The co-lead author of an olfactory paper retracted yesterday from Nature by Nobel laureate Linda Buck says he stands behind the conclusions and does not admit any wrongdoing. Zhihua Zou, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, wrote in a statement E-mailed to The Scientist by the University of Texas that he is "disappointed" by the retraction. In the retraction, Zou, who was a postdoc in Buck's lab at Harvard Medical School when the research was carried out, was listed as solely responsible for providing the irreproducible data and figures.
The associate director of public affairs at Harvard Medical School, David Cameron, told The Scientist that "there is a committee reviewing the issue right now." This committee will determine whether to escalate the review into a formal investigation, he said, although there is currently no timeline as to when this process will be completed.
The mechanism by which olfactory neurons receive input from scent receptors in the nose and transmit them to the brain has been a long-standing debate among olfactory researchers. In the retracted paper, Buck, Zou, and colleagues traced individual neural pathways and describe a well-defined patchy pattern of cellular activity in the olfactory cortex. These results, however, contradict other studies indicating that odor-induced activity is more widely distributed.
For neuroscientist Kurt Illig of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the 2001 paper in Nature had a fairly significant effect. When it was first published, he said he "came up against an interpretive wall." His own research had showed a diffuse spatial pattern of odor-evoked activity, and the Buck study prompted him to rewrite the discussion of a paper he published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology in 2003.
Following the retraction, he said, he now feels "more confident in [his] own results." But Donald Wilson, an olfactory researcher at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said he believed the retraction — which he described as "unfortunate" — would have little impact overall. The study hasn't greatly shaped his own research, he said, and he doubts it will have much of an effect on the field. So much remains unknown about the olfactory cortex, he told The Scientist. "There really is no dogma."