The University of British Columbia says it has rigorous policies in place to protect the integrity of its research and will investigate allegations of scholarly misconduct, but – citing privacy law – has refused to comment directly on an academic furor unleashed after two UBC researchers had to withdraw published research for a second time.
The two academics, Dr. Christopher Shaw, in the department of ophthalmology, and Dr. Lucija Tomljenovic, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department, were among four authors of a paper published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry on Sept. 5. The paper purported to show a link between aluminum in vaccines and autism in mice. But the paper is being retracted after concerns about its methods and conclusions were raised by commenters on PubPeer, a journal database that allows users to comment on published papers, and elsewhere.
Those concerns included alleged removal of control results and the authors' use of statistical tests. In a Sept. 21 blog post headlined "torturing more mice in the name of anti-vaccine pseudoscience," David Gorski, a professor and surgeon at Wayne State University, questioned the methods used by the authors and characterized the paper as a "fishing expedition."
It is the second time Dr. Shaw and Dr. Tomljenovic, who has a PhD in biochemistry, have had their names on a paper that was withdrawn after publication.
In 2016, the two were among eight authors – Dr. Tomljenovic's name was third and Dr. Shaw's was sixth – who wrote a paper, published in the journal Vaccine, that raised concerns about the HPV vaccine Gardasil. It was withdrawn last year with the editor-in-chief citing "serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article."
In an e-mail Monday, Dr. Shaw distanced himself from that paper, saying the work cited in it was conducted in another lab. A revised version was subsequently published by a different journal.
Gail Murphy, UBC's vice-president of research and innovation, said on Monday the university "holds dear the value of academic freedom" and does not endorse any faculty member's research findings, adding that, "it is up to the scientific community to evaluate research through the peer review process."
The university would not comment directly on the paper being retracted. Prof. Murphy said UBC "believes in being open and transparent while respecting privacy law."
If misconduct is determined, the university would address it through steps that could include contacting research journals, notifying funders of the research and "administering discipline, up to and including termination of a faculty member's appointment," Prof. Murphy said.
Last week, Retraction Watch, a blog that monitors retractions by science journals, said the paper would be retracted. According to Retraction Watch, Dr. Shaw said his lab began investigating the issues raised on PubPeer "within a day" and reported its findings to both UBC and the journal soon after. That analysis showed some figures had been altered, Retraction Watch reported.
Dr. Shaw, citing family commitments, said he was not available for a telephone interview.
But in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Dr. Shaw said the lead author on the 2017 retracted paper, Dr. Dan Li, "took her notebooks and original images from the lab when she left in 2015. This is totally against UBC, and hence lab, policy."
Dr. Shaw said the information and data used as the foundation of the paper are now believed to be in China.
"UBC was informed of this immediately when we heard that there were alternations in some of the data (this would have been on Sept. 24th)," Dr. Shaw wrote.
"My lab assistants and I spent all of Sept. 25th trying to duplicate the bloggers of PubPeer. We also found that some of [the data] seemed altered.
"Some that the bloggers said were altered were not. Regardless, once we contacted Dr. Li and had her answer, we felt that the data were potentially compromised. On Sept. 25th, I submitted our own investigation to Dr. Gail Murphy, UBC's VP Research, and to John Dawson, editor of the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. I also requested that the paper be retracted at that time."
Dr. Shaw also distanced himself and Dr. Tomljenovic from the paper that was withdrawn last year.
Dr. Shaw said he and Dr. Tomljenovic, who once worked in his lab, were only "peripherally involved."
"All of the work was conducted in the lab of the senior author, Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld in Tel Aviv. Hence, to make the claim that this work is "ours" is not correct," Dr. Shaw said in the e-mail.
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, was puzzled by the notion of missing data, saying researchers are trained to hang on to such information.
"This is beaten into your head from the day you start grad school – you have to keep your notebooks, data, everything – this is bizarre to say that the data can't be found," Dr. Schwarcz said.
Dr. Tomljenovic was not immediately available for comment.