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. The Royal Academy of Sciences insists Lopez-Otin is a victim of journal's failure.

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 A Nature Cell Biology paper was retracted, followed by no less than 8 retractions at Journal of Biological Chemistry, despite massive protests from Spanish scientific elites.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screened more papers and have found additional data manipulations in 18 of them, and this is why the mentoring award was revoked.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!

Update 2.02.2020

Margarita Salas died on 7 November 2019, aged 80. But even then, the Margaritos nepotism continues.

The Spanish Royal Academy of Science (RAC) issued on 30.01.2020 a statement of support of Lopez-Otin. It is not available as online press release (there is a hidden pdf though), which was apparently initially issued to just 3 loyal newspapers which previously proved themselves as rabid Otinistas. The RAC kind of admits that Lopez-Otin did publish falsified data (which they insist is not fraud), but they place the blame entirely with the journals, for failing to spot the manipulations during peer review. There is even an English version:, with a strangely erotic reference to “The major thrust of Dr. Lopez-Otín’s scientific achievements“:

“RAC has reached the conclusion that those publications had alterations of figure presentations, in particular panel or lane duplications that are not good scientific practice, and that should not have been made. However, the evidence gathered by RAC is that the figure alterations in no case represented any attempt to modify the scientific conclusions of the articles. The alterations were of such a nature that they should have been detected during the initial submission quality screens usually carried out by the journals, as well as by the reviewers of the articles. Having both filters failed, RAC concludes that the issues should have been solved through corrections requested to the authors, and then published in the relevant journals. In no case a forced retraction of the articles was justified.”

The investigation, according to El Pais, was led by RAC vice president and Salas mentee, Esteban Domingo Solans, among those other dishonourable old gits who voted were neuroscientist Carlos Belmonte, biochemist Luis Franco, ecologist Miguel Delibes de Castro, plazt scientist Ana Crespo and physicist Juan Rojo. The report continues:

“The magnitude of the distress inflicted upon him is not commensurate with the nature of the mistakes made in the retracted articles. RAC encourages the institutions responsible of examining scientific misconducts to establish a clear distinction between what should be considered presentation mistakes or inconsequential alterations from true scientific fraud. RAC has found no evidence of scientific fraud in any of the publications co-authored by Prof. Carlos López-Otín who has seen his reputation unfairly diminished.”

It is worth mentioning that former RAC president Ángel Martín Municio was a proud Opus Dei member. Salas herself had serious Opus Dei connections, naturally those are not discussed in her obituaries. The first journalist supporter of Lopez-Otin Pablo Alvarez of La Nueva Espana was an Opus Dei member. The Passion of Don Carlos is not a fiction anymore.


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

  1. George Q. Daley commented on NEJM about triage and ventilator allocations for the current pandemic of COVID-19.

    N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 23. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp2005689. [Epub ahead of print]
    The Toughest Triage – Allocating Ventilators in a Pandemic.
    Truog RD,, Mitchell C, Daley GQ.


  2. Pingback: Losing research ethics and mental health in Daley lab – For Better Science

  3. Pingback: Interview with JBC research integrity manager Kaoru Sakabe – For Better Science

  4. Pingback: Science misconduct – For Better Science

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