Health

The Author Who Requested a Retraction Twice

As Jason Isbell sings, doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. But sometimes it’s even harder than it needs to be. Ask Cory Xian.

When Xian, a bone researcher at the University of South Australia, in Adelaide, and his colleagues found an error in their 2018 paper inthe Journal of Bone and Mineral Research — a top journal for the field — they notified the editors and asked for a retraction. But the journal demurred, instead issuing a correction for the article, titled “Release of CXCL12 From Apoptotic Skeletal Cells Contributes to Bone Growth Defects Following Dexamethasone Therapy in Rats.”

The correction states that “incorrect photos had been accidentally and mistakenly used by a staff person as representative photos”.

Xian, the senior author of the article, told us:

Once we identified some incorrect histology/cell culture images were used in two figure panels of this JBMR paper, I wrote to JBMR immediately (on 11 Feb 2020) about the issue and requested retraction of the paper. On 20 Feb 2020, JBMR decided to resolve the issue with publication of an erratum (with corrected figure panels newly made using photos from a new tissue culture experiment and a new immunostaining experiment conducted), and this erratum was published online on 30 April 2020.

Two months later, Xian said, his group found still more problems with the article:

Unfortunately, on 2 July 2020, we identified incorrect histology images in 3 additional figure panels, and I immediately wrote to JBMR requesting retraction of the paper again. After Wiley responded to me on 28 January 2021 and presented me options of either pursuing publication of another erratum with corrected figure panels for the 3 other figures, or proceeding with the retraction process, on 2 Feb 2021, I replied to them and requested that they proceed with the retraction process. We did not pursue a second correction as we recognised the difficulty of finding the correct images for those several images since the first author had already left out group and his hard drive storing all the images for the study had been corrupted due to hard-drive failure.

It was with deep regret that the authors had not detected (with naked eyes) those incorrect images being used before the manuscript submission and during proof-reading for this paper. We had apologised to JBMR/Wiley and readers for all the confusion and inconvenience this issue has caused.

Per the notice:

The above article, published online on 5 November 2018 in Wiley Online Library (
wileyonlinelibrary.com
) and in Volume 34, pp. 310-326, has been retracted by agreement between the authors, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Professor Roberto Civitelli, the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Upon re-inspection of the data presented in the article, the authors identified errors and inaccuracies in more than one figure. Unfortunately, the authors are unable to provide correct images after re-analysis of the original data. Therefore, they have requested for the article to be retracted. After review of the documentation provided by the authors, the ASBMR Research Integrity Panel, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, and Wiley concur with the retraction.

Xian said that no other papers from his group were affected by the problems, which led to the first retraction of his career.

We asked Roberto Civitelli, the editor in chief of the JBMR, about the case, and why he opted not to retract Xian’s article when the researchers first presented him with their concerns:

In February 2020, approximately 15 months after publication of the original paper (
https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.3597
), the senior author, Dr. Cory Xian, contacted the JBMR Editorial Office requesting a retraction because “some data in the published paper are now uncertain”, without further explanations. ASBMR and Wiley, our publisher, take such drastic actions as retraction very seriously, and asked for a more detailed explanation for such a stunning request. The author replied that they “recently discovered that some incorrect photos had been accidentally and mistakenly used by a staff as representative photos in two figure panels…” Oversights and mistakes of this kind are not uncommon and can be easily rectified by publication of an Erratum. Dr. Xian readily agreed to this approach – in fact, he was grateful for the opportunity to correct the record without a retraction – and provided the corrected images for the Erratum (
https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.4034
). We considered the problem resolved.

In early July 2020, Dr. Xian contacted the JBMR editorial office again, indicating that “…today we have discovered some more incorrect photos being mistakenly used (by the first author) in three more figure panels…”. These new, additional problems now raised substantial concern among the journal’s editorial leadership as to the integrity and validity of the published paper, and the case was referred to the ASBMR Research Integrity Panel, a group of 3 ASBMR members with strong scholarly publishing experience appointed by the ASBMR Publication Committee with the scope of addressing potential breaches in integrity of research published in ASBMR journals. The Panel reviewed the correspondence, the previous correction, and the paper and found that the number of figure panels with errors or duplications and the nature of the visual manipulations was very concerning, and they concluded that a retraction should be granted to the authors. In agreement with the publisher, I concurred with the Panel’s recommendation to retract the paper (https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.4425).

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