Curious Dr. George | Plumbing the Core and Nibbling at the Margins of Cancer

Leading Retractions in the Cancer Research Literature

Ivan Oransky, MD, is co-founder of Retraction Watch. Oransky is Distinguished Writer In Residence at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, and editor at large of MedPage Today. Adam Marcus is also co-founder of Retraction Watch. Oransky is Distinguished Writer In Residence at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, and managing editor of Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News.

Q: You founded “Retraction Watch” in 2010. It has flourished and filled a substantial niche. In your view, what are the most important retractions or corrections in the cancer literature to date?

A: Without passing judgment on the integrity of cancer research broadly speaking, we have indeed seen several significant cases involving retractions in this field.
Topping the list almost certainly is Anil Potti, formerly of Duke University, whose promising work in oncogenomics – using genetic information to fine-tune chemotherapy – proved to be largely fabricated. Potti’s misconduct helped trigger at least a dozen now-settled lawsuits brought by patients against Duke, and lead to the retraction of 11 papers on which he was a co-author.
Although Duke cut ties with Potti in 2010, the same cannot be said for The Ohio State University and one of its star oncology researchers, Carlo Croce. Croce, chair of the department of cancer biology and genetics at Ohio State, has been under a cloud of suspicion at the institution at various times since the 1990s, but never sanctioned. Although he has at least six retractions to his name, and more than 20 publications with corrections, expressions of concern and other red flags, he has managed to survive several misconduct investigations. He even won a major award this year. One of Croce’s frequent co-authors, Alfredo Fusco, of Naples, Italy, is also on shaky ground. Fusco has lost nine papers to retraction and was under criminal investigation in 2012 for manipulating images in articles and grant applications. According to Nature, Fusco is believed to have employed the services of a professional photography firm to help him prepare his figures.
Even some of the world’s leading oncology researchers have been caught up in misconduct scandals, although not always of their own making. Robert Weinberg of MIT, for example, has had four articles retracted because a former student of his, Scott Valastyan, appears to have improperly reported the data in the studies. (Weinberg has a fifth retraction, of a 2003 paper in Cancer Cell, that did not include Valastyan.)
And Bharat Aggarwal, another highly cited cancer researcher, formerly of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, has 18 retractions, earning him a spot, at the time of this writing, on our leaderboard.
For sheer volume, we have to single out the recent misfortune at Tumor Biology. The journal was forced to retract 107 papers at a single go after editors learned that they had been victimized in a peer-review scam. (The journal purged 25 articles last year for related reasons.) The authors of the tainted studies all appeared to be based in China. Many of them provided the journal with the names of real scientists but used bogus email addresses that they controlled. Others are believed to have worked with third parties in China that facilitate the publishing of scientific papers.
To anticipate a typical query: Whether cancer research has a higher rate of retraction than other fields is unclear, partly because much research into basic cancer biology is categorized into various areas so the denominator is vague. But we hope our retraction database — still in formation at the time of this writing — will help answer questions like these.
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