Dozens of papers co-authored with Nobel laureates raise concerns

Dozens of papers co-authored with Nobel laureates raise concerns
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Scientist in a laboratory analyzing a Western blot result on transparent film

Images showing the results of experiments in molecular biology research papers are often reviewed on websites such as PubPeer. Credit: Shutterstock

Publishers are investigating several research papers co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Gregg Semenza after internet sleuths raised concerns about the integrity of images in the documents. Journals have already retracted, corrected, or raised concerns about 17 articles over the past decade, and others are investigating image and data integrity issues in additional studies.

Semenza, who works at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists for discovering how cells sense and adapt to the availability of oxygen in the body. The published his Nobel prize-winning work in the 1990s; the latest concerns center on the molecular biology-related research published since then.

The integrity of images in scientific papers has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as digital tools have made it easier for scientists to manipulate their results. There may be legitimate reasons to alter images, for example to make the results clearer by increasing contrast or color balance. Shapes can also be mislabeled by mistake or distorted while the paper is being prepared. But image editing tools can also be used to create fraudulent results.

Elisabeth Bik, a leading image integrity consultant in San Francisco, California, who is among those who have pointed out irregularities in Semenza’s co-authored work, says the number of corrections seems reasonable for a 20-year period in a successful lab. . and many of the concerns potentially fall into “neglected scientific territory.” But “five retractions for image manipulation work is much more than you’d expect,” she adds.

Semenza did not respond to requests for comment. Naturenews team of .

image problems

Commenters on the PubPeer website, where users review published research, often anonymously, have disputed images of 52 articles written by Semenza and published between 2000 and 2021. Since 2011, 17 of these articles have been retracted, corrected or had an expression of interest cast upon them. Editorial notices cite possible alteration, reuse, or mislabeling of images showing experimental results. Another 15 of the articles are currently under investigation in their respective journals, NatureThe news team has learned.

In the 32 articles that have so far attracted the scrutiny of editors, all mention Semenza as an author, but there are many combinations of different co-authors. Semenza is the corresponding author or co-author of 14 of these articles, which cover research related to molecular mechanisms of oxygen sensing in different types of cancer, and blood vessel function and dysfunction, among other topics. No wrongdoing has been proven, and due to a lack of clarity about who contributed what to the documents, it is unclear who might have been responsible for the errors or problems with the images. However, corresponding authors have a responsibility to ensure the overall integrity of an article.

In Bik’s opinion, “the fact that there are several documents now retracted for manipulated images, and several others still under investigation suggests an intent to deceive.”

Retractions and corrections

The first publication on Semenza’s work appeared on PubPeer in 2015, but most publications are from 2020 and 2021. The journals issued a retraction in 2011 and corrections in 2013 to two articles Semenza co-authored, but the rest of editorial ads have appeared in the last two years.

In 2021, five journals issued corrections to five articles due to errors, including mislabeled data and the apparent reuse of images. In March, the newspaper cancer research corrected one article and issued an expression of concern about another after an investigation found that the authors inadvertently presented the same data as results of different experiments and reused data from a previous publication.

And last month, the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences retracted four cell biology papers co-authored with Semenza and proofread three others. Editorial notices describe concerns about the figures, including possible data duplication, where one set of results is used for more than one experiment, and immunoblot image ‘splicing’ (when specific parts of an image are cropped and relocated) . In three of the four retraction notices, the authors say that updated figures or confirmatory experiments are detailed in new articles uploaded to the bioRxiv preprint server. And in all of the retraction notices, the authors say they believe the paper’s overall conclusions remain valid, but they retract the paper because of concerns about the numbers.

A Johns Hopkins University spokesman says the institution “upholds the highest standards of accuracy and integrity in research” and takes allegations of impropriety seriously. He adds that there are “strict protocols and processes for investigating such allegations and determining an appropriate path forward, if necessary.” They declined to reveal details of these review processes or comment on whether there were any specific allegations against Semenza or her group.

deeper investigations

The dozen documents currently under investigation include a document in Nature Genetics and a paper in oncogenewhich are published by Springer Nature (NatureThe news team at is independent of its publisher.) scientific signagewho investigates two articles, has completed an investigation on one, and says he will publish an errata soon.

other title, The Journal of Physiology, says it is reconsidering its position on two documents it had previously investigated in light of recent retractions. A spokesman for the journal says he took no action after the first investigation because the original data was not available and “the resolution of the figure in the published paper was too poor.”

Seven journals that published 20 of Semenza’s co-authored articles that have received PubPeer comments said Nature that they were aware of the criticisms raised but declined to comment on them. Three other newspapers did not comment, two said they were not aware of the allegations and were not investigating the documents, and one did not respond to requests for comment.

A field researcher, who preferred to remain anonymous, says they await the results of the investigations “with a mixture of concern and interest.” (Several other researchers in the field contacted by NatureThe news team declined to discuss the irregularities in the documents co-authored by Semenza.)

The researcher says that Semenza’s most influential contribution to oxygen sensing research, the identification of a protein complex called HIF-1, has passed the scientific test of being reproduced and constructed by others. “The work under discussion [on PubPeer] it does not have the same broad meaning, although its total extension is great”. It remains to be seen whether the problems with the images affect the conclusions of the articles, says the scientist.

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