More studies by Columbia cancer researchers retracted

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Scientists at a prominent Columbia University cancer lab have had four studies retracted and a stern note added to a fifth accusing it of “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” the latest fallout from allegations of misconduct. in research recently directed against several prominent cancer scientists. .

A scientific detective in Britain last year discrepancies discovered in the data published by the Columbia laboratory, including the reuse of photographs and other images in different articles. The New York Times reported last month that a medical journal in 2022 had quietly withdrawn a stomach cancer study by researchers after an internal investigation by the journal found ethical violations.

Despite the removal of that study, the researchers (Dr. Sam Yoon, head of a division of cancer surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, and Changhwan Yoon, a younger biologist there, continued to publish studies with suspicious data. Since 2008, the two scientists have collaborated with other researchers on 26 articles that Detective Sholto David, in public marked for distorting the results of the experiments.

One of those articles was retracted last month after The Times asked editors about the allegations. In recent weeks, medical journals have withdrawn three additional studies that described new strategies for the treatment of stomach, head and neck cancer. Other laboratories had cited the articles in approximately 90 articles.

A major scientific publisher also added a strong note to the article it had originally removed without explanation in 2022. “This reuse (and, in part, misrepresentation) of data without proper attribution represents a serious abuse of the scientific publishing system,” it said. saying.

Still, those measures addressed only a small fraction of the lab’s suspicious documents. Experts said the episode illustrates not only the extent of unreliable research conducted by major laboratories, but also the tendency of scientific editors to respond slowly, if at all, to major problems once they are detected. As a result, other laboratories continue to rely on questionable work while pouring federal research money into studies, allowing errors to accumulate in the scientific record.

“For every paper that is retracted, there are probably 10 that should be retracted,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which maintains a database of more than 47,000 retracted studies. “Magazines are not particularly interested in correcting the record.”

Columbia Medical Center declined to comment on the allegations facing Dr. Yoon’s lab. He said the two scientists remained at Columbia and that the hospital “is fully committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards and rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research.”

The laboratory Web page was recently disconnected. Columbia declined to say why. Neither Dr. Yoon nor Changhwan Yoon could be reached for comment. (They are not related).

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where the scientists worked when much of the research was done, is investigating their work.

The retractions by the Columbia scientists come amid growing attention to suspect data underlying some medical research. Since the end of February, medical journals have seven retracted documents by scientists at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This followed investigations into data issues. Posted by Dr. independent molecular biologist who looks for irregularities in published images of cells, tumors, and mice, sometimes with the help of artificial intelligence software.

The avalanche of misconduct allegations has drawn attention to the pressures on academic scientists (even those, like Dr. Yoon, who also work as doctors) to produce reams of research.

For such studies, robust images of experimental results are often needed. Publishing them helps scientists earn prestigious academic appointments and attract federal research grants that can pay dividends for them and their universities.

Dr. Yoon, a robotic surgery specialist known for his treatment of stomach cancers, has helped achieve almost $5 million in federal research money throughout his career.

His lab’s latest retractions included papers from 2020 and 2021 that Dr. David said content obvious irregularities. His results appeared to include identical images of mice affected by tumors, even though those mice had supposedly been subjected to different experiments involving separate treatments and types of cancer cells.

The medical journal Cell Death & Disease retracted two of the latest studies, and Oncogene retracted the third. The magazines found that the studies had also reused other images, such as identical images of constellations of cancer cells.

The studies that Dr. David noted contained imaging problems were largely overseen by the more senior Dr. Yoon. Changhwan Yoon, an associate research scientist who has worked alongside Dr. Yoon for a decade, was often the first author, which generally designates the scientist who performed most of the experiments.

Kun Huang, a scientist in China who supervised one of the recently retracted studies A 2020 article that did not include the senior Dr. Yoon attributed problematic sections of that study to Changhwan Yoon. Dr. Huang, who made those comments this month on PubPeer, a website where scientists publish about studies, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But the senior Dr. Yoon has long been aware of problems in the research he published together with Changhwan Yoon: The two scientists were notified of the removal in January 2022 of their stomach cancer study. which was found to violate ethical guidelines.

Research misconduct is often attributed to younger researchers conducting experiments. Other scientists, however, place more responsibility on senior researchers who run labs and oversee studies, even as they juggle jobs as doctors or administrators.

“The research world is realizing that with great power comes great responsibility and, in fact, one is responsible not only for what one of his direct reports has done in the laboratory, but also for the environment he creates” said Dr. Oransky.

In their latest public retraction notices, the medical journals said they had lost faith in the results and conclusions. Imaging experts said some irregularities identified by Dr David showed signs of deliberate manipulation, such as flipped or rotated images, while others could have been careless copy-and-paste errors.

He journal’s little-noticed removal from stomach cancer study In January 2022, he highlighted the policy of some scientific publishers of not revealing the reasons for the withdrawal of articles as long as they have not yet appeared formally in print. That study appeared only online.

Roland Herzog, editor of the journal Molecular Therapy, said the editors had drafted an explanation that they intended to publish at the time of the article’s removal. But Elsevier, the journal’s parent publisher, warned them that the note was unnecessary, he said.

Only after last month’s Times article did Elsevier agree to publicly explain the article’s removal with the stern note. in a this week’s editorialThe editors of Molecular Therapy said they would explain in the future the removal of any articles that had been published solely online.

But Elsevier said in a statement that it did not consider the online articles “to be the final published articles.” As a result, company policy continues to advise that such items be removed without explanation when they are found to contain problems. The company said it allowed publishers to provide additional information when necessary.

Elsevier, which publishes almost 3,000 journals and generates billions of dollars in annual revenuehas It has long been criticized for its opaque deletions. of online articles.

The Columbia scientists’ papers with data discrepancies that remain unaddressed were largely distributed by three major publishers: Elsevier, Springer Nature, and the American Association for Cancer Research. Dr. David alerted many journals to the data discrepancies in October.

Each editor said it was investigating the concerns. Springer Nature said research takes time because it can involve consulting experts, waiting for responses from authors, and analyzing raw data.

Dr. David has also expressed concern about independently published studies by scientists who collaborated with the Columbia researchers on some of their recently retracted papers. For example, Sandra Ryeom, an associate professor of surgical sciences at Columbia, published a paper in 2003 while she was at Harvard in which Dr. David said contained a duplicate image. As of 2021, she was married to the senior Dr. Yoon, according to a mortgage document from that year.

A medical journal included a formal notice to last week’s article that said “appropriate editorial action will be taken” once concerns about the data have been resolved. Dr. Ryeom said in a statement that she was working with the paper’s lead author to “correct the error.”

Columbia has tried to reinforce the importance of sound research practices. Hours after the Times article appeared last month, Dr. Michael Shelanski, senior associate dean for research at the medical school, sent an email to faculty members titled “Allegations of Research Fraud: How to Protect Yourself” . He warned that such accusations, whatever their merits, could take their toll on the university.

“In the months it can take to investigate an allegation,” Dr. Shelanski wrote, “funding can be suspended and donors may feel their trust has been betrayed.”

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