Concern about stem cell research from KU Leuven and the University of Minnesota

In the past week, I looked at papers from the group of Catherine Verfaillie, who previously worked at the University of Minnesota (USA) and later became the director of the Stem Cell Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven; Belgium). The outcome of this renewed look at a “cold case” was first described by Leonid Schneider in a December 4 post on his For Better Science blog.

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Targeting problematic papers, not countries

Because I recently posted concerns about a set of over 50 papers from a Chinese immunologist, several journalists and scientists have asked me why I targeted a specific professor from a specific country. My answer is that I search for problematic papers, regardless of what country they are from.

As of today, I have posted concerns on PubPeer about 1300 papers. About half of these, 775, were posted in the last 6 months (1 June 2019 – 23 November 2019). I started scanning the biomedical literature for image duplications, plagiarism, and other concerns in 2013. Because I quit my job earlier this year, I now have much more time to spend on finding and reporting papers, which is why more than half of these posts were done in the last 6 months. In total, I have found over 2,000 papers, but I have not yet reported all of these to PubPeer.

My 775 PubPeer posts from the last 6 months discussed papers in 32 different countries on six continents (as determined by the affiliation of the first author). Of these, almost 200 are from the US, and 106 are from China. Here is a map:

My most recent 775 PubPeer posts were about papers from 32 countries, shown here in red. Map created with MapChart.net.

So no, I am not specifically targeting anyone or any country. I am, however, targeting problematic papers, no matter where they come from.

All that glitters is not gold

This blog post is not an accusation of misconduct, and reflects my personal opinion.

This paper has it all. The authors are from Stanford University’s School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. It was published in 2002 in Nature Medicine, and has been cited over 900 times, as per Google Scholar. It even received a prestigious F1000 Recommendation. And it was supported by six NIH grants.

Akbari O et al. Antigen-specific regulatory T cells develop via the ICOS–ICOS-ligand pathway and inhibit allergen-induced airway hyperreactivity. Nature Medicine 8(9), September 2002. DOI: 10.1038/nm745.
It glitters. But is it gold? Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

But all that glitters is not gold. Let’s take a look at some of the flow cytometry images in this paper.

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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.

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John Maddox Prize 2019

Earlier this week, the John Maddox Prize was awarded in a lovely ceremony in the Wellcome Collection in London. The Maddox Prize “recognises the work of individuals who promote science and evidence, advancing the public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility.”

From the Sense About Science website: “The prize is a joint initiative of Sense about Science and the science journal Nature. The late Sir John Maddox, FRS, was editor of Nature for 22 years and a founding trustee of Sense about Science. His daughter Bronwen Maddox is the patron of the prize. The Maddox Prize is funded by the work of the organisations concerned and by public donations.”

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Annamalai University papers in the news

A quick post about some news articles that came out yesterday that report about the set of 200 papers from Annamalai University that I wrote about earlier here and here.