There are doubts about 17 research papers co-authored by 2019 Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Greg Semenza. The case was reported in the journal Nature.
Greg Semenza, who works at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (United States of America), was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with two other scientists. They were honored for discovering how cells feel and adapt to the availability of oxygen in the body. The Nobel Prize-winning work by Semenza was published in the 1990s. On the other hand, the doubts presented by Nature relate to the integrity of images (eg graphs, drawings, illustrations, etc.) with data from the area of molecular biology. These studies were published after the award of the Nobel Prize.
Increase contrast and color balance for clearer results
The integrity of the image with data in scientific articles has been investigated more and more in recent years as digital tools have made it easier for scientists to process results. For example, you can increase contrast and color balance to get clearer results. The numbers may also be misnamed or distorted when the number is set up. Image editing tools can also be used to deliberately falsify the results.
In the 32 articles analyzed so far, Semenza’s name appears in various configurations. For example, appear as author, co-author or corresponding author. The articles describe, inter alia, research on the molecular mechanisms of oxygen detection in various types of cancer as well as vascular function and dysfunction.
Nature journalists maintain that no crime has been proven. Often a single scholarly article is written by several authors, so it is not entirely clear who contributed to the publication. Again, it is not known who could be responsible for any graphics errors or issues. At the same time, Nature notes that even the corresponding authors are responsible for the article’s overall integrity.
Elizabeth Beck – a photo safety consultant from San Francisco, California, is among those who have pointed out irregularities in the Nobel Prize winner’s co-author’s work. She admits that even the best labs and institutes can fall into the trap of “scientific laxity,” but is concerned about the number of articles co-authored by Samenza have already been withdrawn.
The fact that there are now many documents pulled due to the manipulated images and many others that are still under investigation indicates that the forgery was intentional, Beck admits.
The first report of wrongdoing in Samenza’s work appeared in 2015 on PubPeer. However, most doubts have flown in the past couple of years.
Same data as the results of different experiments
In 2021, five journals reviewed five articles for errors – including mislabeled data and visual reuse. In March, the Cancer Research Center reviewed one article and expressed concern about another after the investigation found that the authors had inadvertently provided the same data as the results of different trials and reused data from a previous publication.
In September, the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences retracted four papers on cell biology co-authored by Semenza and revised three more. Editorial notes describe the repeatability of the data. Editors also suspect “braiding” – cutting and moving parts of an image. At the same time, they claim that the publication’s general conclusions remain valid, but they are withdrawing the articles due to concerns about the numbers.
A spokesman for Johns Hopkins University said the institution “maintains the highest standards of accuracy and integrity in research” and takes allegations of non-compliance seriously. He adds that “strict protocols and processes are in place to verify any such allegations and, if necessary, to determine the appropriate course of action.” He declined to disclose details of these audits – or to comment on whether there were any specific allegations against Semenza or his group.
Among the dozens of articles currently under investigation, there is one in Nature Genetics and one in Oncogene, both published by Springer Nature (Nature’s news team is independent of the publisher). Science Signaling, which is looking at two articles, has concluded an investigation into one of them and announced that it will soon publish Incorrect Errors.
A spokesperson for The Journal of Physiology said it took no action on the two articles it studied because original data was not available and “the accuracy of the numbers in the published article was very poor”.
“A mixture of feelings – worries and concerns”
An anonymous person in an interview with Nature, a scientist representing the Nobel laureate’s field, said that while awaiting the results of the investigation, he was accompanied by “a mixture of feelings – anxiety and concern.” Meanwhile, Semenza’s most influential contribution to oxygen detection research – the identification of a protein complex called HIF-1 – is believed to have “survived the scientific test of being reproduced and used by others”.
This is another case of uncertainty regarding research publications in recent months. In July 2022, journalists from Science reported doubts about the fabrication of findings on which several important Alzheimer’s disease studies are based. The main allegation in this case was also the falsification of the photos – “they looked as if they were assembled from fragments of different photos from different experiences.”
Main image source: Michael Reynolds/PAP/EPA
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