BEIJING – Questionable data found in research papers supervised by renowned Chinese immunologist Cao Xuetao have caused a stir in the life sciences community, shaking the reputation of an internationally prominent figure in the field of immunology.
Over the weekend, U.S. microbiologist and ex-Stanford professor Elisabeth Bik raised concerns on PubPeer, a website where users can discuss and review scientific research, about duplication of images in papers published by Cao and his team. Most of the papers were published in peer-reviewed journals and date back to as far as 2003. Bik commented on some pictures and graphs, suggesting that different images “appear to have the same shape” and others have “remarkable similarities.” On other papers, she commented that the images of panels shown required double checking.
Cao has 64 research papers on PubPeer that have come under a shadow of suspicion.
A prominent immunologist, Cao serves as the president of Nankai University of Tianjin, where Chinese President Xi Jinping just paid a visit this year. Cao was the founder director of the National Key Laboratory of Medical Immunology at the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai, and he holds positions at the Chinese Society for Immunology and Federation of Immunological Society in Asia and Oceania. He is also a member of various academies worldwide. In 2015, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Mentoring in Science from Nature.
Bik calls herself an expert in research integrity and misconduct. She has reportedly spent the last five years spotting image manipulation in research.
“Recently I have raised some issues on PubPeer about possible image duplications in a set of papers from a Chinese Academician. I want to stress here that I am not accusing anyone of misconduct. Please keep in mind that many of these duplications might just be honest errors,” Bik said in a tweet on Monday.
“In some places in the world, raising concerns about science misconduct can be very risky,” she added on Wednesday.
The institutions associated with Cao remained tight-lipped despite media coverage in China.
“We’re still discussing the issue. I can say [the issue] does not have any impact on us,” a staffer at the medical faculty at Nankai University, told BioWorld. “Right now, it is still early to draw any conclusion.”
Nobody at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, which oversees the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, could be reached for a comment, but in statements to Chinese media it has said that it is launching an investigation. Zhejiang University School of Medicine, where Cao worked when he published the research papers in question, also declined to respond to BioWorld’s query.
That said, Cao has made an open response to Bik on PubPeer, saying he remains “confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications and our work’s reproducibility.”
“Upon being notified of your inquiries, I have made them our highest priority and immediately took steps to look into the concerns you raised with the team and collaborators and carefully re-examined our manuscripts and raw data and lab records,” he said.
“We’ll work with the relevant journal editorial office(s) immediately if our investigation indicates any risk to the highest degree of accuracy of the published records.”
He also made an open apology for “any oversight” on his part.
In a response to Bik on PubPeer, members of Cao’s research team suggested that the research in one paper highlighted was sound, but there were errors in how the data were presented.
Following the scandal, some life sciences experts have raised questions on Cao’s earlier work.
Derek Lowe, a medicinal chemist, expressed his disbelief in Cao’s research that studied “using emitted Qigong energy to cure metastatic tumors in mice.” Qigong is an ancient Chinese exercise and healing technique that involves meditation, controlled breathing and movement exercises.
“The Chinese government has been pushing all sorts of traditional remedies more and more over the years, with little regard to how much of it is unproven and/or unprovable. Frankly, a great deal of it is embarrassing stuff and does no credit to the Chinese research establishment,” Lowe said in a blogpost on Science Translational Medicine.
Meanwhile, some remain cautious not to jump to sharp criticisms or conclusions.
Iris Pang, an immunologist and a life sciences lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the main author of one of the manuscripts that was found problematic has offered clarification by providing the original experimental records in the comment section on PubPeer.
“Scientific misconduct is a global problem,” she told BioWorld. “I think more open academic exchanges like this would certainly be welcomed by the scientific community and help clear concerns.”