Following investigation, FASEB Journal retracts paper after agreeing to run a correction
A retraction notice for the paper, “Molecular analysis of Nogo expression in the hippocampus during development and following lesion and seizure,” appeared in mid-June:
Regarding the article titled, “Molecular analysis of Nogo expression in the hippocampus during development and following lesion and seizure,” by Susan Meier, Anja U. Brauer, Bernd Heimrich, Martin E. Schwab, Robert Nitsch, and Nicolai E. Savaskan, published in the June 2003 issue of The FASEB Journal (FASEB J., 2003 Jun;17(9):1153-1155; doi:10.1096/fj.02-0453fje). The editors of The FASEB Journal received a letter from Dr. Annette Gruters-Kieslich at Charite – Universitatsmedizin Berlin stating:
“In the year 2009 a series of reproaches in regard to scientiﬁc misconduct against Dr. Nicolai Savaskan reached the faculty of the Charite – Universitatsmedizin Berlin.”
“One of the manuscripts affected was published in the FASEB J in the year 2003: Meier S, Brauer AU, Heimrich B, Schwab ME, Nitsch R, Savaskan NE. FASEB J. 2003 Jun;17(9):1153–5. A well-recognized and top-class fact ﬁnding commission concluded that the publication contains gross ﬂaws. A key ﬁgure (Figure 14) and the conclusions drawn from it could not be underlined with the corresponding primary data. Therefore, the faculty has requested the senior author Dr. Nicolai Savaskan to retract the publication.”
In light of the “well-recognized and top-class fact ﬁnding” commission’s conclusions and the faculty’s recommendation to retract the article, the article has been retracted and all versions have been removed from the Web site.
Markus Kuehbacher, who brought the flaws in the study to the attention of Charite in 2009, also alerted us to this retraction. The paper has been cited 43 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
But here’s a twist: The retraction, Savaskan tells Retraction Watch:
came as a surprise and entirely contrary to expectations and preceding communication with the Editor-in-Chief Dr. Gerald Weissmann.
The authors had requested an erratum, not a retraction, and the journal had agreed to a correction.
I guess none of the coauthors of this paper do agree with the letter of Dr. Grüters-Kieslich. In contrary, all co-authors agreed on an erratum which was the result of the repetition of the original experiments done in the laboratory of Dr. R. Nitsch in Mainz, the co-senior author of the paper. Dr. Nitsch informed the appropriate university institutions about the data presentation error, repeated the experiments (using the same antibody from Dr. Schwab as 8 years ago!), and submitted an Erratum with experimental data from dedicated re-examinations of Fig. 14.
The data basically reproduce the findings, Savaskan said.
This erratum was considered by the appropriate institutions dealing with issues of good scientific practice at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, the Ombudsman and the president’s office. The result of the assessment of the issue by these institutions was communicated both to Dr. Nitsch and the German Science Foundation (DFG, the equivalent to the NIH), and the outcome was that there was no indication for any scientific misconduct of Dr. Nitsch, rather an honest error appeared in the original paper which could be cleared by a straight repetition of the original data. The editor-in-Chief eventually accepted our erratum, which was supported by consent from all authors, in March 29.
We tried asking the journal why it had reversed course. Weissmann referred us to FASEB’s Office of Publications, which responded:
The journal does not comment on the affairs of specific papers. The retraction is consistent with the journal’s policies, and the reason for retraction is stated in the retraction itself.
We also tried contacting Grüters-Kieslich for more details about the investigations, but she didn’t respond.
In the meantime, Savaskan, who left Charite for postdoctoral training at the end of 2003 and is now at University Medical School Erlangen, had lots to say about the Charite commissions:
I should make the fact clear that the ‘top-class fact finding commission’ at the Charité as referred to by Dr. Grüters-Kieslich in her letter to the FASEB Journal (and cited in the retraction note) neither performed a proper hearing of myself nor contacted, informed or involved any of the co-authors working at other institutions. This latter fact totally ignores the regulations for good scientific practice and is against legal regulations.
This commission was in fact the second commission on this issue, and the first commission filed its report requiring an erratum on a data presentation error in figure 14 of our paper (which we regretfully have to admit). However, this error was not involving any original data (rather a wrong and evident miscalculation of a quantitative assessment of an actin blot, which, however, does not alter the underlying data at all), and this first commission formally stated that there was no proof of scientific misconduct.
The Charité, for reasons you might understand below, started a second commission, from which some members of had left during current proceedings for serious procedural lapses. This commission concluded that although original quantitative data for figure 14 exist and were found the archives, an error in the histogram in figure 14 was published that supports the suspicion of data manipulation and suggested that the paper should be therefore retracted.
A Charite press release about that second commission, which we translated roughly from German, said there was suspicion of data manipulation, but that it was not “court-proof evidence.” The release said that a third, independent commission would look for that evidence. Grüters-Kieslich, meanwhile, requested that the paper be retracted.
Savaskan disagrees with the move, and the authors want to see it reversed.
Still, we believe that all key findings of this paper are accurate and valid, and that the data presentation error in one out of 16 figures in total, as deplorable as it is, is no reason for retraction of data which are reproducible and have been published by independent labs.
We’ll update with anything we find out.