Concerns about a top immunology lab

This post is not an accusation of misconduct.

Five years ago, in 2014, I reported three papers from the same lab with possible image duplications to the journals in which they had been published. One of these papers has since then been corrected – although I argued in a previous post about this paper that a retraction might have been a better decision. The other two papers are still untouched, unfortunately.

Since the journals and authors had had 5 years to respond, I posted my concerns about these three papers on PubPeer, so that at least researchers with the PubPeer extension can see that they have been “flagged”. I also found a couple more papers from this lab – headed by Dr. Xuetao Cao – that appeared to have problems and I posted these as well.

And then someone pointed out that the senior author on these papers was one of the top immunologists in China.

From then on, my Twitter feed and email box started to overflow with requests for interviews and strong opinions. Some of the initial requests for interviews had to be suddenly withdrawn because “the story was banned” (the journalist’s words). I also heard that some posts about this story had been deleted from Chinese social media.

This has happened before with stories that question the integrity of members of the Chinese Academies, such as what happened earlier this year with Ding Ma, an Academician from Tongji Hospital. In that case, the hospital quickly decided that all of the 20 or so papers posted to PubPeer from this cancer researcher just contained honest errors, and that no misconduct had been committed. Several social media post about this story were suddenly gone, and at least one account was suspended, as per very reliable source.

But this new story about Xuetao Cao did not disappear. It quickly became a trending topic on several Chinese news and social media sites, with some posts getting millions of views.

As this story was gaining attention in the news, I kept on finding more potential image problems in the papers from this researcher, with contributions from Smut Clyde and other pseudonymous persons. Once we were done screening all 300 or so research papers by Cao et al., over 60 papers had been discussed on PubPeer. That is about one in five.

Together with other contributors, Leonid Schneider and Smut Clyde did an extensive investigation, and wrote two blog posts explaining the story and giving some background about Dr. Cao’s work and accomplishments. So I will just refer to their posts here:

The Teachings of Chairman Cao – Leonid Schneider – For Better Science

“Promote scientific spirit, build Chinese school of thought” – Leonid Schneider and Smut Clyde – For Better Science

On Sunday, Dr. Cao posted a response on PubPeer, in which he wrote that the papers with PubPeer posts had been conducted at the National Key Laboratory of Medical Immunology and Institute of Immunology at the Second Military Medical University. He stated that he had made these concerns his highest priority, and that he had launched an investigation.

Of interest, in that particular post, I had raised questions about two images that looked very similar. Others were quickly to point out that these images were actually supposed to look similar.

However, many other papers flagged on PubPeer from Cao’s group have more serious problems, such as flow cytometry images with repeating patterns.

Here are some links to news sites running this story.

I might update this list as other articles might come out.

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