Former Associate Dean and 'Highly Cited Researcher' Was Demoted by University

Retraction Watch staff

July 18, 2022

A former associate dean for research at the University of Wyoming who was named as one of Clarivate's Highly Cited Researchers for 2021 was sanctioned by the university years ago, Retraction Watch has learned.

Jun Ren, who studies the heart and diabetes, left Wyoming sometime in 2019 or 2020, according to a press release noting his citation achievements, after serving at different times as director of the NIH-funded INBRE program as well as associate dean. But following an investigation of his work between 2013 and 2015 that Ren says found "reckless mistakes" and "no intention to obtain specific results," he was removed as director of what he says was a multi-million dollar research program and lost "administrative, editorial, grant review and advisor positions."

Ren now says that he

overcommitted myself in administration work (PI for a 10-year [$]30 million research grant and served as college associate dean) and failed to stay on top of my own research lab closely. I took the full responsibility for our mistakes.

The university opened a new investigation in recent years, and Ren has now had two papers retracted over his objections. In the case of "Mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) protects against streptozotocin-induced diabetic cardiomyopathy: role of GSK3β and mitochondrial function," originally published in BMC Medicine in 2012, "the investigation found evidence of data irregularities and image reuse in Fig. 7K with [four] previously published articles." The paper has been cited more than 100 times, according to Clarivate's Web of Science.

The university found evidence "of data irregularities and image reuse affecting Figures 5, 7, 8, and the original, uncorrected Figure 2" in the 2010 PLOS ONE paper, "Interaction between Age and Obesity on Cardiomyocyte Contractile Function: Role of Leptin and Stress Signaling." The article, which has been cited 25 times, had already been subject to a correction in 2014. The retraction notice continues:

The corresponding author confirmed that some of the panels in Figures 5, 6, 7, and 8 were prepared using spliced images. They explain that the original submission used an 8-group study design, and that additional groups were added following peer-review. The use of data obtained from spliced blots was not clearly indicated during figure preparation, as was required per the PLOS ONE image preparation guidelines in place at the time of submission. Furthermore, the corresponding author confirmed that the GAPDH panel in Figure 6 was duplicated inadvertently.
Although the corresponding author provided underlying data and repeat experiment data in support of their article, the data provided for editorial review were not sufficient to resolve the concerns with the panels presented in these figures.

Ren, who appears to now be affiliated with the Shanghai Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases at Zhongshan Hospital of Fudan University, did not agree to either of the retractions, according to the notices. Between 2002 and 2014, he was a principal investigator on NIH grants totaling more than $22 million, according to the NIH RePORTER database.

The university has requested other retractions from journals published by the American Heart Association (AHA), we have also learned, and Ren also objects to those. In a May letter to Eldrin Lewis, chair of the AHA's scientific publishing committee, Ren wrote:

I regret these mistakes from my lab although I truly believe that these are correctable issues (some of them may reflect "difference of opinion". All these mistakes or "difference in opinion" deal with loading controls and none had any impact on the bar graphs or study conclusion.

One of the two papers, published in 2012 in Hypertension , includes as a co-author Piero Anversa, 31 of whose articles were slated for retraction by Harvard following a $10 million settlement with the U.S. government over allegations of misconduct. Ren writes that the paper 

was submitted during a time frame when first author Dr. Zhang just delivered her daughter and was away from the lab. Several junior students helped her for representative gel assembly (while I failed to provide proper supervision). This may be the main reason for multiple gel issues in this work. One of which was Nan Hu was later found to duplicate image between publications…Mr. Hu was terminated from the program in 2017 for once again doing such misconduct.

Ren writes that the new investigation of his work "is not legitimate since it is only based on publication figures with some vague terms (image manipulation)." He also claims that it was "for an authorship dispute for students not in my lab" and that "our RIO was investigating my "conflict of interest" with China at the same time (due to my connection with China)." He continues:

During the investigation, my lab was closed and I was suspended (teach and research). I took all the needed punishment for such mistake including closure of research lab (one week after receiving a joint new R01). I hope AHA would not punish more bright junior scientists on these papers for my mistakes.

But he acknowledges errors in the other AHA paper, in Circulation :

2009 Circulation paper does contain two mistakes. In both cases, a loading control (either from one tissue or one protein) was accidentally copied and pasted twice – causing duplication. The correct loading control was in the PPT file although they were mistaken left out. As an AHA standard, these loading control errors are correctable and were not done trying to alter study conclusion.

Contacted for comment, Wyoming's research integrity officer forwarded our request to a spokesperson, who sent this statement:

The University of Wyoming has conducted an examination of selected publications of Dr. Jun Ren, a former university employee, in accordance with university policies and obligation under federal regulations concerning federally funded research. Based on the findings of this examination, the university is recommending retraction of several publications due to concerns regarding data irregularities inconsistent with published conclusions.

Ren and his co-authors corrected a paper in the International Journal of Obesity in 2020.