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When science is wrong

Retraction, definition: the action of drawing something back; withdrawing after having been presented or published.


The latest announcement of retraction of medical research papers involves a post-doctoral cancer researcher. Ritankar Majumdar, PhD. was found to have falsified data on cancer projects conducted under the auspices of the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, and funded by the US Public Health Service.

The Office of Research Integrity found that Majumdar engaged in research misconduct in one published paper, one manuscript, and fifteen presentations, as well as lying on three grant applications.

Majumdar’s ‘knowing and reckless’ offenses included:

  • falsifying and/or fabricating electron microscopic image data;

  • presenting microscopic images from the same source and falsely relabeling them to represent different experimental results - this included copying, rotating, resizing the original images;

  • falsifying and/or fabricating lab test image data to give the impression of certain cell responses that did not occur;

  • lifting still images from a movie of microscopic activity and presenting them in the reverse order.

Dr. Majumdar currently works at the University of Michigan, where his cancer research must be supervised for one year.

Are we reassured now?

Retractions of published medical papers have been increasing in recent years, including 258 retracted covid papers to date, according to Retraction Watch.

The shift in the reasons for retractions, from ‘honest mistakes’ toward an abundance of fraud and misconduct, was identified back in 2012, and continues.

Even Nobel Prize winners have retracted papers.

Linda Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine for the co-discovery of genes that code for nerve endings that allow us to experience smell. A few years later, Buck retracted three papers, including one that was published before she won her Nobel. Despite her name on the original papers, she admitted that her lab was unable to get the same results when they later repeated the experiments. She blamed this on the faulty work of a post-doctoral researcher.

There is an unwritten rule of complicity in the medical research world, who lauded Dr. Buck for being honest and bringing the faulty research to light, while making no comments whatsoever as to her culpability as a prominent author of the paper, much less for being the director of the lab where the blamed researcher did the experiments.

It begs the question, that if you’re laying the entire blame on the post-doc who was working under you in the lab, what was your name doing on the paper in the first place?

Just a year before winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for studies of the circadian rhythm, Michael Rosbash retracted a paper that had announced a newly discovered association between light and temperature on the sleep/wake cycle. It was only when a team at an unrelated lab could not get the same results that Rosbash ran the experiment again, and likewise failed.

There was no explanation, except an ‘Oops!’, but this was a gross omission of the basic responsibility to verify one’s results before rushing to publish.

Harvard’s Jack Szostak, who won the 2009 Nobel for telomere research, had to retract an unrelated 2016 paper for the same reason – inability to get the same results when the experiments were run by another lab. When tried again in the original lab, Szostak’s team identified some key errors.

At least Szostak had the decency to admit he was “definitely embarrased” by the mistakes made in his lab.

When the 2011 Nobel laureate Bruce Beutler retracted a paper on immune reactions, it was stated that, “Although some of the data shown in the paper may be correct, the core observations and conclusions are not.”

How could some of the data, and incorrect core observations and conclusions, get past a world class researcher and expert in the field?

Beutler was listed as the last of 18 authors, and no doubt his name served to boost credibility and enhance chances of the journal’s acceptance of the manuscript.

What about responsibility for the research for which one is claiming authorship?

There is no professional discourse of the higher degree of responsibility that should perhaps be borne by big name researchers – the very scientists that get awarded prominent posts at prestigious institutions, attract generous federal funding, and are usually shoo-ins for getting articles accepted for publication.

Should not these preeminent scientists be expected to at least verify results before publishing?

You can read the detailed stories of research integrity in the new book, Heroes & Scoundrels: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Check in with this blog for a future article on the flip side of the retraction issue, when authors are penalized for challenging traditional medical dogma.

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