Former member’s misconduct causes third retraction for lab

Image manipulation has forced retraction of Oxford unit’s Cell Metabolism paper

February 13, 2014

The laboratory of Frances Ashcroft, the Oxford geneticist, has suffered its third retraction in three years after an investigation found that a former member of her research group had committed research misconduct.

According to the retraction notice for “Nicotinamide nucleotide transhydrogenase: a key role in insulin secretion”, which Cell Metabolism published in 2006, it has been retracted because of image manipulation discovered during an investigation by the Medical Research Council into the paper’s first author, former PhD student Helen Freeman.

It adds that the relevant experiments have been repeated successfully by other members of the group of Professor Ashcroft, Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline research professor at the University of Oxford.

Nevertheless, “given the conclusion of scientific misconduct against the first author, the authors think the most responsible course is to retract the paper”.

An image in another 2006 paper of which Dr Freeman is first author, published in the journal Diabetes, has also been replaced in light of the investigation’s finding that the original image had been “inappropriately manipulated” by Dr Freeman.

As noted by the Retraction Watch website, Professor Ashcroft’s lab has had two other papers retracted recently, although Dr Freeman was not involved. A 2007 Journal of Neuroscience paper was retracted in 2011, as was a 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper the following year. Postdoctoral researcher Xiaosong Ma was first author of both. An Oxford spokesman said that a university investigation had found “problems” in his data presentation. “But [he] had moved back to China and could no longer be contacted…No others were involved.”

Tony Peatfield, director of corporate affairs at the MRC, said that it had investigated Dr Freeman because she had been working at the MRC’s Mammalian Genetics Unit at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. He added that it had found no evidence of misconduct by anyone else. As she was no longer active in research, no formal sanctions against her had been initiated.

Professor Ashcroft declined to comment.

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Reader's comments (1)

From the University of Oxford news & information office: Here is the full response we provided to the Times Higher Education. It included a statement and background information. Professor Frances Ashcroft was aware we were responding on behalf of the University and had seen the text that was to be sent. A University of Oxford spokesperson said: ‘There are two different occasions under which journal publications have been retracted or corrected, following investigations into the actions of two separate individuals who had been members of the same research group. ‘In neither case were co-authors or any other member of the group involved. ‘The two cases were not connected and involved different types of research.’ ‘In the case of Helen Freeman, the work in question was carried out elsewhere in a different laboratory.’ Notes An MRC investigation found that there had been scientific misconduct by Helen Freeman in the likely manipulation of figures of gel images. The work in question was carried out at MRC Harwell and so the MRC instigated an investigation. This was during her time as a DPhil student at Oxford University, jointly supervised by Professor Frances Ashcroft and Professor Roger Cox of MRC Harwell. The investigation found that there had been no scientific misconduct by any other co-author of the two publications involved. On receiving allegations after Dr Freeman had moved on from Oxford, the experiments concerned were repeated and similar data were obtained. The journals involved were informed of the allegations and that they would be investigated. On the conclusion of the MRC investigation, the journals involved were contacted again to make sure the published record was corrected. The separate case involved a postdoctoral researcher Dr Ma. A University of Oxford investigation found that there were problems in his data presentation, but Dr Ma had moved back to China and could no longer be contacted. The investigation found that no others were involved. Two journal papers were retracted.

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