Nobel Laureate retracts two papers

The latest issue of Science contains a strange “letter”: a retraction by Linda B. Buck of a 2006 paper in the journal.  In case you don’t know her, Buck won the Medicine/Physiology Nobel Prize in 2004 for absolutely stunning work on olfaction revealing how odors are detected as different by the odor-receptor genes.  (I discuss this work in Chapter 3 of WEIT.)

The retraction is behind a paywall, so I’ve reproduced the entire short letter here:

Retraction

In the Report “Combinatorial Effects of Odorant Mixes in Olfactory Cortex” (1), we described subcellular patterns of Arc (arg3.1) mRNA expression in anterior piriform cortex neurons after mice had been exposed to odorants. We reported that some cortical neurons express Arc in response to a mix of two odorants but not either odorant alone. My laboratory has been unable to reproduce this finding. I am therefore retracting the Report. I sincerely apologize for any confusion that its publication may have caused. Zhihua Zou declined to sign this Retraction.

Linda B. Buck

As reported by The Scientist, she’s also retracted a 2008 paper in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. based on an earlier paper that was also retracted (go to the report for much more information):

These retractions, a 2006 Science paper and a 2005 Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) paper, are tied to a 2001 Nature paper that she retracted in 2008, due to the inability “to reproduce the reported findings” and “inconsistencies between some of the figures and data published in the paper and the original data,” according to the retraction. Zou was the first author on all three papers and responsible for conducting the experiments.

The FHCRC [The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where the work was done] is currently conducting an investigation into the issue, said Kristen Woodward, senior media relations manager, but no findings of misconduct have been made. John Dahlberg of the Office of Research Integrity declined to comment on the matter.

Curiously, although Buck’s letter mentions that “Zhihua Zou declined to sign this Retraction,” The Scientist reports that “the current location of Zou is unknown.” (He doesn’t appear to have an academic or research job.)

Also according to The Scientist, these retractions won’t have a huge impact on the field, and aren’t related to the work for which Buck won her Nobel.

Buck has of course done the right thing, especially by trying to reproduce the results in her own lab.  If this is a case of fraud that Buck wasn’t aware of (and I suspect it is), it shows that senior investigators who employ and nominally supervise a researcher can be duped.  After all, the “boss” doesn’t hang over the minions’ shoulders as they work in the lab.  But investigations may reveal if she should have known at the time about problems with Zou’s work.

h/t: Mr. Moto

12 Comments

  1. andrew
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Holy shit…bio drama going down! It is sorta hinting that zou was making up data.

  2. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Sounds like the Jan Hendrik Schön case all over again.

  3. Posted September 24, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    “Buck has of course done the right thing, especially by trying to reproduce the results in her own lab.”

    That’s how it looks to me, too.

  4. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    The Scientific process at work.
    It beats faith, hands down.

    • Neil
      Posted September 24, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Both mistakes and fraud can happen, but over time science corrects itself and defrauds itself. Of course, the religionists will somehow see the imperfections of the scientific process as somehow proving their own perfection.

  5. Kevin
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Cue Ken Hamm: “This proves Darwin was wrong.”

    Or something like that.

    I thought the godless liberal elite scientists were in thrall to the Trilateral Commission and its goal of imposing Sharia Law via worldwide hegemony through the United Nations, therefore had to check with their Satanist masters before retracting any paper. Otherwise, everyone will find out that George Bush secretly planted explosives in the Twin Towers so that a mosque could be built there in order to stage the next phase of the Islamo-Nazi takeover and impose socialism. It’s all part of the War on Christmas, which was started right after Thomas Jefferson, who was a secret Muslim founded the nation on Christian principles.

    • Posted September 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Brilliant! Write it! You could be the next Dan Brown!

  6. theshortearedowl
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Kudos to Dr. Buck. That must have been a difficult letter to write.

  7. theshortearedowl
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “Otherwise, everyone will find out that George Bush secretly planted explosives in the Twin Towers so that a mosque could be built there in order to stage the next phase of the Islamo-Nazi takeover and impose socialism.”

    Wait… now *Bush* is an Islamo-Nazi Socialist? I thought that was Obama?

    • Kevin
      Posted September 24, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      They’re in it together!!!!eleventy!!!!

    • Sili
      Posted September 25, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Durrrrr. Obama’s just Bush with a mask on. Like those Nixon ones.

      Pay attention, sheeple.

  8. Gareth Price
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    When I was a postdoc my boss was not constantly looking over my shoulder. However, from time to time he would ask to look at some of my raw data and, if he had any doubts about the quality of the data or my interpretation of it, he would ask to see some more.

    If I had been doing poor quality experiments or had produced dubious data, he would have picked up on this.

    I suppose if I had been deliberately trying to deceive him in one way or another, it might have been more difficult for him to spot.


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