Two medical journals, Surgery and Oncogene, retracted five articles by Harvard Medical School professors Edward E. Whang and Stanley W. Ashley, Medical School emeritus professor Michael J. Zinner, and two other researchers earlier this month and late last year.
The retractions were the result of an investigation by HMS and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which identified discrepancies in several figures used in the articles.
Oncogene — a journal for cancer-related research that shares a parent company with the scientific publication Nature — issued retraction notices for three of the five articles last month, saying, “there was no underlying research data available to resolve these discrepancies or to validate the reported results.”
Ashley, Zinner, and one of the five co-authors, Hiromichi Ito, a general surgeon affiliated with Sparrow Hospital, agreed to the three retractions, according to Oncogene. Whang and another co-author — Mark S. Duxbury, a consultant surgeon based in Glasgow — did not agree with the retractions by Oncogene.
A spokesperson for Elsevier, the company that publishes Surgery, said that after an investigation last year, HMS alerted them to two papers published in Surgery by Ito, Duxbury, Zinner, Ashley, and Whang that had invalid figures, recommending that they be retracted.
“After reviewing the materials, the Journal of Surgery Editors reached out to the corresponding authors and asked for a response,” they wrote. “The Editors were not satisfied by the explanation and the papers were retracted at the end of last year.”
Whang did not respond to a comment request about the retractions. Jessica V. Pastore, a spokesperson for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, shared a statement in his stead.
“Brigham and Women’s Hospital is committed to preserving the highest standards of biomedical research and fostering scientific innovation,” Pastore wrote in an emailed statement. “Any questions, concerns, or allegations regarding research conducted at BWH are confidentially assessed per hospital policy and federal regulations.”
Ito and Duxbury could not be reached for comment. Zinner did not respond to a request for comment.
Ashley, the other HMS professor who authored the five retracted articles, wrote that an HMS inquiry committee’s investigation found he was not personally responsible for the publication of the data and dismissed him from the investigation.
“I am not able to speak to their subsequent findings,” Ashley wrote in an email to The Crimson. “I did know that the committee had recommended retraction of the articles so I agreed with this recommendation when I was asked by the journal.”
According to Elisabeth M. Bik, a scientific integrity consultant who specializes in research misconduct, figures across the papers showed evidence of digital alteration.
Upon analyzing one of the retracted Oncogene articles about a determinant of malignant cellular behavior, Bik said that Figure 1 in that paper seemed to share gel electrophoresis lanes with data from two retracted papers: Figure 3 from another retracted Oncogene article about RNA interference targeting, as well as a retracted 2004 Surgery paper about RNA interference targeting as a strategy to treat pancreatic cancer.
“The lanes are shown in a different order and appear to contain duplications and mirroring, suggesting this image was digitally altered,” Bik wrote in an email.
“It might be likely that more retractions will follow, based on the outcome of the Harvard investigation,” Bik added.
HMS did not comment specifically upon the investigation into the articles.
“Harvard Medical School is fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of its research,” the school wrote in an emailed statement. “Any concerns brought to our attention are reviewed thoroughly in accordance with our institutional policies and applicable regulations.”
—Staff writer Ammy M. Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.