Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Journals can break embargoes too: A data breach at PNAS, with consequences

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Journals are of course frequently sanctioning news organizations for embargo breaks. But lest they always cast the first stones, here’s a recent tale of the reverse: A journal breaking an embargo.

On August 31, 2009, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study about a gene linked to drug abuse in women of European descent, by a group at Yale University that included Heping Zhang. Later, as PNAS editor-in-chief Randy Schekman noted:

…our editors became aware that Dr. Zhang had signed a Data Use Certification indicating his agreement to comply with the NIH Genome-Wide Association Studies Policy for Data Sharing, which applies to the Gene Environment Association (GENEVA) studies, of which the Study of Addiction, Genetics and Environment (SAGE) is a part. Under the policy, investigators agree not to submit findings of the SAGE dataset(s) for publication until September 23, 2009. The PNAS publication clearly violates the SAGE embargo, and the authors agreed to retract their work in PNAS on September 9, 2009.

Although the scientific community is often viewed as self-correcting, the system failed for this paper. It appears that not all of the coauthors were aware of the embargo agreement, and the referees and the editors did not know that a serious breach of scientific conduct and NIH policy had taken place. This oversight does a disservice to the SAGE investigators on this National Human Genome Research Institute-funded genetic study of addiction, the other investigators who abided by the NIH embargo, and the scientific community.

An accompanying editorial by Alan Guttmacher, Elizabeth Nabel, and Francis Collins explained the data embargo policy, and noted that “both PNAS and the NIH will deal with this specific breach.” Alan was acting director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the time, and is now acting director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Elizabeth was director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the time, and is now president of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Francis Collins had recently been confirmed as NIH director.

PNAS‘ response was to retract the paper, and Zhang might have faced further sanctions, according to a report in Science last September. PNAS‘ editor-in-chief also said the journal would probably add a question about embargoed data to its author checklist. I asked PNAS whether they had made this change; I don’t see a questionnaire on the their “Information for Authors” page, but the questionnaire may be separate.

Here’s how the NIH dealt with the breach, according to Laura Rodriguez, who works with these types of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) as part of her duties as acting director of the Office of Policy, Communications and Education and emailed this comment yesterday:

Upon learning of the violation, the investigator’s access to dbGaP [database of Genotypes and Phenotypes] was immediately suspended pending an investigation by the NIH Data Access Committee with responsibility for the dataset involved and a review by the GWAS Senior Oversight Committee (SOC). Information pertaining to the incident was requested from the investigator’s home institution through the Institutional Signing Official that approved the investigator’s original request to the NIH. After a thorough review of the circumstances pertaining to the violation, the SOC revoked access to all dbGaP data for a period of six months.

All work with data downloaded before the date of the access suspension was expected to cease during the ban. This ban included the Primary Investigator as well as those individuals working with the individual-level GWAS data under his Data Access Request, because they also agreed to abide by the terms and conditions for data use within the Data Use Certification agreement. The period of the ban passed on March 4, 2010, and Dr. Zhang may now submit new requests for access to dbGaP data.

The ban did not appear to affect this $7.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant Heping won through the NIH three weeks after the retraction was issued.

I also called Heping for an update, and he called me back, but said Yale had in the past told him not to comment on the incident before checking with them. I contacted the Yale School of Public Health’s press office, and will update if I hear anything back.

One odd thing about this case: Despite the retraction, the paper still appears online, albeit with “See Retraction Published September 9, 2009.”

“We thought about whether it was feasible to remove the online version and decided against it,” Editor-in-chief  Randy Schekman told Science at the time, because of the “very awkward consequences—librarians get confused about papers being cited that no longer exist.” He also said the paper was unlikely to be accepted if it was resubmitted after the embargo date.

Instead, the journal invited Laura Bierut — a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis who had gathered the genetic data, and whose work had been scooped while she waited for the embargo to lift —  to submit a paper.

There’s turning the (data) tables for you.

UPDATE, 3/17/10, 11:55 Eastern: I heard this morning from Laura Bierut that she and her colleagues did in fact submit a paper to PNAS on the genes for alcohol dependence, which was published online on March 2.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 17, 2010 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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