Northeastern University professor with 69 papers on PubPeer has resigned

A chemistry professor at Northeastern University in Boston, MA who has almost 70 papers flagged on PubPeer resigned yesterday, May 4, 2021.

On his blog For Better Science (Update May 5, at the bottom), Leonid Schneider shared an email from the Chair of the Department of Engineering, which states that Thomas J Webster has resigned from the university.

Webster has 69 papers flagged on PubPeer, mostly for concerns about image irregularities. I reported 59 to the journals and institution in March 2020.

Some of these papers, which appeared to have duplications of features within the same photo, were quietly corrected. Perhaps coincidentally, these had been published in the Elsevier journal Nanomedicine : Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine, where Webster is an Associate Editor. See e.g. here and here.

The apparent duplications in the colorful image on the right below this text were explained by the first author on PubPeer as “the voltage of the instrument is not insufficient in that time, so that the carbon membrane (which was bought homemade) on the copper screen may affect the background and the resolution of the picture, which leads to this fuzzy image, bringing you some identification troubles” — sort of blaming me for seeing these duplications. You may remember that I awarded the journal a This Image Is Fine Award in November 2020.

The image got replaced with something less obnoxious, without the journal even blinking when the authors wrote “there was an inadvertent mistake for Figure 3, B which appeared as a replicated image”. In my professional opinion, both images contain duplicated parts — and both papers should have been retracted. But the journal had a severe conflict of interest in both cases. One of the senior authors is an Associate Editor at the journal, so the papers were not handled according to COPE guidelines.

Two examples of papers with severe image concerns, published in a journal where one of the senior author serves on the Editorial Board. In both cases, the authors were allowed to replace these figures with a clean panel, and the paper got a correction. From: https://pubpeer.com/publications/582FCA40E662923EAC611828E80CBE and https://pubpeer.com/publications/8994973E1DC6C384321CBAC47F273C

Several other papers with image problems were published in Dove’s International Journal of Nanomedicine, where Webster is the founding Editor-in-Chief, and not surprisingly these have not been acted upon. It is always complicated to investigate such cases if one of the authors is the founding father of the journal.

Despite the muddy corrections at the journals, it has to be said that Northeastern University appears to have handled this case appropriately and swiftly.

As reported by For Better Science, the Webster lab was suspended in November 2020, and now in May 2021 Webster has left the university.

Still, only 8 of these 69 papers have been corrected so far (and as we have seen above, that was not always a good decision), while as of today zero papers have been retracted. I hope the university will contact the journals with the findings of their investigation, advising them which of these cases involved research misconduct.

3 thoughts on “Northeastern University professor with 69 papers on PubPeer has resigned”

  1. You implied Thomas Webster resigned because of academic dishonesty, which is not the true. Quote from a anonymous at Northeastern, “the committee that Northeastern hired to investigate and cleared Thomas Webster”, “the overall conclusion of the Panel was that the Respondent had not intentionally fabricated or falsified data”, and “Thomas Webster resigned due to personal reason”.

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