Axel Ullrich, who directs the department of molecular biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, shared a stake in this year’s $250,000 Lasker Award for his work on Herceptin, a treatment for breast cancer. Ullrich’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, announced last week, will join a slew of coveted honors in biomedicine that already sit on his mantel, including the King Faisal Prize, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, the Wolf Prize and others.
The Lasker is sometimes a harbinger of an even bigger prize, the Nobel. But Ullrich is in select company for another reason as well — he’s one of several world-class scientists who’ve won major awards, including the Nobel, but also have had to retract some of their work.
While retraction is usually seen as a black mark, a signal of sloppy or dishonest research from scientists or groups who can’t be trusted, for this club the opposite is true: The willingness to admit mistakes publicly sends a message of trustworthiness to fellow researchers. And it sets an example that more should follow — even if they don’t win a prize.
In 2010, Ullrich and his colleagues pulled two papers from the Journal of Biological Chemistry over concerns that images in the articles had been manipulated. Ullrich blamed a former postdoc in his lab, Naohito Aoki, for the fudging, which was uncovered by someone unconnected to the lab.
Ullrich said at the time that the two papers were a trivial part of his research corpus, and he doesn’t believe Aoki — who would eventually retract 10 papers — was trying to commit fraud. “In retrospect, I think no serious damage was done,” he told Retraction Watch in the wake of the retractions. “Aoki was a perfectionist, and I believe firmly that he didn’t intend to falsify data but to make it look perfect.” (Ullrich didn’t respond to a request for comment, but we suspect his inbox is quite full at the moment.)
Aoki couldn’t be located, and didn’t respond to requests for comment in 2010; he doesn’t appear to have published any research papers since then.
A postdoc also played a role in retractions of work by Linda Buck, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. Between 2008 and 2010, Buck retracted three papers, one of which was originally published before she won her Nobel. And Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University, who retracted a paper in 2016, shared the 2017 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine.
Most of the time, the now-retracted papers were published after scientists had won their prizes. Harvard’s Jack Szostak, for example, called it “definitely embarrassing” when he had to retract a 2016 paper. Szostak had shared the 2009 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine. But it was the right thing to do, he told Retraction Watch in 2017: “As a scientist the job is to troubleshoot. You can’t help nor can you ignore where that takes you. I fulfilled my obligation to insure that no one after me would waste their time on this.”
And although it was only a correction, not a retraction, Paul Nurse, who shared the 2001 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, fixed a 2017 paper last year. Nurse had learned at an early age that failure is not the end of one’s career. As he told The Scientist in 2006, he “failed the most basic examination in French on six separate occasions. This actually led to my rejection from all universities.”
Indeed, retractions — a special form of failure — not only may not ruin your career, but they can also demonstrate a special level of integrity to which scientists should aspire. (Of course, even though a lab head may not have been responsible for an error or fraud, some will criticize that researcher for inadequate supervision.)
We’ll never know how many retractions have derailed a researcher’s chances of a big prize, but given how singular a Nobel or a Lasker is, knowing that some who’ve corrected the record transparently have gone on to win one suggests they’re not a hindrance. And if that helps give others an incentive to do the right thing in their own work, all the better.