“We were devastated:” Authors retract paper after realizing they had used the wrong mice

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Raymond Pasek and Maureen Gannon

Longtime readers of Retraction Watch may recall a 2011 post about a research team that retracted a paper after realizing that they had ordered the wrong mice. Maureen Gannon and Raymond Pasek of Vanderbilt University contacted us earlier this week to alert us to a similar case: Their retraction, earlier this month, of a 2016 paper from American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism after discovering that “a colleague from another lab had mistakenly supplied us with the wrong transgenic mouse line.”

We strongly believe that sharing this example will encourage other researchers to do the right thing when a mistake is discovered and promote academic integrity,” they wrote. So we asked them to answer a few questions about their experience with “Connective tissue growth factor is critical for proper β-cell function and pregnancy-induced β-cell hyperplasia in adult mice,” a paper that has been cited twice, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science

Retraction Watch: How, and when, did you become aware of the error?

We first became aware that something was wrong with the Cre line we were using when additional studies (following the publication) revealed impaired glucose tolerance in  Cre-only animals with no additional genetic manipulation. This had not been observed in the original cohort of Cre-only animals that were used as the basis of the AJP paper. However, on certain genetic backgrounds the Cre line we were unknowingly using (RIP-Cre) is known to have impaired glucose tolerance and reduced insulin secretion. Thus, the phenotype likely developed over time with years of breeding. Our first indications of this phenotype were in November 2016. At first we thought that the Pax6-Cre (which we thought we were using) had unreported phenotypes in glucose homeostasis. However, as time went on, we became convinced that we were not in fact working with the Pax6-Cre line as we had been told. In early 2017, we began to suspect that the mice were in fact the RIP-Cre line known to have issues with glucose homeostasis. We were able to confirm this suspicion using RIP-Cre-specific PCR primers in April 2017.

RW: What was your reaction when you realized these were the wrong mice?

To put it simply, we were (and still are) devastated. To be honest, this is my (M.G.) worst nightmare as a PI. I have always told everyone in my lab that I always want the truth and that I don’t care if their results contradict or disprove a hypothesis. Having to retract a paper is extremely upsetting to me and to the first author (R.C.P.). This study represented years of work and resources and we were proud of and excited about the paper. We immediately told our colleague who had given us this mice, concerned that there was incorrect genotyping in their mouse colony and that they too were mistakenly using the RIP-Cre mice for their studies. We then contacted the journal editors to let them know and ask them how to proceed.

RW: Did you have any concerns about coming forward, given the stigma of retractions?

Of course. It is embarrassing to us to have this come forward, despite their being absolutely no fault on our part that this happened. Most people trust the veracity of a published reagent when given by a colleague. However, we knew that it was the right thing to do to alert our colleague and the journal to the mistake as soon as we realized it. We did not even hesitate about making this decision. I always want the science coming from our lab to be trusted and reproducible. Ignoring this, or sweeping it under the rug would undermine our credibility.

In addition to alerting our colleague and the journal, I immediately informed my division chief, my department chair and the dean of faculty affairs. These were not fun conversations. But I knew that it was the right thing to do. As my chair told me “You are not defined by things that happen to you that are beyond your control. You are defined by how you handle these situations.”

RW: When did you alert the journal to the problem? What was their reaction?

The same day we obtained the genotyping results showing us that we had indeed been given the RIP-Cre mice instead of the Pax6-Cre. Luckily, we had saved the DNA from the mouse we were given by our colleague several years ago and could compare with known mice of each transgenic line.The editors of the journal could not have been nicer. They completed an investigation and found no misconduct on our part. They felt very badly that we were going through this and repeatedly told us how much they appreciated that we had come forward. They helped us write up the retraction notice that was published in the July 2017 issue of the journal.

RW: Were you aware of other cases like this, such as this one from 2011, or the literature on retractions for honest error? If so, did that guide your approach here?

We were not aware of the case that you alerted us to. However, we have read about many retraction cases posted on your site and have read about cases in which there was no misconduct or fraud and authors voluntarily retracted a paper due to honest error.

RW: How have your colleagues responded to the retraction?

We have received nothing but sympathy and support from everyone we have told. They all agree that we did the right thing.

RW: What advice would you have for other researchers who realize they’ve made an error that has a dramatic effect on a paper’s conclusions?

Honesty is always the best policy…even if it’s hard. Especially in today’s climate of “fake news” and science being under attack. The scientific community and the public needs to trust published scientific results.  We should be able to admit when a mistake is made and correct the literature. This has been a learning experience for us and an opportunity for growth.

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