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Research Gone Awry

Susan Notes:

As I read the almost-daily messages from Retraction Watch, detailing falsification and fabrication in scientific research, I always wonder, Where are the retractions in education research?

by Susan Ohanian

The latest retraction of scientific research comes from MIT. For the Broad Foundation connection, read on.

One thing I find interesting as well as profoundly disturbing is that the miscreant is now listed as a technology specialist at Clark + Elbing, a patent law firm in Boston. Of course any "discovery," involving autism, would be big news--and big profits. Amar Thyagarajan, who has been accused of fabrication but who refused to sign the retraction notice, was a post-doc fellow at Autism Speaks, founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright (former executive at General Electric and then CEO of NBC). Their board of directors is interesting, but that's another story.

Just last month Autism Speaks awarded $4.8 million for new research projects. To date, Autism Speaks has committed more than $195 million for research projects.

Just to pound home the point that Technology Rules!, from the Autism Speaks website: Technology is a focus in this round of funding with research to develop a simple video-based method that parents can use to assess ASD risk in infants and toddlers, and innovative small business grants to develop and test a web-based education tool to help students with autism succeed in college and an internet-based "telehealth" system to improve medication management for individuals with autism.

Here's a description of the accused miscreant Amar Thyagarajan's $95,000 post-doc work for Autism Speaks.

The retracted paper comes from Ting Lab at MIT. Alice Ting is an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

For the conspiracy-minded, the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation made a founding gift of $100 million for a Harvard-MIT collaboration and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was formally launched in May 2004. In November 2005, the Broads announced an additional $100 million gift to the Institute and in 2008 announced an endowment of $400 million to make the Broad Institute a permanent establishment. The donation is managed by Harvard's investment unit.

The Broad Institute trumpeted their pride in the Ting-Thyagarajan paper. The Broad Creative Director Bang Wong even illustrated the paper on the cover of Cell. Talk about follow the money. Note this Wikipedia citation:

According to ScienceWatch, Cell was ranked first overall in the category of highest-impact journals (all fields) over 1995--2005 with an average of 161.2 citations per paper.[5] According to the Journal Citation Reports, the journal has a 2011 impact factor of 32.403, ranking it 16th out of 8281 indexed journals

But when Eli Broad wants his guy to provide an illustration. . . .

There is currently a fight among people makeing comments at the Retractionwatch site over who's really to blame. Here is the comment that started it off: Here goes one more "postdoc" was solely responsible for all the data. Come on world, get real. Is it possible that one person is responsible for all the mess??? Come on Alice Ting, take some blame.

I started out posting the Retraction Notice below because I wanted to ask the question: Why don't we ever see retraction of education research papers? It just seems as though people are given free license to falsify and fabricate. The National Education Policy Center makes a solid, noble attempt to address falsification and fabrication, but I don't know that these attempts have ever led to a retraction--or even to notice in the press that there's disagreement. Or professional outrage (except from a few intrepid bloggers). Professional groups like NCTE would rather bury their executive heads in the sand, and the press would rather continue to call on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and Democrats for Education Reform for soundbites. See Who gets to speaks about what schools need? Race to the Top and the Bill Gates Connection Maybe this is because the stakes are so low in ed research, meaning there is so little money backing research. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants a few people $30,000 each to write book chapters on teacher evaluation, and General Electric and Gates give mega-millions to Student Achievement Partners, aka Achieve the Core for propaganda production. But that hardly qualifies as research.

"Gene Wilhoit, who helped spearhead the historic state-led [sic] effort to develop the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for K-12 education, has joined Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel as a partner at the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners (SAP), the organization announced today."-- Press Release, Feb. 6, 2013

Here is the initial MIT press release for the 2010 paper, which tells us funding for the work came from The National Institutes of Health, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and MIT.

Now the paper is disappeared from the MIT site. It never happened.

A note about Retraction Watch: Adam Marcus is the managing editor of Anesthesiology News, a monthly magazine for anesthesiologists. Ivan Oransky is the executive editor of Reuters Health and he teaches medical journalism at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program.

I am in awe of what they manage to do. They don't even accept donations for fear of conflicts of interest. I wish the T-shirts for sale on their website weren't so ugly.

by Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch

MIT lab retracts Cell synapse tagging paper for falsification or fabrication

Alice Ting rising star at MIT has retracted a paper after an investigation found that her former postdoc had "falsified or fabricated figures."

Alice Ting, winner of an NIH Directors Pioneer Award and named one of Technology Review's Innovators Under 35, published the paper, "Imaging Activity-Dependent Regulation of Neurexin-Neuroligin Interactions Using trans-Synaptic Enzymatic Biotinylation," in Cell in 2010 along with Amar Thyagarajan.

The notice is refreshingly detailed given the circumstances:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal.

This article has been retracted at the request of the Author.

This paper introduced a new methodology, BLINC, for detecting the trans-synaptic binding of neurexin and neuroligin proteins, and applied BLINC to study the interaction dynamics of these proteins in neurons. Since this publication, my laboratory has found that BLINC cannot be reproduced in neurons using the constructs and protocols described in this paper. After I brought forward concerns, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted an independent investigation. Communicating the findings of that investigation in a letter to Cell, Dr. Claude Canizares, Vice President for Research and Associate Provost, stated that: "MIT found that the first author, Dr. Thyagarajan, falsified or fabricated figures in this publication. MIT's investigation also found that Dr. Thyagarajan was solely responsible for the scientific misconduct that resulted in the falsified or fabricated data." I therefore wish to retract this publication. My laboratory has subsequently found that, with modified constructs and protocols, BLINC can be used to detect trans neurexin-neuroligin interactions in neurons. We will report this in a future publication. I deeply apologize to the scientific community for any loss of time or resources caused by this publication.

The first author, Amar Thyagarajan, has declined to sign this retraction notice.

The paper has been cited 17 times, according to Thomson Scientific's Web of Knowledge. When it was originally published, Autism Speaks, which funded Thyagarajan's postdoc, heralded it:

The ability to observe the active development of synapses will undoubtedly factor into future discoveries, paying dividends for some time to come.

MIT called it a better way to see molecules at work in living brain cells.

Thyagarajan is listed as a technology specialist at Clark + Elbing, a patent law firm in Boston. We've tried reaching him for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

— Ivan Oransky, with Ohanian notes
Retraction Watch, with notes


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