July 17, 2024

A scientific paper by UW-Madison researchers about a medicinal plant’s potential to treat prostate cancer was retracted last month after the journal said several images appear to be alike.

In another example of questionable research, two papers about cancer detection were retracted in 2022 because the senior scientist listed — at UW-Madison — apparently doesn’t exist.

UW campus

A banner at Bascom Hall celebrates the 175th anniversary of the founding of UW-Madison, the flagship campus of the Universities of Wisconsin. 

The incidents come as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, said last month it is requesting six retractions of published research and correcting 31 other papers. The announcement came after a blogger alleged falsified data in multiple papers, including by Dana-Farber’s top two administrators, a scandal that has reignited national discussion about scientific errors and fraud.

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“At the end of the day, the motivation is to get published,” Ivan Oransky, who teaches medical journalism at New York University and co-founded the Retraction Watch blog, told The Associated Press regarding some of the allegations at Dana-Farber. “When the images don’t match the story you’re trying to tell, you beautify them.”

Hasan Mukhtar, a dermatology professor emeritus at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, is senior author of a paper published in 2015 in the journal PLoS One about a plant extract’s potential to slow progression of prostate cancer. Other UW researchers listed on the paper are Maria Shabbir, Deeba Syed and Rahul Lall.

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On Jan. 11, the journal retracted the article. It said images from five different experiments using western blots, a technique to detect proteins, “appear highly similar.” In addition, 15 images from the paper are similar to those in a paper by another group in 2018, and the origin of the apparently reused images is unclear, the journal editors said.

The western blots “appear more similar than would be expected from independent results” and “question the reliability and validity of these data,” the editors said.

Shabbir didn’t agree with the retraction and provided some underlying data, “but they did not resolve the concerns,” the editors said.

The Wisconsin State Journal couldn’t reach Mukhtar for comment. Shabbir, Syed and Lall are not currently listed in UW-Madison’s online directory.

“UW–Madison takes allegations of research misconduct seriously and pursues allegations against university-affiliated individuals to the extent possible,” university spokesperson Will Cushman said.

Mukhtar was a UW professor from 2002 until his retirement in 2021, Cushman said. In April 2022, when the university was alerted to a discussion on a public online forum about Mukhtar’s research, campus officials initiated an assessment but were unable to interview Mukhtar because of health reasons, Cushman said. In January 2023, PLoS One told UW–Madison it was reviewing the 2015 paper it retracted a year later.

Cushman said academic journals also play an important role in vetting research before it is published and in investigating concerns about published work. “This retraction is an example of the system working as designed,” he said.

In October 2022, the publisher of Journal of Engineering in Medicine retracted two papers, saying their senior author — Giorgos Jimenez, of UW-Madison — “cannot be confirmed at their listed institution.”

The papers, which discuss machine-learning techniques to diagnose skin and lung cancer, were published earlier in 2022. The other authors are listed as being from China.

Jimenez is listed as an author on 10 other papers, according to Retraction Watch, which links to PubPeer, a site that allows anonymous comments on scientific papers.

Even after Sage Publications retracted the two papers listing Jimenez in 2022, his name and alleged UW-Madison affiliation appeared on another paper in March 2023, Retraction Watch noted.

“The university’s options in these types of cases are limited and may include, depending on the circumstances, sending a cease-and-desist letter,” Cushman said.

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