When it comes to image integrity, all papers are equal. But some papers appear more equal than others. A 2017 paper published in Elsevier’s journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine that included an image with lots of repetitive elements was not retracted, but instead received only a very mild correction for “an inadvertent mistake for Figure 3,B” (sic). One of the senior authors also happens to be an Associate Editor of the journal, raising questions about whether the investigation could have been carried out in an objective way.
Treating Myopia with Mycelles
The paper, “Ion-paired pirenzepine-loaded micelles as an ophthalmic delivery system for the treatment of myopia“, by Yanan Li et al, was published in Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine Volume 13, Issue 6, August 2017, Pages 2079-2089, DOI 10.1016/j.nano.2017.05.001 [PubPeer].
The paper describes a method to efficiently deliver a drug named pirenzepine (PRZ) — designed to treat nearsightedness (myopia) — to the inner regions of the eye. PRZ is a very hydrophilic molecule, so therefore cannot easily travel through the cornea. In the paper, PRZ is incorporated into tiny soap-like bubbles, called micelles, which help the drug pass through the cornea to reach the inner part of the eye.
An image of tiny bubbles
Figure 3B purports to show an electron microscope photo of the PRZ micelles. Here is the image as it originally appeared in the paper.
In the paper, Figure 3B is used to show the shapes and size distribution of the micelles, allowing the authors to conclude that the micelles “exhibited a relatively uniform spherical shape”.
Upon close inspection of this figure, however, things just didn’t seem right. Some of the black dots, the micelles, looked unexpectedly similar to each other. I have marked most of these areas on the image below, using rounded boxes of the same color and shape. You might even find a couple more of those repetitive areas!
An inadvertent mistake?
It seems very, very hard to think of circumstances that might lead multiple areas in a photographic image to become accidentally repeated. Figure 3B has a fairly high resolution, so these repetitions do not appear to be a compression artifact. It is nearly impossible that such repeats happened as the result of an “an inadvertent mistake”.
The repetitive areas are also picked up using the image forensics tool Forensically, which suggests that these are not just similar shapes, but pixel-to-pixel identicalities.
Of course, I cannot know what really happened to the image to cause these repeats. But the authors did admit something went wrong and replaced the image, without providing any explanation about what exactly occurred. They also referred to this as a “replicated image,” which is a cryptic way to describe an image with many internally repeating features.
The new image, remade years after the initial experiment, shows a much less uniform or spherical shape of the micelles. And allowing an image with repetitive features to be replaced with an entirely new photo feels like the equivalent of allowing a winner of the Tour De France to replace their positive urine sample with a clean one three years later.
Dozens of papers with image concerns
The two senior authors on this paper, Thomas J. Webster and Yan Shen, both listed the Department of Chemical Engineering, Northeastern University, Boston, MA as their affiliation.
Shen was a visiting scholar at Northeastern for one year, and is now an associate professor at China Pharmaceutical University.
Webster is a professor at Northeastern University’s College of Engineering. However, his lab’s website Websternano.org, which featured many photos of the PI, appears to have disappeared (archived here).
Professor Webster has over 60 papers with PubPeer posts, most of which raise concerns about possible duplicated images within the same paper, or image reuse across different papers without proper attribution. A couple of papers appear to have images with repeating areas within the same photo, much like the image discussed above.
I reported these papers to the journals and also to Northeastern University in March 2020, but have not heard back yet with any update. In fact, Northeastern University never even acknowledged receipt of my email, even though I sent it to three of their research integrity/deans. Update November 16: Northeastern University acknowledged today that they received my email in March and that they are working on the case.
Editorial conflicts of interest
At least a dozen of the 60 papers posted on PubPeer were published in the International Journal of Nanomedicine, of which Webster is the Editor in Chief, as discussed by Leonid Schneider in his post “Thomas Webster to save the world with COVID-19 nanoparticles“.
Webster also happens to be an Associate Editor of the journal in which this paper has been published, Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.
In general, it is hard to accept that a journal could objectively investigate potential concerns in papers authored by its own Editor in Chief or Associate Editor. It would be like asking a student to grade their own paper and expecting them to be objective, or asking a CEO to fairly determine how high their own annual bonus should be.
In this case, it appears that the Editorial Board of the journal decided to be exceptionally lenient, seeking only a mild correction instead of retracting the paper.
But then this was a paper written by one of their own.
Not according to COPE guidelines
As of today, just six of the 60+ Webster papers reported in March this year have been corrected. Even though I reported them to the journals and to the institution, I was not notified by the Editors or Research Integrity Officers in what seems to be a violation of COPE guidelines. COPE, the Committee on Publishing Ethics has issued several guidelines and flowcharts stating that the reader should be informed of the outcome of investigations of image or other data problems in scientific papers. This did not happen in any of the six corrections so far — nor in many other cases.
And addressing image alteration with a correction also seems not in line with COPE guidelines, which recommend retraction in the case of image manipulation. Again, I am not sure if the image was manipulated, but it seems the most likely explanation, and the authors did not deny that this was the case.
This Image is Fine Award
So for addressing a — what appears to be — manipulated photo in a scientific paper with a mere correction, Elsevier’s Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine has earned the third presentation of the “This Image Is Fine” Award.