authors’ behest, the publication was withdrawn by Cell, the prestigious journal in which it appeared in April 2012. In an accompanying explanation, the researchers said that due to ‘incorrect processing’, several illustrations were no longer consistent with the raw data. In at least one case, the conclusions drawn then are no longer correct. The majority of authors, as they explain on the blog Retraction watch, saw these inaccuracies as ‘manipulations’, a word Cell replaced in the final version of the announcement with ‘mistakes’.
The affair started at the end of April after a tip from a foreign researcher that there was something fishy about the article. The researchers then took this up and studied the matter. Now an official enquiry has been set up at Utrecht University, says Bela Mulder, co-author of the article, who is both group head at the Amsterdam AMOLF institute and special professor of Theoretical Cell Physics at Wageningen.
Along with Mulder, Ben Scheres, professor of Plant Development Biology, is another of the co-authors of the retracted article. The main author was on Scheres’s staff in his Utrecht days, before he moved to Wageningen last year. Scheres is not available for comment, as he is on holiday. He told Retraction watch that he warned his co-authors and the universities of Utrecht and Wageningen in April about the ‘suspicious disparities’. In advance of the results of the ongoing investigation, he cannot give any details.
The affected researchers are seriously fed up. ‘After all, you always have faith in science as an honest search for the truth,’ says Bela Mulder. ‘So it is painful to be in a position in which doubt is cast on that.’ He is most concerned for ‘his’ junior researchers. ‘The fallout is big for them,’ says Mulder. ‘It is a big setback in their careers.’ It is quite a disappointment for him too. This article was a chance for him to apply his theoretical work to a relevant biological problem. Mulder: ‘It is awful to see a good piece of work being brought down.’
The confidentiality of the research does not inhibit the foreign co-authors, especially, from going into detail about the case. ‘Be prepared,’ writes Canadian co-author Geoffrey Wasteneys on Retraction watch, because ‘you will be shocked and disgusted when the full story comes out.’ Others do not hesitate to name names (none of them Wageningen ones). Material has already been in circulation for some time which shows how the illustrations in the article were incorrectly labelled and manipulated using graphic software. At the request of Utrecht University, that PDF document has been removed.