Tuesday 11 April 2023

Papers affected by misconduct: Erratum, correction or retraction?


This week, Retraction Watch drew attention to a case summary of a misconduct investigation by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) into grants and publications by Carlo Spirli, an Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Digestive Diseases, Yale University. This was based on an investigation conducted by Yale University plus analysis by ORI, which is reported with commendable transparency.

The conclusions were stark:

“ORI found that Respondent engaged in research misconduct by knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly falsifying and/or fabricating data included in the following four published papers, two presentations, and three grant applications submitted for PHS funds”. Details of the fabricated material in each of these sources were listed.

I suspect this investigation has been going on for a while; I could find no publications by Dr Spirli since 2019. In response to this report, he will "exclude himself voluntarily for a period of four years beginning on March 28, 2023” from contracting or subcontracting (presumably applying for grants) or serving on US Public Health Service committees. Compared to a French case that I blogged about recently this is a rather more serious outcome, though it nevertheless attracted critical comment on Twitter, and it is less severe than the measures that respondents thought appropriate for misconduct in a recently published survey of Fellows of the National Science Foundation. See Table 5, here.

My focus, here, however, is on another feature, which is similar to the French case. The report concluded that “Respondent will request that the following papers be corrected or retracted”, and then listed three articles published in Hepatology, two from 2012, and another from 2013.

Two of these have already had an ‘erratum’ published in 2022 (more details in Appendix below).

This seems inappropriate for two reasons.

First, according to Elsevier best practice guidelines, ‘an erratum refers to a correction of errors introduced to the article by the publisher’, as opposed to a ‘corrigendum’, which is a correction made on request by the author. 

Dr Spirli has an old CV online dating from 2017, in which he states he is a member of the Editorial Board of Hepatology. One wonders if this influenced the Editor who agreed to listing these two corrections as ‘Erratum’.

Second, though, the other category of ‘Corrigendum’ (i.e. Correction) also seems inappropriate here. We all make mistakes – I’ve got corrections to some of my papers, even though I try to be careful. It is all too easy to upload the wrong figure or miscompute some values when submitting a paper. If the conclusions are not affected by the error, a Correction is appropriate. But where there is a repeated pattern of falsification of data, or evidence that figures have deliberately been manipulated to fit a narrative, then a correction is not appropriate. The accompanying statements for Spirli’s ‘errata’ (see Appendix below) state that the conclusions are not affected. But the ORI report states that there was ‘reckless falsification or fabrication’ of data. Why, we ask ourselves, would an author falsify or fabricate data? The answer is obvious – to make inconclusive, inconsistent or null findings publishable. If the findings were solid in showing a desired result, there would be no need to engage in fraud. And if an author has shown a repeated tendency to engage in fraud, how can we trust the other data in their papers?

So this is a plea to ORI, CNRS, and other institutions, as well as editors, to start being more robust about the need for retraction of articles when misconduct has been demonstrated. Trying to ‘correct’ fraudulent articles is like trying to cut out a bad section from a rotting fish. The whole thing needs to be thrown away if you want to get rid of the stink.


May 4 2022, Erratum to Spirli et al (2012a), Hepatology 2012;56:2363-74. doi: 10.1002/hep.25872

In reference to Spirli et al.,[1] we have become aware of possible errors in Figures 4C, and 5 A, B, and C. Forensic analysis concluded that in Figure 4C, the Actin blot appears to have been spliced and replicated. Therefore, the readings of CC3 as an index of apoptosis induced by Sorafenib are inconclusive. In Figure 5A, splicing is also present in Figure 5A (lane 1 and 12) and 5B (lane 12). These figures intend to show the paradoxical effect of Sorafenib on B-Raf and Raf-1 activity in WT and PC2-defective cells. The phenomenon remains valid, as shown in supplementary Figure 5, where exposure to Raf265, a Raf inhibitor with similar mechanism of Sorafenib generated a similar paradoxical effect. In Figure 5C there is a splice between lines 4 and 6 (effect of the higher concentration-10 μM- sorafenib in PKI treated cells). However, the observation that inhibition of cAMP/PKA with PKI prevents the paradoxical effect of Sorafenib on pERK and proliferation as shown in Figure 6 remains valid and is consistent with the in vivo finding. We believe that within the above limitations, the results and interpretation of the paper remain valid.

In addition to the four problematic figures (‘possible errors’) noted here, the ORI report mentions problems with Figures 3 and 6.

April 17 2022, Erratum to Spirli et al (2012b), Hepatology 2012;55(3):856-68. doi:10.1002/hep.24723

In reference to Spirli et al.,[1] we have become aware of an error in Figure 6A. This figure is intended to show that ER Calcium depletion (in this case using thapsigargin, an inhibitor of SERCA, the pump that allows ER Calcium entry) results in activation of the ERK pathway. The blot shows an example of Western blots from which the averages between phosphorylated ERK and total ERK shown in the bar graphs are then calculated. Forensic analysis concluded that Figure 6A contains lines seemingly duplicated for re-use in separate groups, as the bottom line 1–3 appears the same as lines 4–6. As such this figure should be considered erroneous (or falsified). However, reducing ER Calcium by another mean (chelation by TPEN) still increases ERK phosphorylation, and thus the results and interpretation of the paper remain valid.

17 June 2022, Retraction of Spirli et al (2015), Hepatology 2015 Dec;62(6):1828-39. doi: 10.1002/hep.28138.

The retraction has been agreed upon due to recently verified concerns regarding data authenticity rendering the conclusions uncertain. Several figures included in the article were found to have been falsified.

One can see from the ORI report that this one had so many figure manipulations that it was beyond help. It is the only paper in the report that had been flagged (by an anonymous commenter) on PubPeer.


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