More on the latest Cell retraction: PI says a graduate student was at fault
This morning we reported on a new retraction in Cell involving fraud from a lab in Finland, which led us to a second retraction of a paper by the same group in the Journal of Molecular Biology. The first author on both papers was Tatjana Degenhardt, who at the time was a graduate student in the lab of Carsten Carlberg, professor of biochemistry at the University of Kuopio.
A few minutes ago Retraction Watch spoke with Carlberg, who had this to say about Degenhardt:
It’s all her fault, and probably today is the worst day of her life when the world sees what she has done. I was here betrayed by a student I thought I knew pretty well. A year ago I would have put my hand in fire for her.
In our first post, we quoted extensively from a letter on Carlberg’s web site discussing the JMB retraction. Carlberg’s group also has posted a lengthy explanation of events for the Cell paper, some of which follows:
A number of weeks after the publication, we were alerted by a kind and attentive colleague that two bands in figure 2D of the publication are identical whereas as they should correspond to different experiments. This induced us to go through every detail, retrieving the original experimental data and reconstructing the presentations of the experiments in the publication. Because we were able to work as a team of all the authors, we have now been able to do all this.
This team has come to the following conclusions:
1. Although most of the experimental data points presented in the publication are real, some of them have been manipulated by one of the authors, such that the resulting ‘data sets’ together were more in keeping with the occurrence of the oscillations.
2. Experimental figures on the basis of the true experimental data do not provide evidence of statistical significance, neither for oscillatory behaviour nor for the absence of such behaviour.
3. The figures and tables resulting from the modelling aspects are all in good order.
As a team we have therefore decided to retract the experimental parts of this work. In discussion with the journal, this has led to a retraction of the publication as a whole, again with consent of all authors. All authors stand by the modelling results of the paper, however. We obviously feel very bad about this.
The letter goes on to say that Carlberg’s lab will be taking steps to avoid such unpleasantness in the future — although as he acknowledged in his interview with us, human behavior can, and often does, defy barriers to mischief.
We have reconstructed how and why this has happened and we are putting procedures in place to prevent recurrence. The grave mistakes were made by a PhD student in training. We shall be instructing future PhD students explicitly as to what is and what is not, proper data processing (the present data manipulation was in the grey zone between non-professional outlier elimination and data creation). We shall also limit the competitive pressures to which our PhD students are subject. Although we expect our post-docs to have been trained in what are and what are not proper procedures in science, we shall also repeat the instructions for them. At the same time we are discussing standard procedures one should put in place in research groups to prevent all this from happening, e.g. was in which group leaders can identify illegitimate data manipulations.
One line in there is worth a second look: “We shall also limit the competitive pressures to which our PhD students are subject.”
That’s a refreshing notion. Many doctoral students in the United States, at least, would argue that the P stands for Pressure (or Publish, which amounts to the same thing). As readers of this blog have pointed out, perhaps the publish-or-perish ethos in academia has outlived its usefulness, whatever that once was.
May 20, 2011: Please see an update on an investigation into this situation by the University of Luxembourg, which may cost Carlberg his job there.