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Prestigious cancer research institute has retracted 7 studies amid controversy over errors

The episode has imperiled the reputation of the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and raised questions about the work of one high-profile researcher.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Seven studies from researchers at the prestigious Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have been retracted over the last two months after a scientist blogger alleged that images used in them had been manipulated or duplicated.

The retractions are the latest development in a monthslong controversy around research at the Boston-based institute, which is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. 

The issue came to light after Sholto David, a microbiologist and volunteer science sleuth based in Wales, published a scathing post on his blog in January, alleging errors and manipulations of images across dozens of papers produced primarily by Dana-Farber researchers. The institute acknowledged errors and subsequently announced that it had requested six studies to be retracted and asked for corrections in 31 more papers. Dana-Farber also said, however, that a review process for errors had been underway before David’s post. 

Now, at least one more study has been retracted than Dana-Farber initially indicated, and David said he has discovered an additional 30 studies from authors affiliated with the institute that he believes contain errors or image manipulations and therefore deserve scrutiny.

The episode has imperiled the reputation of a major cancer research institute and raised questions about one high-profile researcher there, Kenneth Anderson, who is a senior author on six of the seven retracted studies. 

Anderson is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber. He did not respond to multiple emails or voicemails requesting comment. 

The retractions and new allegations add to a larger, ongoing debate in science about how to protect scientific integrity and reduce the incentives that could lead to misconduct or unintentional mistakes in research. 

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has moved relatively swiftly to seek retractions and corrections. 

“Dana-Farber is deeply committed to a culture of accountability and integrity, and as an academic research and clinical care organization we also prioritize transparency,” Dr. Barrett Rollins, the institute’s integrity research officer, said in a statement. “However, we are bound by federal regulations that apply to all academic medical centers funded by the National Institutes of Health among other federal agencies. Therefore, we cannot share details of internal review processes and will not comment on personnel issues.”

The retracted studies were originally published in two journals: One in the Journal of Immunology and six in Cancer Research. Six of the seven focused on multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that develops in plasma cells. Retraction notices indicate that Anderson agreed to the retractions of the papers he authored.

Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist and longtime image sleuth, reviewed several of the papers’ retraction statements and scientific images for NBC News and said the errors were serious. 

“The ones I’m looking at all have duplicated elements in the photos, where the photo itself has been manipulated,” she said, adding that these elements were “signs of misconduct.” 

Dr.  John Chute, who directs the division of hematology and cellular therapy at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and has contributed to studies about multiple myeloma, said the papers were produced by pioneers in the field, including Anderson. 

“These are people I admire and respect,” he said. “Those were all high-impact papers, meaning they’re highly read and highly cited. By definition, they have had a broad impact on the field.” 

Chute said he did not know the authors personally but had followed their work for a long time.

“Those investigators are some of the leading people in the field of myeloma research and they have paved the way in terms of understanding our biology of the disease,” he said. “The papers they publish lead to all kinds of additional work in that direction. People follow those leads and industry pays attention to that stuff and drug development follows.”

The retractions offer additional evidence for what some science sleuths have been saying for years: The more you look for errors or image manipulation, the more you might find, even at the top levels of science. 

Scientific images in papers are typically used to present evidence of an experiment’s results. Commonly, they show cells or mice; other types of images show key findings like western blots — a laboratory method that identifies proteins — or bands of separated DNA molecules in gels. 

Science sleuths sometimes examine these images for irregular patterns that could indicate errors, duplications or manipulations. Some artificial intelligence companies are training computers to spot these kinds of problems, as well. 

Duplicated images could be a sign of sloppy lab work or data practices. Manipulated images — in which a researcher has modified an image heavily with photo editing tools — could indicate that images have been exaggerated, enhanced or altered in an unethical way that could change how other scientists interpret a study’s findings or scientific meaning. 

Top scientists at big research institutions often run sprawling laboratories with lots of junior scientists. Critics of science research and publishing systems allege that a lack of opportunities for young scientists, limited oversight and pressure to publish splashy papers that can advance careers could incentivize misconduct. 

These critics, along with many science sleuths, allege that errors or sloppiness are too common, that research organizations and authors often ignore concerns when they’re identified, and that the path from complaint to correction is sluggish. 

“When you look at the amount of retractions and poor peer review in research today, the question is, what has happened to the quality standards we used to think existed in research?” said Nick Steneck, an emeritus professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on science integrity.

David told NBC News that he had shared some, but not all, of his concerns about additional image issues with Dana-Farber. He added that he had not identified any problems in four of the seven studies that have been retracted. 

“It’s good they’ve picked up stuff that wasn’t in the list,” he said. 

NBC News requested an updated tally of retractions and corrections, but Ellen Berlin, a spokeswoman for Dana-Farber, declined to provide a new list. She said that the numbers could shift and that the institute did not have control over the form, format or timing of corrections. 

“Any tally we give you today might be different tomorrow and will likely be different a week from now or a month from now,” Berlin said. “The point of sharing numbers with the public weeks ago was to make clear to the public that Dana-Farber had taken swift and decisive action with regard to the articles for which a Dana-Farber faculty member was primary author.” 

She added that Dana-Farber was encouraging journals to correct the scientific record as promptly as possible. 

Bik said it was unusual to see a highly regarded U.S. institution have multiple papers retracted. 

“I don’t think I’ve seen many of those,” she said. “In this case, there was a lot of public attention to it and it seems like they’re responding very quickly. It’s unusual, but how it should be.”