Academic Publishing Research integrity

Carlos Lopez-Otin and the revoked Nature Mentoring Award

St Carlos of Oviedo almost was canonised as Spain's first living martyr, but now Nature revoked his mentoring award. Spanish media and science elites are desperate, even the Queen is not amused.

Nature revokes the mentoring award to Carlos Lopez-Otin, which the elite journal bestowed in 2017 and which prompted my initial reporting into the Spanish star scientist’s data manipulations. Readers of my site, most prominently the pseudonymous Clare Francis, Smut Clyde, Morty as well as Elizabeth Bik, screened more papers from the University of Oviedo lab of that cancer and ageing researcher, which resulted in more coverage on my site (here and here). A Nature Cell Biology paper was retracted, followed by no less than 8 retractions at Journal of Biological Chemistry, despite massive protests from Spanish scientific elites. Now Nature announced to have screened more papers and have found additional data manipulations in 18 of them, and this is why the mentoring award was revoked.

Nature‘s Editor-in-Chief Magdalena Skipper, together with Sir Philip Campbell, formerly Editor-in-Chief of Nature and now of entire Springer Nature publishing house (who originally bestowed the mentoring award to Lopez-Otin), apparently decided to go for a cake-eating-while-cake-having approach. Meaning, they crack down on research fraud (but only on some of it), while opening backdoors for fraudsters to continue, a somewhat typical Nature policy.

On 25 September 2019, Nature issued this brief announcement:

Nature is withdrawing a 2017 mentoring prize awarded to Carlos López-Otín, a molecular biologist at the University of Oviedo in Spain. Following concerns reported to Nature after the announcement of the 2017 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science, an assessment of papers co-authored by Carlos López-Otín has identified image-integrity issues. The withdrawal of the award is a reflection of the judges’ opinion that high-quality mentorship in a laboratory should not lead to such significant issues. It is not a judgement of the overall calibre of López-Otín’s research.”

Original image and text: La Nueva Espana.

However, the Watchdogs of Retraction Watch were provided with an exclusive, longer statement:

Nature initiated an investigation into 97 papers originating from Professor Lopez-Otin’s lab between 2012 and 2019.  18 papers were found to contain problems with images, including some that had already been identified on PubPeer, and Professor Lopez-Otin was corresponding author on nine of these.

We have not attempted an in depth investigation of these issues, but we have alerted the journals concerned in the new cases. Our task has been to draw a conclusion about how these issues reflect on the mentoring in the laboratory of Professor Lopez-Otin. […]

The corresponding author on a paper is responsible for the research group which contributed mostly to each paper, therefore the nine papers on which Professor Lopez-Otin was the corresponding author are of particular significance.

Following consideration of all the available information, judges of the original awards and the previous and current Editors-in-Chief of Nature concluded that the issues identified are not commensurate with high quality mentorship of the originating lab, and that the mentoring award should accordingly be withdrawn.”

It is not clear why Nature chose Retraction Watch as its only PR channel, maybe they appreciated the Watchdogs’ utter silence when Lopez-Otin’s common Nature Cell Biology paper with the Harvard Medical School Dean George Daley was retracted? Now Daley’s own papers are being questioned on PubPeer, mostly for inconsistent science, published in top-notch journals like Cell, PNAS and of course also Nature. But also for hidden financial conflict of interest and even image duplications like these:

Now you can place any bet that whatever happens, Retraction Watch reporting will not cover Daley’s data irregularities, and Nature sure values such dedicated science journalism. A good watchdog know when to bark and when to silently chew the sausage it was given. Journalists’ highest treasure is their first-hand access to exclusive news, which Springer Nature sure can provide, but only to those who deserve it. The statement to Retraction Watch contained also this bit:

“No other assessment of the scientific validity or value of Professor Lopez-Otin’s work was undertaken and the decision to withdraw the award should not be considered to be a criticism of any other aspect of his research.”

This is how you eat your cake while having it. 9 retractions, around 50 papers flagged on PubPeer, most not even corrected despite appalling data manipulations. 18 papers confirmed by Nature as manipulated, of which 9 came from Lopez-Otin’s own lab in Oviedo. The same place where 5000 mice were sacrificed (or murdered as witnesses?) on the pretence of a mysterious viral infection, which just incidentally happen to have been the sole existing (an now non-existing) transgenic mouse models of Lopez-Otin’s papers. And still, Nature can find no criticism on Lopez-Otin’s research, even after he admitted to data manipulation in his interviews with loyal Spanish newspapers.

This is why in August 2019 the (for some obscure reason prestigious) journal Nature Medicine was very happy to publish a fresh new paper from Lopez-Otin lab. Barcena et al 2019 describes results from transgenic mice which everyone knows do not exist anymore. Or maybe they never existed as such. Be it as it may, Spanish media reacted orgiastically, as if the Jesus himself has returned, holding his bleeding stigmata aloft. Fittingly, an El Pais article showed Lopez-Otin with a 23-year-old progeria patient on his lap, wearing an Opus Dei crucifix.

And in June 2018, Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology published a literature review, authored by Lopez-Otin and his friend Guido Kroemer. The idea being to educate the peer community and early career researchers worldwide on the state-of-the-art in the field of anti-ageing, from the mouth of two renowned and perfectly trustworthy experts. Now, Kroemer is a German-born French cancer researcher who used to host Lopez-Otin for almost a year in his lab in Paris while the scandal raged in Spain. And you should see the massive cornucopia of Photoshopped western blots which the Kroemer Lab has published over the years, as recorded on PubPeer.

Even the professional Italian data forgers (one of them Carlo Croce!) were so impressed that they recently awarded Kroemer with a €1 million grant, to teach new generations of scientists the Art of the Photoshop. Needless to say, the Nature Publishing Group has no plans whatsoever to ever scrutinise any of Kroemer papers, in fact he is most welcome as author.

Some might recall how Nature Plants decided to give the misconduct-tainted plant scientists Olivier Voinnet and Patrice Dunoyer another chance. Heck, the Nature family is even open-minded against such characters like the cancer researcher Maria Fousteri, found guilty of research fraud in Leiden, Netherlands. 5 retractions were requested, but Elsevier’s Molecular Cell decided against it. Fousteri new paper is now “under consideration” at Nature Communications, after she already placed one there in 2017 (Lavigne et al 2017).

Of course Nature will continue publishing Lopez-Otin papers, regardless of how much fraud they found in his past research. The man is now a spiritual Guru with best connections, even the Queen of Spain is his admiring fan, I kid you not. Letizia, the wife of the Spanish King Felipe IV, namely travelled earlier this year to the Madrid Book Fair, in order to have Saint Carlos of Oviedo sign his new lifestyle philosophy book for her. Now, Her Majesty is indignant with Nature‘s decision to revoke the mentoring award to Lopez-Otin.

Spain is fully behind their St Carlos of Oviedo, and the media is either utterly brainwashed, or scared, what with the local Opus Dei dominance and the residual Franco-fascism still there in the country. The Academy of the Asturias region previously demanded a Princess of Asturias Prize for their hero, one of highest awards in Spain. Now, the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences issued this statement:

“Regarding the decision of the scientific journal Nature (25/09/19) of removing the MENTORING AWARD (mid-career achievement) to Professor D. Carlos Lopez Otín, the Royal Academy of Sciences wants to express its public concern about this news affecting a member of the Corporation and notes as soon as possible to officially start investigation to collect and analyse in detail the latest facts and arguments that have led to such serious consequences, in order to adopt a collegial approach in this regard. “

The Spanish daily El Pais, which previously firmly sided with St Carlos, now carefully tries to position itself between the chairs. As do several Spanish elite scientists, who had no problem with threatening JBC, but are a bit cautious with shaking fists at Nature. We read this:

I was the one who pushed more in that jury to give him the prize to Carlos, for whom I have much appreciation, both personal and professional,” says biochemist Mariano Barbacid of the National Cancer Research Center in Madrid. “The decision to withdraw the prize has been exclusively done by Nature, so I had nothing to do with it and therefore have nothing to add now,” he says. Barbacid was one of 50 top scientists who applied last year to the Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology US not withdraw the eight studies López Otín, considering that the detected “anomalies” did not invalidate the results.”

Barbacid is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) stars of Spanish cancer research. It is peculiar that his name was so far kept secret, as was the entire letter sent to JBC to prevent the mass-retractions, even though every Spanish newspaper seems to have received a copy. The campaign was organised by Juan Valcarcel, who played key role in whitewashing his CRG Barcelona colleague Maria Pia Cosma. Another star signatory was Margarita Salas, the grand dame of Spanish biology, herself the doctorate mentor of Lopez-Otin, and recipient of same Mentoring Award in 2017. Other Salas mentees signed: Manuel Serrano, his ex-wife Maria Blasco, Jesús Ávila, the politician and former minister Cristina Garmendia, who is also a personal friend of Lopez-Otin. Other known signatories were Alfonso Valencia, Juan Bueren, Angel Carracedo and Lopez-Otin’s co-author with own PubPeer record, Elias Campo.

El Pais also quotes the president of the jury which bestowed the Mentoring Award in 2017:

“the ecologist Josep Peñuelas, CSIC, indicates that he has accepted “with prudence” the verdict of Nature, because he can not value the irregularities because biomedicine is not his field. “Philip Campbell, who was then editor of the magazine, was very concerned with this issue and commissioned an intensive investigation,” he stresses.”

Now suddenly St Carlos of Oviedo is not available for interviews. He is probably busy with publishing more research papers, since his €2.5 million ERC grant is perfectly active and not threatened until 2022. Nature is sure open for business!


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15 comments on “Carlos Lopez-Otin and the revoked Nature Mentoring Award

  1. “Nature is withdrawing a 2017 mentoring prize awarded to Carlos López-Otín, a molecular biologist at the University of Oviedo in Spain. Following concerns reported to Nature after the announcement of the 2017 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science, an assessment of papers co-authored by Carlos López-Otín has identified image-integrity issues. The withdrawal of the award is a reflection of the judges’ opinion that high-quality mentorship in a laboratory should not lead to such significant issues. It is not a judgement of the overall calibre of López-Otín’s research.”

    ” We [Magdalena Skipper, the journal’s editor-in-chief, and Sir Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Springer Nature] have not attempted an in depth investigation of these issues, but we have alerted the journals concerned in the new cases. Our task has been to draw a conclusion about how these issues reflect on the mentoring in the laboratory of Professor Lopez-Otin. […]”

    Lazy and washed their hands. How is mentoring in science different from science? How can you alert journals to something about which you are so studiously noncommittal? What is Nature alerting the journals about?

    What Magdalena Skipper, the journal’s editor-in-chief, and Sir Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Springer Nature are stating is that image-integrity issues have nothing to do with overall calibre of López-Otín’s research. Is that what they are alerting journals about?

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  2. The members of the panel who granted the prize, all Spanish, with the exception of the nature representative (see link below), should be held liable. These people are in all the commissions and decisive panels for the financing of Spanish science. They should be removed from all Spanish and international committees and forced to retire because the elite science they have defended by supporting only themselves and their friends has destroyed many lives.
    http://globalecology.creaf.cat/?p=3116

    Like

    • Nowadays I feel very happy none of these scientists accepted me in their labs for either a PhD or a post-Doc

      Like

  3. I’m guessing Carlos López-Otín is really the average mentor—he treats people with “benign neglect”, because he’s too busy, or lazy, or whatever, to be a responsible advisor to look at primary data and judge it critically. That is standard in all of the labs I worked in. I remember when someone gave a lab presentation in one of the crappy labs Ive worked in, the advisor got angry when a post-doc presented primary data. How dare him.

    I think his major problem was that grad students and post-docs realized because of his ability to get papers in prestigious journals and his connections to other labs that get papers into prestigious journals (eg Daley at Harvard), they realized that all they needed to do to get a tenure track position was to cheat when necessary, hopefully just a little bit. Apparently, the necessity to cheat to get a decent job (tenure track) was great in a lot of these projects in Don Carlos’s lab, because they were ambitious and the standards for publication in one of these prestigious journal is high. I might call this the Croce effect.

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  4. I agree you about Carlos but why you are accusing Guido? I mean the pubpeer record of Guido that you referred to doesn’t show anything special. Guido’s pubpeer records are just some minor questions or corrections nothing really special.

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    • I agree, I checked the Kroemer publications and there are relatively few listed on PubPeer even though he has published hundreds of papers. One data irregularity that does look sketchy (a recycled loading control blot) was from a postdoc in the Kroemer lab who previously worked in the Lopez-Otin lab. There does seem to be a culture of dishonesty in the Lopez-Otin lab, but this could be due to an influential postdoc rather than Lopez-Otin himself, who has been too busy doing book tours etc. to really scrutinize the data.

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      • J Exp Med. 2001 Oct 15;194(8):1097-110.
        Human immunodeficiency virus 1 envelope glycoprotein complex-induced apoptosis involves mammalian target of rapamycin/FKBP12-rapamycin-associated protein-mediated p53 phosphorylation.
        Castedo M1, Ferri KF, Blanco J, Roumier T, Larochette N, Barretina J, Amendola A, Nardacci R, Métivier D, Este JA, Piacentini M, Kroemer G.
        Author information
        1
        Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UMR1599, Institut Gustave Roussy, F-94805 Villejuif, France.

        Figure 5C.

        Like

      • J Exp Med. 1999 Jan 18;189(2):381-94.
        Mitochondrial release of caspase-2 and -9 during the apoptotic process.
        Susin SA1, Lorenzo HK, Zamzami N, Marzo I, Brenner C, Larochette N, Prévost MC, Alzari PM, Kroemer G.
        Author information
        1
        Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UPR 420, F-94801 Villejuif, France.

        Figure 10.

        Like

      • Cancer Gene Ther. 2002 Mar;9(3):219-27.
        Wild-type p53 induced sensitization of mutant p53 TNF-resistant cells: role of caspase-8 and mitochondria.
        Ameyar-Zazoua M1, Larochette N, Dorothée G, Daugas E, Haddada H, Gouloumet V, Métivier D, Stancou R, Mami-Chouaib F, Kroemer G, Chouaib S.
        Author information
        1
        INSERM U487, “Cytokines et Immunologie des Tumeurs Humaines,” Institut Gustave Roussy, Villejuif 94805, France.

        Figure 4.

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  5. A source familiar with Daley lab

    Doulatov of the duplicated gel lane was “Dr. Positive control” in the lab. Typical bully of Daley lab, always trashing personality and data of his colleagues with F-word. He had a harem of female techs and students served him. With HHWF and K99 money Doulatov brought in, Daley granted and encouraged all of Doulatov’s behavior as strong male PI phenotype. Actually phenocopies Daley.

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  6. The Lopez-Otin effect on Anti-Ageing research. A review featured a case of Soria-Valles retraction.

    Metformin and Aging: A Review
    Glossmann H.H.· Lutz O.M.D.
    Gerontology
    https://doi.org/10.1159/000502257

    “Box 1. Anti-aging research is a hot topic.
    Viviremos 135 anos!” (“We will live for 135 years”) was on the title page of the Spanish newspaper “El Mundo” on October 15, 2015. Lauded were Spanish scientists who published a paper in Nature Cell Biology [3]. Therein, the role of nuclear factor kappalight-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB) and its downstream targets, such as disruptor of telomeric silencing 1-like (DOT1L), which is a histone H3 (H3K79) methyltransferase, were propagated as targets for “rejuvenation.” Three years earlier, the authors had reported that sodium salicylate (200 mg/kg by daily i.p. injection) greatly prolonged life in progeria mouse models [4]. It took 4 years until the 2015 paper [3] was retracted by Nature Cell Biology in March 2019 [5]. In January 2019, another 8 publications from the same group were retracted from the Journal of Biological Chemistry. This illustrates that in the rather young scientific discipline of anti-aging research, competition is fierce and reproducibility by other, independent research groups is most important. The retractions finally occurred because of numerous comments and complaints, especially about “photoshopping” (see https://pubpeer.com/).”

    https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/502257

    Like

  7. J Exp Med. 2005 Oct 3;202(7):919-29. Epub 2005 Sep 26.
    Tumor cells convert immature myeloid dendritic cells into TGF-beta-secreting cells inducing CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cell proliferation.
    Ghiringhelli F1, Puig PE, Roux S, Parcellier A, Schmitt E, Solary E, Kroemer G, Martin F, Chauffert B, Zitvogel L.
    Author information
    1
    Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, U517, University of Burgundy, 21079 Dijon, France.

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/2EB0E6FF14C29135B6377A5CB367DA

    Figure 1A.

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  8. PubPeer reader found dicing in Wang blot from the Daley lab.

    Embryonic stem cell-derived hematopoietic stem cells
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2005) – 10 Comments
    pubmed: 16357205 doi: 10.1073/pnas.0506127102 issn: 0027-8424 issn: 1091-6490

    Yuan Wang , Frank Yates , Olaia Naveiras , Patricia Ernst , George Q Daley

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/C3B95A2B8FB9250B3426F7140930CA

    gel splicing was accepted at the time of the paper, but dicing within a lane was not accepted at any time.

    Like

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