Another antivaccine paper bites the dust

I’ve written on quite a few occasions about a pair of scientists beloved by the antivaccine movement. I’m referring, of course, to Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic. Whether it is their publishing dubious “evidence” that HPV vaccines cause premature ovarian failure or even death or demonizing aluminum as a vaccine adjuvant, Shaw and Tomljenovic publish nothing but antivaccine pseudoscience that antivaxers love to cite whenever they dump some turd of a study on the medical literature.

Just last month, they dumped their latest turd of a study, in which they basically tortured mice in the name of pseudoscience. Later, after I wrote my first analysis of the study in which I described how poorly designed and executed the experiments were, I discovered that there’s more than just bad science there. There’s possible fraud, as circulating on PubPeer are reports of image manipulation that are quite convincing. At the time this rather obvious image manipulation was being discussed, so, too, was the possibility of retraction. After all, if there’s one thing that merits pretty much an automatic retraction in science, it’s manipulation of images presented as data in a scientific paper.

Not surprisingly, then, yesterday I learned from Retraction Watch that Shaw and Tomljenovic’s latest paper will be retracted as well. The editor of the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry announced that the journal will be retracted:

The journal’s editor, John Dawson of the University of South Carolina, told Retraction Watch:

The paper by Shaw and co-workers is being retracted jointly by the authors and the editor.

He noted there will be a “statement accompanying the retraction of the paper.”

Shaw told us that his lab began investigating the issues raised on PubPeer “within a day” and reported its findings to both UBC and the journal soon after. He said:

Our own analysis showed some figures had been altered. We requested a retraction because we could not understand how that had happened. We felt the data had been compromised.

Shaw said that the problems mostly lie with data showing no change in gene or protein expression levels after aluminum injections — but also with some data showing changes in expression, which the paper attributed to the injections.

Next up, Shaw tries to pass the buck:

Shaw said that first author Dan Li, a former postdoc who performed the molecular biology and gene expression analysis for the study, has agreed to the retraction but not yet offered an official explanation about the data. Shaw told us:

She denied that anything had been manipulated, or that anything was amiss.

He added that when Li left the lab in 2015, she took the original data with her:

UBC policy is that original data never leave the lab. We’ve asked for them to be returned to us.

Shaw said he thinks the core data are “probably correct,” but said he plans to have the experiments re-done:

It is what it is. We’ve done everything we can on our end. We’re still having conversations with Li on where the data are and how we get them back. That’s as much as we can do at this point.

I suppose that it’s possible that Shaw was duped by a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory. When you’re the head of a lab and the principal investigator of a study, you tend to come to trust those working for you. You don’t want to think that one of them might be committing scientific fraud by manipulating images. On the other hand, as PI, one has to be on guard for this very thing. The PI is basically the captain of the ship, and the buck stops at his desk, and whatever other cliche you want to invoke to say that he is in charge and responsible for the integrity of the data produced by his lab.

The kindest possible interpretation is that Christopher Shaw runs a loose ship, so loose that he didn’t notice that many of the bands on the images of his DNA gels and the autoradiographs of his Western blots were duplicated, flipped, and otherwise manipulated. Certainly, letting the raw data and raw images out of the lab is not good lab practice, particularly in this day and age, when pretty much all images of gels and Western blots are recorded digitally. In my lab, for instance, there is a lab shared drive, and every single image generated is stored there, so that original images used to make figures can always be recovered. PRanoid PI that I am, I even periodically copy the whole shared drive to my own computer, which in turn is regularly backed up. Key figures are preserved on cloud drives.

The worst possible interpretation is that Shaw either knew about the image manipulation (or even ordered it) or that he put so much pressure on his postdoc to produce results that she felt that she had to falsify figures to produce what he wanted. Of course, I wonder about Shaw’s practices. For instance, in my discussion of the image manipulation, I noted that Shaw and Tomljenovic have at minimum engaged in self-plagiarism, recycling figures from a 2014 review article into which they dumped a little original data in their soon-to-be retracted paper. So, in terms of commonly accepted practices, we already know Shaw’s rather…unconcerned.

Then, of course, there’s Shaw and Tomljenovic’s history. Back in 2015, they published a paper purporting to show that aluminum adjuvants in Gardasil caused behavioral abnormalities in young female mice that was retracted for this reason:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article. Review by the Editor-in-Chief and evaluation by outside experts, confirmed that the methodology is seriously flawed, and the claims that the article makes are unjustified. As an international peer-reviewed journal we believe it is our duty to withdraw the article from further circulation, and to notify the community of this issue.

Why is it that the University of British Columbia and its Department of Ophthalmology (which is the department where Shaw and Tomljenovic are based) put up with crap like this? Shaw must have tenure or pictures of the Dean having an affair. I can’t think of any other reasons why he isn’t long gone.

Ultimately the article was republished in a form that was nearly word-for-word identical version in an inferior journal. Such is the fate of antivaccine pseudoscience. It always comes back. That’s why I liken it to zombies, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, or any other monsters that “die” at the end of one movie, only to inevitably reappear in a new sequel over and over and over again.

I have little doubt that Shaw and Tomljenovic’s soon-to-be retracted paper will reappear somewhere else within a few months. It’s what antivaccine scientists publishing dubious or even fraudulent research to promote the long discredited idea that vaccines cause autism do. Their pseudoscience never dies. It just keeps being recycled like the sequel to a 1980s slasher flick.