This is a story that puzzles me: it’s a case where seemingly everyone agrees there was research fraud, but for some reason nobody wants to identify who did it. Just business as usual in the War on Cancer?
Ellie Kincaid reports:
On a Saturday last November, Philip Tsichlis of The Ohio State University received an email no researcher wants to get.
Another scientist had tried to replicate a finding in a recent paper of his, and couldn’t. “We believe that our results should lead to some revision of the model you propose,” stated the email, which was released to us by OSU following a public records request.
It turned out that was an understatement. The email eventually led Tsichlis to discover data fabrication in that paper and a related article. Within a week, he requested the retraction of both papers . . .
OK, so far so good. Here’s the background:
The email that spurred Tsichlis to reevaluate his lab’s papers came from Alexandre Maucuer of INSERM on November 13th.
It referred to an article his group had published in Nature Communications in July, titled “AKT3-mediated IWS1 phosphorylation promotes the proliferation of EGFR-mutant lung adenocarcinomas through cell cycle-regulated U2AF2 RNA splicing,” and was addressed to Tsichlis and the paper’s first author, Georgios I. Laliotis. . . .
On the Friday after he received Maucuer’s email, Tsichlis emailed the editor of a related paper his group had published in October in Communications Biology, requesting to retract the article and explaining what had happened . . .
In the letter, Tsichlis referred to “evidence of data manipulation,” and here was the published retraction note:
The authors are retracting this Article as irregularities were found in the data that indicate the splicing of the U2AF2 exon 2 does not occur as reported in the Article. The irregularities call into question the conclusions and undermine our full confidence in the integrity of the study. The authors therefore wish to retract the Article.
All of the authors agree with the retraction.
OK, here’s my question. If the retraction is happening because someone faked the data (that’s what “data manipulation” means, right? From the description, it doesn’t sound like a mere coding error like this), and all the authors agree with the retraction, then . . . who did the faking?
Here’s the author list:
Georgios I. Laliotis, Adam D. Kenney, Evangelia Chavdoula, Arturo Orlacchio, Abdul Kaba, Alessandro La Ferlita, Vollter Anastas, Christos Tsatsanis, Joal D. Beane, Lalit Sehgal, Vincenzo Coppola, Jacob S. Yount & Philip N. Tsichlis
That’s 13 authors. If 1 of them faked the data, then that person would have 12 very angry collaborators, right??
I just don’t understand what’s going on here. All 13 authors agreed there was data fabrication. There must be a culprit, no? So why isn’t anyone saying who did it?
OK, I get it, nobody wants to point the finger. After all, the sort of person who would fake data on a publication also could be the sort of person who would sue. But, can’t they get around it another way, by each of the non-cheaters releasing a statement saying, I didn’t do it?
If I were one of the 12 non-cheating authors on this paper, I’d be mad as hell that the cheater is getting off the hook here.
But maybe the cheater isn’t any of those people! In his letter, Tsichlis points to manipulation in Figure 1g of this other paper with an overlapping but different author list:
Georgios I. Laliotis, Evangelia Chavdoula, Maria D. Paraskevopoulou, Abdul Kaba, Alessandro La Ferlita, Satishkumar Singh, Vollter Anastas, Keith A. Nair II, Arturo Orlacchio, Vasiliki Taraslia, Ioannis Vlachos, Marina Capece, Artemis Hatzigeorgiou, Dario Palmieri, Christos Tsatsanis, Salvatore Alaimo, Lalit Sehgal, David P. Carbone, Vincenzo Coppola & Philip N. Tsichlis
The real question
Which of these 20 authors is the manipulator? Again, if I was one of the 19 honest people, I’d be furious. On the other hand, it’s possible the cheater has the power to damage co-authors’ careers. That’s the sort of thing that can make people scared to blow the whistle.
This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health:
This work was supported by the National Institute of Health grants R01CA186729 to P.N.T., and R01 CA198117 to P.N.T and V.C, and by the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute P30 Grant CA016058 to the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC). G.I.L was supported by a Pelotonia Post-Doctoral fellowship from OSUCCC.
I don’t think we can expect Ohio State University to look into this one too carefully, as it would be bad publicity. But the NIH, they should be really annoyed that millions of dollars have been going to research fraud. They could launch an investigation, no? This is really bad.
The article with the problematic Figure 1g has this section:
G.I.L. conceived and performed experiments, analyzed data, prepared figures, and contributed to the writing of the paper. E.C. designed and performed the mouse xenograft experiments, including the characterization of the tumors, performed the IHC experiments on human TMAs, and provided comments contributing to the writing of the paper. M.D.P. performed bioinformatics analyses of RNA-seq data that led to the identification of alternatively spliced targets of the IWS1 pathway. A.D.K. performed experiments, under the supervision of G.I.L. A.L.F. performed bioinformatics analyses of microarray and TCGA data. S.S. contributed to the FACS experiments. V.A. performed and analyzed the proliferation experiments. S.A. performed and supervised bioinfomatics analyses. A.O. prepared extracts of human tumors and provided comments on the paper. K.A.N. performed experiments, under the supervision of G.I.L. V.T. prepared the cells and the mRNA for the RNA-Seq experiment. I.V. Bioinformatics analyses of RNA-seq data. M.C. prepared extracts of human tumors used in this study A.H. Provided supervision for the bioinformatics analyses of the RNA-seq data. D.P. provided technical advice on several experiments in this paper and contributed to the design of these experiments. Provided comments on the paper. C.T. advised on the design of experiments. L.S. advised on the design of experiments. D.P.C. advised on the biology of lung cancer and on the design of experiments, provided cell lines, and reagents. V.C. contributed to the overall experimental design. P.N.T. conceived and initiated the project, contributed to the experimental design, supervised the work and monitored its progress, and wrote the paper, together with G.I.L.
Can this help us figure anything out? G.I.L. is the only author listed as preparing figures, so that might lead us to think that he’s the one who manipulated the data. But we can’t be sure. It could be that the Contributions statement is inaccurate and someone else made the graph. Or maybe something else went on that we don’t know about.
The Retraction Watch article has some interesting comments, including pointers to other papers by this research group that seem to have data problems, and a link to a letter by Tsichlis and the other tenured faculty in his department supporting the notorious Carlo Croce (from Wikipedia, “Croce’s research and publications have been scrutinized by the scientific community for possible scientific misconduct, including image and data manipulation. While working at Jefferson, federal investigators alleged Croce and a colleague had submitted false claims for research never undertaken. The university settled the allegations, paying $2.6 million to the government without admitting any wrongdoing. In 2007, OSU investigated Croce for misconduct after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) returned a funding application that contained major portions identical to an application submitted months earlier by Croce’s junior colleague. OSU later cleared Croce of misconduct after accusations that he had patented a researcher’s work without providing proper credit, that members of his lab had inappropriately used grant money for personal trips abroad, and that Croce improperly pressured colleagues for research attribution. Since 2013, several scientists have claimed research misconduct on the part of Croce, and as of 2020 these allegations remain under investigation by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI). . . . In 2013, following accusations from science critic Clare Francis of image manipulation in over 30 research papers, OSU instructed Croce to correct or retract some of his research publications; in 2015, the journal Clinical Cancer Research issued a correction after being contacted on the matter by a newspaper. In 2014, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America dismissed a challenge that Croce’s 2005 paper on the WWOX gene contained manipulated western blots, but in 2017 the journal agreed to correct the paper after consulting with experts. In 2016, Croce was found to have plagiarized a paper he published in PLoS One from six separate sources. In 2017, the journal Cell Death and Differentiation retracted a paper Croce had published in 2010 after it learned that images had been copied from a 2008 paper published in another journal. Also in 2017, the Journal of Biological Chemistry retracted a paper Croce had published in 2008 due to image/figure irregularities. . . . In 2018, two cancer researchers at OSU, Samson T. Jacob and Ching-Shih Chen, both colleagues and co-authors with Croce on two papers each, were found to have engaged in scientific misconduct. On May 10, 2017, Croce filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and several of its writers and editors for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress/ In November 2018, United States District Judge James Graham dismissed virtually all of Croce’s lawsuit. In 2017 Croce also filed a defamation lawsuit against critic David Sanders of Purdue University, who was quoted in The New York Times article. In May 2020 Croce lost the defamation lawsuit against Sanders . . .”).
Amusingly (or horrifyingly, depending on how you feel about fraud conducted at taxpayers’ expense), the letter by the 14 tenured faculty mentions that Croce is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (that’s supposed to be a good thing??? What does it take to get kicked out of that august body?) and that their department “enjoys the highest per-capita NIH funding on the entire campus.”
Also this from the Wikipedia page:
In 1994, Croce joined the Council for Tobacco Research’s scientific advisory board, where he remained until the group closed after the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, and during which time tobacco companies used Croce’s research into fragile histidine triad (FHIT) to argue that lung cancer was an inherited condition. . . . In 2016, Croce was paid more than $850,000 by Ohio State. In 2019, Croce was removed as chair of the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics at OSU, and he subsequently sued OSU to be reinstated, losing his request for a temporary restraining order although retaining his salary of $804,461 per year.
And, here he is being given the full hero treatment by Smithsonian magazine:
The driver is Carlo Croce, a 64-year-old Italian scientist with a big voice, disheveled curly hair and expressive dark eyes. He heads the Human Cancer Genetics Program at Ohio State University, and his silver Scaglietti Ferrari is a fitting symbol of his approach to science: grand, high-powered and, these days especially, sizzling hot.
This was in 2009, 15 years after he did his dirty work for the Council for Tobacco Research, and 2 years after he was investigated for misconduct over an NIH application. Anyway, I guess he needed that $804,461 per year to pay for the gas for his Ferrari.
What’s going on there in Columbus, Ohio, anyway? How could it be that all 14 tenured faculty of the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics think this is OK? Can they, like, just shut the department down and start over? What does the National Academy of Sciences think about their name being used in this way? What about the National Institutes of Health? The Ohio State University Board of Trustees? Then again, I’m still wondering what the Columbia University Board of Trustees thinks about this whole U.S. News thing.
It’s a dangerous world out there, and there’s a lot worse things going on than scientific corruption, misuse of government funds, and the trashing of the reputation of Ohio State University. Still, this all seems pretty bad.
If I were Philip N. Tsichlis, I’d be pretty angry. People keep fabricating data on papers I’m publishing but nobody ever reveals who the fabricators are, and I’m being paid less than half of the salary of a guy who’s had umpteen retractions:
At some point the dude’s gotta lose his patience, right? In the meantime, I’m kinda stunned that NIH continues to be funding these people. I guess the idea is, they might be faking their data, but they’re still curing cancer?