Abbott, Alison and Schwartz, Johanna. "Dubious Data Remain in Print Two Years After
Misconduct Inquiry," Nature 418 (11 July 2002), p. 113.
Many of the 94 scientific papers listed two years ago by a German inquiry as likely to contain
manipulated data have yet to be retrac64d from the literature, Nature has discovered.
The suspect papers were identified during a high-profile investigation into misconduct in German
cancer research, the results of which were published in June 2000.
Nature surveyed 29 journals asking about their response to the inquiry's findings. Twenty
replied, which between them published 60 of the papers. Five said they had retracted all of the
papers (22 in total), one had retracted one of three it had published, and 14 had not retracted any.
Among the 20 journals, seven said they were unaware that the investigation had taken place, and
four more did not know it had been completed.
Scientific leaders and misconduct investigators around the world have long complained that,
even when scientific misconduct is proven, no reliable mechanisms exist to remove bad
information from the literature.
"Somebody must be responsible for informing the journals if papers have been found to contain
wrong data," says Gerhard Neuweiler, a zoologist at the University of Munich and former
president of Germany's science council. "And the journals must find ways to alert the
community. Something must happen, because we can expect misconduct to happen more often in
the future - in particular in biomedicine, where the pressure to publish is very high."
The German inquiry was set up in 1998 by the DFG, the country's main research funding agency.
It was sparked by allegations that cancer researcher Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, who
worked together at the Max Delbruck Centre for Milecular Medicine in Berlin in the early 1990s,
had fabricated data in four papers on drug-resistance genes and cancer therapy (see Nature 387,
A task force headed by Ulf Rapp, a cell biologist from the University of Wurtzburg, examined
347 papers co-authored by the paid in in an attempt to determine the extent of the fabrication.
The task force wrote to all of the journals involved explaining the situation, and requesting
records of the original submissions. It concluded that data in 85 papers and 9 book articles had
either definitely or "highly probably" been manipulated. A German-language report, complete
with a list of suspect papers, was released in 2000 and published on the DFG's website.
But the journals involved were not officially notified of the findings. The main aim of the
investigation was not to clean up the literature, DFG officials explain, but to make sure that
junior scientist whose names were on the papers could be identified and exonerated.
Rapp, however, says he understood that the task force's work would also help to set the
published record straight. He now accuses the DFG of failing to do this by not informing the
journals of the inquiry's conclusions. "I reminded the DFG on multiple occasions," he says.
Some editors, too, were expecting to hear about the outcome of the investiation. Barbara Cohen,
executive editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, says that the original task-force letter
sent in May 1998 promised this. "We are still waiting for the follow-up." she says. A spokesman
for Acta Haematological says that, having heard nothing further from the task for, "we assumed
that the papers were freed from suspicion."
Other editors do not remember the original letter. Mike Kemeny of King's College London, for
example, took over as editor-in-chief of Immunology two years ago. Alerted by Nature's survey,
Kemeny says that he will now "take the issue forward."
Nature's survey also indicates that journals a common policy for retracting papers. Although
most require authors to request retraction, a few editors were prepared to act independently in the
Herrmann and Brach case - partly because Hermann has been advised by his lawyer not to retract
any of his papers.