Critics rip Cell paper

Improper citation, disregard for antecedent research, and shoddy experimentation - those are just a few of the allegations levied against a recent research paper written by a team of Stanford University scientists. One of the paper's chief critics, University of Cambridge biologist linkurl:Peter Lawrence,;http://www.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/PAL/ says that the problems with the publication exemplify a broader problem in scientific publishing. "There's a pressure on scientists to publish in these top j

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob started with The Scientist as a staff writer in 2007. Before joining the team, he worked as a reporter at Audubon and earned a master’s degree in science journalism...

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Nov 24, 2008
Improper citation, disregard for antecedent research, and shoddy experimentation - those are just a few of the allegations levied against a recent research paper written by a team of Stanford University scientists. One of the paper's chief critics, University of Cambridge biologist linkurl:Peter Lawrence,;http://www.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/PAL/ says that the problems with the publication exemplify a broader problem in scientific publishing. "There's a pressure on scientists to publish in these top journals," Lawrence told __The Scientist__, "to promote their work as more novel than it really is." The linkurl:paper;http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(08)00680-6 in question, published in a June issue of __Cell__, described a model for understanding the genetic and cellular machinery underlying planar cell polarity (PCP), the cell-to-cell communication that epithelial cells use to align and arrange themselves to function as an organized tissue. Developmental biologist linkurl:Jeffrey Axelrod,;http://www.stanford.edu/group/axelrodlab/index.shtml the paper's main author, defended the work, writing in an email to __The Scientist__, "our paper (Chen et...
earch paper written by a team of Stanford University scientists. One of the paper's chief critics, University of Cambridge biologist linkurl:Peter Lawrence,;http://www.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/PAL/ says that the problems with the publication exemplify a broader problem in scientific publishing. "There's a pressure on scientists to publish in these top journals," Lawrence told __The Scientist__, "to promote their work as more novel than it really is." The linkurl:paper;http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(08)00680-6 in question, published in a June issue of __Cell__, described a model for understanding the genetic and cellular machinery underlying planar cell polarity (PCP), the cell-to-cell communication that epithelial cells use to align and arrange themselves to function as an organized tissue. Developmental biologist linkurl:Jeffrey Axelrod,;http://www.stanford.edu/group/axelrodlab/index.shtml the paper's main author, defended the work, writing in an email to __The Scientist__, "our paper (Chen et al. June 2008) underwent Cell's rigorous process of peer-review prior to publication. We stand by our conclusions as stated in the paper, as well as by our use of citations, and I encourage your readers to look at the papers in question, as they speak for themselves." But Lawrence claims that the Axelrod paper, which identifies a transmembrane protein called Flamingo (also known as starry night or stan) as a key signaling molecule in __Drosophila__ PCP, is largely a rehash of his own group's work, which was linkurl:published;http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15329345?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum in the journal __Development__ in 2004 and has been cited 35 times, according to ISI. (Axelrod's __Cell__ paper has not yet been cited in any published papers.) "The complaint is that the main point of the [__Cell__ paper] is what we discovered and provided evidence for four years ago," Lawrence said. "It pretends to be much more novel than it is." Lawrence wrote in a letter to __Cell__ that the paper was "seriously flawed both scientifically and ethically and in my opinion amounts to a theft of our intellectual property (especially the results and conclusions of our prior paper, Lawrence et al., 2004)." Lawrence's letter was not published in Cell, but he sent it to __The Scientist__. At least four other researchers submitted letters independently - some also obtained by __The Scientist__ - to the journal last July. Some of these also claimed that the Axelrod group's science in constructing a model for PCP was subpar. "I hope you will agree with me that (i) this paper is a disaster for the field (it will set the community back by several years) and (ii) it is not good for the journal either," wrote linkurl:Marek Mlodzik,;http://www.mountsinai.org/Find%20A%20Faculty/profile.do?id=0000072500001497304492 chair of developmental and regenerative biology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in a letter to the editor of __Cell__, Emilie Marcus. Mlodzik said that the Axelrod paper completely ignores some of his own previous research on PCP; specifically, a 2005 linkurl:paper;http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16212491?ordinalpos=25&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum that proposed a similar model for PCP. "They should have cited it because of the model," Mlodzik told __The Scientist__. Mlodzik also takes issue with the science in the __Cell__ paper, citing in his letter to the journal a couple examples where "the authors use wrong data or conceptually flawed experiments to give false credibility to their model." Lawrence stressed that the scientific problems and lack of proper citation in the __Cell__ paper might be hard to discern by non-experts in the field and that this makes the work even more potentially injurious. "A paper in __Cell__, whatever the quality, will gain citations and eclipse our own discoveries," he said. "We possibly will lose the credit, and we think that is damaging to us." Mlodzik concurred. In fact, he said he had recently reviewed a research paper on PCP in __Xenopus__ that cited only two __Drosophila__ papers; the Axelrod paper and a review paper. "It just shows the pattern that will emerge from this," he said. The concerns of Lawrence and his colleagues were first brought to light by UK news outlet, linkurl:__Times Higher Education__.;http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404296&c=1 Editors at __Cell__ did not respond to an email request for comment in this story. However, the journal's senior scientific editor, Connie Lee, did respond to Lawrence's letter outlining his concerns and requesting to publish a minireview in __Cell__ to set the record straight. "I can only assure you that the reviewers were experts in PCP and the consensus decision was that the model presented by Chen et al. was thought-provoking, well-supported and provided a sufficient conceptual advance beyond the existing literature," Lee wrote. She declined his request to publish a minireview, instead offered Lawrence the opportunity to post his comments on __Cell__'s website. Lawrence, with two collaborators, instead wrote a short linkurl:review;http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(08)01182-2 in an October issue of __Current Biology__, in which they explain some of the problems in Axelrod's Cell paper. Mlodzik said that in "a perfect world" he'd like to see the Cell paper retracted, but said that for now, making people in the PCP field aware of the problems he perceives in the Axelrod paper will suffice. Lawrence, however, would like to see action taken to address the issue of scientific scoopsmanship on a broader level. "There should be some kind of scientific ombudsman that people could contact when they feel they've been wronged," he said. "At the moment, there's nothing." __Update - Nov. 25, 5:00 PM EST: To read the full text of Peter Lawrence's letter, click linkurl:here.;http://images.the-scientist.com/pdfs/articles/TO_CELL.pdf

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