Japanese Virologist Loses Job, Gets Publishing Ban for Image Manipulation

Dennis Normile
2011-01-19 11:14
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TOKYO—A virologist who has retracted several papers in recent weeks because of problems with images has been dismissed from his position at the University of the Ryukyus in Nishihara, Okinawa, according to university sources. The researcher, Naoki Mori, told ScienceInsider that "duplications and inaccuracies were confined to some of the internal control image data" in the retracted papers. But he claims that experimental data "were portrayed entirely accurately." He confirmed he was dismissed last August and says he is trying to get his job back through legal mediation.

The initial spate of retractions and a description of the alleged image manipulation were reported on 24 December on Retraction Watch. The blog quoted Ferric Fang, editor of Infection and Immunity, on how the University of the Ryukyus had notified him of problems with images in a number of his journal's papers authored by Mori. Prompted by questions raised by another journal, the university had conducted an internal investigation into the work of Mori and his team, according to Fang.

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), publisher of Infection and Immunity, has now retracted five papers by Mori and various co-authors in Fang's journal and three more papers co-authored by Mori in its Journal of Virology. ASM also banned Mori from publishing in any of its journals for 10 years.

Last June, Mori and co-authors retracted two papers in the journal Blood. In identical retraction statements for the Blood papers, Mori takes "full responsibility for the inappropriate duplication and manipulation of the figures" without the knowledge or involvement of any co-authors. Mori and co-authors on 6 January retracted a paper that appeared in Retrovirology in 2006. This retraction states that Mori and the study's first author, Mariko Tomita, also at University of the Ryukyus, take responsibility and that other authors were not involved.

In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, Tomita wrote that the retraction notice was submitted by Mori without her consent. "I agree with the retraction of the paper, but I do not agree that the corresponding author, Naoki Mori, and I bear equal responsibility," she wrote. She stated that she has notified the editors of Retrovirology about her concerns. Morita wrote she has not faced disciplinary action. The university confirmed that her responsibility in the matter is still under investigation.

In a telephone interview and several e-mails to ScienceInsider, Mori states that he reused viral protein expression images from his own published work but did not cite his earlier papers as references. "I acknowledge that I was lax in certain regards in the preparation of our papers, but would like to stress that there was never an intention to manipulate the results or deceive in any way," he wrote.

A statement issued by the university's public relations office in response to questions from ScienceInsider calls the Retraction Watch description "basically accurate." According to the statement, "it can be concluded that ... control experiments were counterfeited." The university says it has no plans to publicly release the investigative committee report. "Considering the significance of inherent controls in DNA expression experiments, there is no choice but to call this fabrication," the statement concludes. The university added that the investigative committee raised questions about 38 papers published in 17 journals and that they were aware of 19 of those being retracted. It did not know the status of the remaining publications.

Mori says that several journals have accepted his group's explanation and are allowing them to submit corrected images. He declined to identify the journals. "What I want to emphasize is that the conclusions won't change because of this problem," he said. He hopes to resume research and restore his reputation.

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