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Duke pulmonary researchers hit with paper retractions

A group of Duke pulmonary researchers has had a string of recent paper retractions from several scientific journals.

Six of the retracted papers have two authors in common—William Michael Foster, research professor of medicine at the Duke University Medical Center, and Erin Potts-Kant, who was arrested in 2013 on charges of embezzling more than $14,000 from Duke to purchase merchandise for personal reasons. Although there are no direct mentions of Potts-Kant's arrest, retraction notices for the different papers cite “unreliable” and “inconsistent” primary data. The notices put forth by the scientific journals make no mention of official scientific misconduct being involved, but do report that the authors brought inconsistencies in data to the attention of journal editors.

“When researchers are honest about the reasons for retraction, and it’s an honest error, they don’t seem to suffer much in the way of consequences for their careers,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which reported on the Duke paper retractions. “But when there’s fraud or misconduct involved, it tends to be more serious.”

The first paper retraction for Potts-Kant occurred in 2013, involving research on ozone exposure’s effect on airway hyperresponsiveness. The retraction notice published by the Journal of Applied Physiology cited reasons including “primary data…inconsistent with the machine-generated raw data,” which made certain figures in the paper unreliable. The second retraction—which was from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 for a paper involving anti-inflammatory asthma therapy—cited the same reasons.

The third resulted from the authors repeating one of the main experiments of the paper and finding no evidence for their original conclusions, and the fourth retraction was due to inconsistent data that “could not be traced back to their source." The last few retractions, which occurred between April and July 2015, cited similar reasons as the others, including problems with reliability of data. The studies were all done using mice. 

Although scientific misconduct—commonly defined as the falsification, fabrication or plagiarism of data—is not cited in any of the retraction notices, Duke’s investigations into scientific misconduct cases typically fall on the University's Standing Committee on Misconduct in Research, which will determine the need of a formal investigation.

"If the University is doing an investigation into a potential problem with a paper, it behooves them to look at more papers,” Oransky said. “That’s why you typically see retractions that cluster. These things tend to happen all at once—although the retractions don’t always come out at once, because different journals are slower than others.”

Potts-Kant, Foster and the School of Medicine's Office of Research Integrity could not be reached for comment.

The retractions related to pulmonary research have come at approximately the same time as national attention has been given to the fallout regarding the Anil Potti case—which was settled early this summer and dealt with fraudulent research that made it seem like Potti could use models to customize a patient's cancer treatment—meaning that research integrity will likely continue to be emphasized in the School of Medicine and across campus. 

Update: This story was updated Friday afternoon to note that mice were used in the study to avoid any ambiguity. 


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