Unnamed institution makes baffling retraction requests, journals comply

Two journals are retracting papers published by researchers affiliated with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).

To be frank, we’re baffled by most of this story. The retraction notices say “the institution” requested the retractions, but don’t name it; the first and last authors are also affiliated with the University of Southern California, as well as CHLA. Neither journal will say which institution sent the request, and USC and CHLA have each declined to comment on the retractions.

Here’s what we do know:

Earlier this year, one journal attached a “publisher’s note” to the paper it has now retracted, after learning about potential image duplication problems.

Both papers share the same first author, Ahmed El-Hashash — who declined to comment to us — and last author, David Warburton — who did not respond to our emails and phone messages. El-Hashash now works at Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Institute in China.

The notice posted by the Journal of Cell Science (JCS) for a 2012 paper says:

Journal of Cell Science is retracting this article at the request of the institution. The authors have been notified of this request.

Unfortunately, the journal has no further information on the reasons behind this retraction.

Development issued a similar notice; however, the journal added that it had previously flagged the paper on Feb. 1 for potential image duplication:

This Retraction updates and replaces the Publisher’s Note relating to the above-referenced article. Development is retracting this article at the request of the institution. The authors have been notified of this request.

Unfortunately, the journal has no further information on the reasons behind this retraction.

Sharon Ahmad, executive editor at JCS told us her journal decided to comply with the institute’s retraction request, even though the institute (which she declined to name) wouldn’t tell the journal why it should pull the papers:

it was the most cautious route to take.

On Oct. 2, JCS retracted “‘Eya1 protein phosphatase regulates tight junction formation in lung distal epithelium,” originally published June 8, 2012. The paper has been cited seven times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

The other paper was “Eya1 controls cell polarity, spindle orientation, cell fate and Notch signaling in distal embryonic lung epithelium,” originally published in Development March 8, 2011. The paper, retracted Oct. 17, has been cited 33 times.

Both journals are published by The Company of Biologists.

PubPeer discussions have popped up concerning both papers, as well as other papers from El-Hashash and Warburton.

When we asked USC’s Office of Compliance if it had requested the retraction, it referred us to CHLA. CHLA has not yet answered our questions.

The publisher’s note issued for one of the papers may offer some clues about the nature of the problems. Katherine Brown, executive editor of Development, told us the journal received a tipoff from a reader in late 2016 that the paper contained:

potential duplications in images between the Development paper and a paper in Developmental Biology from the same lab.

We therefore contacted the authors for further information, who referred the matter to their institute…

We prepared [the publisher’s note] as soon as we realised that there would not be a rapid resolution to the situation.

That publisher’s note, issued Feb. 1, said:

We have recently been made aware that several of the panels in Fig. 7 of this article may also appear in a paper from some of the same authors published in Developmental Biology (El-Hashash et al., 2011). We have contacted the authors to alert them to this alleged duplication to enable them to conduct further investigation. We are publishing this Note to inform readers of this situation.

Brown said the journal issued a publisher’s note rather than an expression of concern because it was a “more cautious” term:

At the point at which we published the note, the details surrounding this case were very unclear… Our primary concern was to alert readers to the situation, rather than to worry too much about the rather semantic distinction in terminology, which wouldn’t actually affect the content of the note.

Brown said that she pushed for more information from “the institute” after it requested the article be retracted:

But they were not able to provide any details for reasons of confidentiality.