Spat between rival research teams blamed on 'science scoop' pressure

'Flawed' Stanford paper denies full credit to earlier work, competitors claim. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 13, 2008

A group of leading international academics has claimed that a rival research team at Stanford University in the US has failed to give appropriate acknowledgement to their pioneering work in a paper published in the prestigious journal Cell.

The case pits world-class academics in Cambridge, Sheffield, the US and France against a team at Stanford's School of Medicine. It has raised wider concerns about the pressure facing researchers to produce "scientific scoops" and to get their work published in the top journals.

At issue is a paper in an area of cell biology known as planar cell polarity, which looks at how cells "orientate" themselves. Published in Cell on 13 June 2008, the paper by Chen et al comes from the laboratory of Jeffrey Axelrod, an associate professor in the department of pathology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Entitled "Asymmetric homotypic interactions of the atypical cadherin flamingo mediate intercellular polarity signaling", it places the so-called "flamingo" gene at the centre of planar cell polarity.

But five researchers from four different research groups across three countries have all complained that the discovery is not as new as the paper suggests, and that the paper does not properly credit their own, earlier, findings.

Peter Lawrence, from the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, was the lead author of a paper on the same subject in October 2004 in the specialist journal Development, titled "Cell interactions and planar polarity in the abdominal epidermis of drosophila".

In a letter of complaint to Cell, Professor Lawrence wrote that the Cell paper is "seriously flawed" in that it "presents their view of flamingo in planar cell polarity as having arisen from previous work of Axelrod and colleagues".

"But, in fact, most of the experiments and conclusions in the new paper are largely the same as in our 2004 paper."

He said that in view of the prestige of Cell, his group's results may not receive the credit they deserve.

Professor Lawrence is joined in his complaint about the paper by four researchers - David Strutt from the University of Sheffield, Jean-Francois Le Garrec, based in France, and Marek Mlodzik and Gary Struhl, who work in the US. They have complained that the Cell paper uses "similar or identical arguments and experiments" to come to the "same general conclusions" which are then "present(ed) ... as novel".

While the Cell paper does cite earlier work, the researchers claim that it does not "cite them properly" for the conclusions they reached, and that two papers from which the Cell paper draws key conclusions "should have been cited ... and were not".

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Lawrence said that the Cell paper "does not make it clear to the reader that our work precedes and prefigures what they have done".

Professor Lawrence added that he was concerned that he would not only lose the scientific credit for his work but also the citations by other researchers, and possibly future grants. "It has concrete, almost financial, consequences," he said.

He added that the situation was a symptom of a wider problem in the current research culture, whereby top journals would only publish work deemed to be a "scientific scoop".

"There is enormous pressure on authors ... to present their work as if it is much newer than it actually is," he said.

Professor Lawrence also criticised Cell for declining the researchers' requests for an opportunity to make their case in the journal. Instead, Cell suggested that the researchers post comments online. Professor Lawrence rejected this option and has instead had his scientific response published in another journal, Current Biology.

Professor Axelrod said he had been informed of the "specific allegations" only by Times Higher Education.

He said on 23 October: "As is standard, the article underwent a thorough peer-review process prior to acceptance by Cell. We make rigorous efforts in all our research articles to cite the work of others in our field appropriately. I have reviewed the citations in the manuscript in question and they appear to me to be appropriate. In the absence of knowing the specific allegations or their context, it is difficult to respond further."

After being sent four of the letters of complaint, Professor Axelrod added on the 6 November: "Our paper (Chen et al, June 2008) underwent a strict process of peer review prior to publication. Concerns about the review process should be directed to Cell. We stand by our conclusions as stated in the paper, as well as by our use of citations."

Cell declined to respond to questions put by Times Higher Education. However, in a response to the complaint from Professor Lawrence, Cell's senior scientific editor Connie Lee said: "I can only assure you that the reviewers were experts in planar cell polarity and the consensus decision was that the model presented by Chen et al was thought-provoking, well supported and provided a sufficient conceptual advance beyond the existing literature."

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