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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Bulfone-Paus saga continues: Her supporters and home institution exchange sharp letters

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Silvia Bulfone-Paus

Retraction Watch readers may have been following the case of Silvia Bulfone-Paus, whose lab has been forced to retract 12 papers amid allegations of scientific misconduct. As is often true in such cases, the story doesn’t end with those retractions. We’ve just become aware of a fascinating exchange in March and April between Bulfone-Paus’s supporters and her home institution, Germany’s Research Center Borstel.

First, some background: Karin Wiebauer, a former post-doc in Bulfone-Paus’s lab, flagged the potential misconduct, in great detail, for Bulfone-Paus in a November 2009 email. (In fact, she had brought it to her attention years earlier.) But Bulfone-Paus did not tell Borstel officials about the allegations until late February 2010. Borstel’s investigation into Bulfone-Paus’s lab began in July 2010.

Once that began, a person referring to himself as “Marco Berns” began emailing officials, journalists, and others about the situation. Nature called that move a “smear campaign,” and the emails “libellous,” but in retrospect they — and Wiebauer’s analysis — appear to have been spot-on, based on the eventual report of the Borstel committee. That report — which found data manipulation by two of Bulfone-Paus’s post-docs — led the institute’s Scientific Advisory Board to ask for Bulfone-Paus’s resignation. She only tendered that a month later, after more pressure.

So, with that as a preamble: If we were to characterize the letter, which we’ve made available here, we’d call it a good example of “shoot the messenger.” It’s signed by 25 scientists, starting with Desmond Tobin of the University of Bradford in the UK and ending with Andrzej Slominski of the University of Tennessee.The authors seem to be suggesting that what happened in Bulfone-Paus’s lab is not the problem, but rather the reaction to it. We’re familiar with those arguments here at Retraction Watch, since we hear them occasionally from editors and publishers who wish we’d just let sleeping dogs lie.

Well, we have nothing against dogs, but sometimes they need to be woken up. Clearly, Borstel agrees, based on their response, which we’ve made available here. We’d urge readers to read both letters in their entirety, but here are some choice excerpts.

First, from the supporters:

The massive and unfair punishment that our esteemed colleague in Germany is currently being subjected to, damages science much more than it protects it from future misconduct by others. This raises serious concerns, and must not be tolerated.

Borstel’s response:

The scientific misconduct in Silvia Bulfone-Paus’s lab and her procrastination to go public despite being ultimately responsible has highly damaged the reputation of the Research Center. This is what cannot be tolerated.

More from her supporters:

Professor Bulfone-Paus herself has repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that she fully accepts her personal responsibility as principal investigator for not having carefully scrutinized each and every data figure presented to her by these two post-docs before publication for any evidence of manipulation and duplication.

Not quite, says Borstel:

A detailed description of the manipulations performed on a number of Western Blots was communicated to Silvia Bulfone-Paus on November 4, 2009 by Dr. Wiebauer. Responsible action would have necessitated the immediate handing-over of the issue to an independent investigative committee to assess the two papers in which these manipulated figures had appeared.

It was however, not until February 29, 2010, that Silvia Bulfone-Paus informed the Leibniz Center’s directorate about the allegations, which finally paved the way to a formal investigation. After having carefully reviewed the report of the independent investigation, the Scientific Advisory Board of the Leibniz Center Borstel advised Silvia Bulfone-Paus in November 2010 to step down as director, in order to signal that she accepted her share of responsibility for the scientific fraud perpetrated in her group (the contracts of the 2 postdocs had been terminated much earlier). Silvia Bulfone-Paus however, did not follow this strong recommendation and did not resign from her directorship until 4 weeks later and only, when specifically requested to do so by the governing body.

Bulfone-Paus’s supporters also refer to the “smear campaign:”

We the undersigned scientists are even more dismayed to learn that a recent official investigation run by the Borstel Research Center concluded that Professor Bulfone-Paus carries the same level of personal responsibility as the two post-docs who had perpetrated these manipulations. While this investigation was going on, a vicious anonymous smear campaign was launched against her, fed with information by insiders from within the Borstel Research Center. This campaign even extended to her husband who has co-authored many of her papers.

Borstel:

In December 2010, new evidence surfaced that a publication of which Silvia Bulfone-Paus was the first author (FASEB J 1999) also contained manipulated material. She then started retracting additional 6 publications, but failed to inform her directorate colleagues, with priority, that she no longer was just the corresponding or senior author but in one case also the primarily responsible first author. This lack of transparency damaged the trusting atmosphere within the directorate.

One passage in particular resonated with us, because it touches on the fact that a few journals allowed Bulfone-Paus to claim, in retraction notices, that her main conclusions had been validated — without the journals having seen that data. We called attention that here. Her supporters:

These systematic manipulations did not affect the main results, key concepts and conclusions of the publications in question, many of which have since been independently confirmed by other investigators. Yet, these manipulations sufficed to necessitate the retraction of 12 scientific papers.

Borstel:

It has been stated that, since many of the incriminated manipulations “only” concern Western Blots showing loading controls, the main results reported in the papers appeared not to be affected by the manipulations. The data supporting this contention however, have not yet been examined by independent referees from the respective Journals. This is relevant since the usage of identical Western blots to proof unrelated findings indicates a much stronger impact on the conclusions drawn from these data and whether they hold true.

A final point: One of the narratives that critics like to employ against watchdogs — including Retraction Watch — is that there are just a few “bad apples” in science that shouldn’t get an outsized amount of attention. We don’t have any reason to think that most scientists aren’t honest and transparent. But when there is obvious misconduct, and the response from 25 senior colleagues around the world is to defensively shoot the messenger instead of acknowledging that something bad happened, there’s something wrong.

When scientists — or journal editors, or publishers — fail to admit anything at all is rotten in the state of Denmark, it makes us very, very unlikely to trust them when they offer us a shiny red apple. We say that as reporters, representing readers.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

May 19, 2011 at 1:09 pm

13 Responses

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  1. Up to now, scientific misconduct perpetrated in the lab of Prof. Bulfone-Paus was almost exclusively assigned to two postdocs which have since been fired but never admitted to the serious allegations of scientific fraud according to the open letter by the board of directors. I would like to draw your attention to Fig 5 in Blood, Vol 93, No 10 (May 15), 1999: pp 3531-3539. This figure provides exclusive evidence that IL-15 is an integral membrane protein and not bound to the IL-15 receptor. The paper has Prof. Bulfone-Paus as senior author and is not co-authored by the two infamous postdocs. On Monday 23, the Abnormal Science Blog -a German blog on bad behaviour in science- (http://abnormalscienceblog.wordpress.com/) will discuss the evidence for data duplication in this figure which could jeopardize the main finding of the paper. Come and see for yourself.

    Prof. Dr. Joerg Zwirner

    May 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm

  2. Excuse me while I pick up my jaw from the floor. What were these 25 colleagues of Bulfone-Paus thinking!?

    QStel

    May 19, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    • i’ve worked in derm research for a long time and personally know a couple of these 25 who are actually extremely nice people doing a fantastic job. the paus husband and wife team are very well recognized in their particular research field. i can only assume that their colleagues thought that the so-called smear campaign went too far and was too personal.

      then again, IMHO it was right to blow the massive whistle on the blatant and very unelegant (not to say totally amateur-like) picture manipulations very correctly resulted in retractions and disciplinary measures. too bad, lady, should have better thought about it in the first place. there is no excuse for this behaviour, and it is too easy to blame everything on the post-docs.*

      there are too many honest people working extremely hard and unsuccessfully to achieve what she’s achieved using doubtful methods and therefore one can have no pity.

      *Sentence edited to remove a presumption of guilt on the part of the postdocs in question.

      plemplem

      May 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

      • How come the “paus husband and wife team are very well recognized in their particular research field” yet the people who gave them “recognition” didn’t spot the “blatant and very unelegant (not to say totally amateur-like) picture manipulations”?

        Fame is no guarantee of honesty.

        There are several cases of people who have been recognized in there field only later to have been uncovered. For example Sir Cyril Burt (UK)who falsified his data on the heritability of IQ. John Darsee (USA) the medical researcher who had to retract over 80 papers in cardiovascular research. In Germany the ase of Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach (the latter worked at the Lübeck University, as do the Paus husband and wife team) who had to retract 94 papers in the field of cancer research at the end of the 1990s.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyril_Burt

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Darsee

        Herrmann Brach case:

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1173372/

        http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedhelm_Herrmann

        bernard soares

        May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

      • The point i’m trying to make here is that it’s rather tough to become famous in derm research these days :-) there are way hotter fields of research with much fiercer competition going on. therefore i rather feel like the derm guys, who form quite a close-knit community and entertain a rather benign form of competitiveness, just thought that things were taken over the top and unfair.

        mind that S B-P is rather an immunologist than a derm person, which is a much more disputed field…

        plemplem

        May 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      • In reply to plemplem’s message of May 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm.

        “S B-P is rather an immunologist than a derm person”.

        What kind of immunologist would that be? 12 papers, many of them highly cited, were recently retracted (watch this blog!).

        http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/as-last-of-12-promised-bulfone-paus-retractions-appears-a-disappointing-report-card-on-journal-transparency/

        bernard soares

        May 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

  3. Shooting the messenger is pretty standard. When I was investigating the Blood paper from Tunisia (Abdelkefi et al; see story on Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/our-computer-ate-the-data-expression-of-concern-over-blood-thinner-study-raises-concerns-itself/), not only were the concerns I raised taken somewhat lightly, but even when the first author retracted the paper, a statement was made that the paper was perhaps being retracted as a result of my badgering/harassment (technical terms for seeking the truth?) rather than because of misconduct: “I am worried that embarrassment regarding your threat to contact other authors and demands to inspect
    the data, and simple exhaustion in dealing with the relentless pressure applied has resulted in the decision.” My response: “You have been privy to our correspondence: it was
    not intended to browbeat him into acknowledgment of errors. It was a challenge that any
    scientist is expected to be prepared to defend as befits robust academic debate. I doubt
    therefore that embarrassment or exhaustion could be adequate explanations.”

    Jayesh Mehta

    May 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm

  4. I read that the supporters of Bulfone-Paus write of the alleged smear campaign:

    “This campaign even extended to her husband who has co-authored many of her papers.”

    As of 20.05.11, according to Pubmed he has co-authored 36 papers with Bulfone-Paus, which means according to the rules of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors that;

    “An author must take responsibility for at least one component of the work, should be able to identify who is responsible for each other component, and should ideally be confident in their co-authors’ ability and integrity”,

    which is a direct quotation from:

    http://www.icmje.org/ethical_1author.html

    Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Ethical Considerations in the Conduct and Reporting of Research: Authorship and Contributorship

    Byline Authors

    Since he co-authored 36 papers over several years there were many opportunities to become “confident in their co-authors’ ability and integrity”.

    The Borstel research centre then counters with:

    “In December 2010, new evidence surfaced that a publication of which Silvia Bulfone-Paus was the first author (FASEB J 1999) also contained manipulated material”.

    Ralf Paus, who mentions on his own website that he is Bulfone-Paus’s husband

    http://www.medicine.manchester.ac.uk/staff/152923

    “Ralf is married to an Italian immunologist, Silvia Bulfone-Paus”

    so it is not as if anybody is prying into his private relationships, does appear on this retraction in FASEB J.

    March 2011 The FASEB Journal vol. 25 no. 3 1118

    http://www.fasebj.org/content/25/3/1118.long

    The supporters of Bulfone-Paus have highlighted the issue of the rules governing publication in medical journals.

    clare francis

    May 20, 2011 at 2:57 am

  5. “It was however, not until February 29, 2010, that Silvia Bulfone-Paus informed the Leibniz Center’s directorate about the allegations”

    Not to be flippant, but are the Borstel board implying that 2010 was a leap year?

    daen

    May 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm

  6. It is interesting to see how Bulfone -Paus is in complete denial. This reminds me of the case of Claudio Milanesi (who accidentally comes from the same lab as Bulfone-Paus) who invented interleukin 4A in the lab of Ellis Reinherz:

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_v130/ai_4573187/

    Although he clearly spiked his experiments, Milanesi later claimed that he never intended to publish the results and was a victim of the research culture in the US.

    backtothesource

    May 21, 2011 at 3:04 am

    • Silent scientists and jumping the gun.

      I do not think it is right to let a presumed guilt of the 2 post-docs to go unchallenged. From a reading of the letter of the Bulfone-Paus supporters this is what you might believe.

      The letter from the Bulfone-Paus supporters does contain the statement:

      “Professor Bulfone-Paus herself has repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that she fully accepts her personal responsibility as principal investigator for not having carefully scrutinized each and every data figure presented to her by these two post-docs before publication for any evidence of manipulation and duplication”.

      This statement is laying the original blame (in a polite was, but nevertheless it is) on the 2 post-docs, when in fact, we do not know this.

      The open letter of the Board of Directors:

      http://www.fz-borstel.de/cms/index.php?id=418&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=325&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=43&cHash=e7b88c9e2d441f0c1ffa99b7a3e866f1&L=1

      does state:

      “It bears also mentioning that, to date, there is no formal admission of guilt or acceptance of responsibility from any one of the three scientists involved or any of the co-authors with respect to their exact role in the manipulation and/or duplication of data. It therefore remains unresolved who carried out the manipulations”.

      I think the input of the 2 post-docs would be informative. They are people and should count too. They have not been given their say yet. We should not automatically believe people higher up the hierarchy. “Equal before the law”, should mean something.

      History repeating itself, twice:

      From: Silencing Scientists and Scholars in Other Fields – Power Paradigm Controls, Peer Review and Scholarly Communication. 1998 Ablex Publishing Corporation.

      Sorry about the long web address, but it is free:

      http://books.google.de/books?id=LwlCqYk3aLUC&pg=PA67&lpg=PA67&dq=science+interleukin+4a+retractions&source=bl&ots=BmggRfMtfv&sig=UoNA2Ee9Sh9PUMRtxhJ35QwUdY4&hl=de&ei=JTrZTcDhNIOMswb26u3uAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

      We see in the first full paragraph on page 68 that Claudio Milanese was silenced twice. Likewise the 2 post-docs who did not sign the retraction notices, Elena Bulanova, and Vadim Budagian, are also silent.

      “Vadim Budagian and Elena Bulanova declined to sign the retraction”.

      from:

      http://www.nature.com/emboj/journal/v30/n3/full/emboj20117a.html

      Also Herrman and Brach, the most recent big scandal in German bioscience, worked on cytokines as do the Paus team.

      Of Herrmann and Brach:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1173372/

      “Most papers cover leukemia research and focus on the role of cytokines”

      Of the Paus team:

      Cytokine Growth Factor Rev. 2006 Aug;17(4):259-80. Epub 2006 Jun 30.
      IL-15/IL-15 receptor biology: a guided tour through an expanding universe.
      Budagian V, Bulanova E, Paus R, Bulfone-Paus S.
      Source

      Department of Immunology and Cell Biology, Research Center Borstel, D-23845 Borstel, Germany.
      Abstract

      The cytokine interleukin-15 (IL-15) has a key role in promoting survival, proliferation and activation of natural killer (NK) and CD8+ T cells. Despite its functional similarities to IL-2, IL-15 affects a wider range of target cell populations and utilizes different mechanisms of signaling. Here, we review recent advances in the IL-15-mediated signaling, and in the functional properties on cells besides T lymphocytes and NK cells. These are discussed in the context of their potential clinical and therapeutic relevance.

      bernard soares

      May 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm

  7. DFG decision in Bulfone-Paus case:

    “[...] The DFG Committee concluded that Bulfone-Paus had committed “gross negligence of her supervisory duty” in her function as the leader of the working group and was therefore guilty of scientific misconduct as stipulated in the DFG procedures. On the basis of this result, the Joint Committee of the DFG decided to issue Bulfone-Paus with a written reprimand, to prohibit her from submitting proposals for three years, and to exclude her from statutory bodies at the DFG and not to appoint her as a reviewer for three years. However, since Bulfone-Paus had voluntarily suggested at the start of the proceedings that she withdraw from her appointments, not be appointed as a reviewer, nor be included in statutory bodies, the Joint Committee decided that this period should count towards the measures taken, leaving only the issue of the written reprimand to continue in effect. [...]”

    http://www.dfg.de/en/service/press/press_releases/2012/press_release_no_62/index.html

    visitor

    December 13, 2012 at 7:40 am

  8. http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/dfg-erteilt-immunologin-bulfone-paus-ruege-wegen-fehlverhaltens-a-871920.html

    “Milde Strafe für Spitzenforscherin” = mild (light) punishment for leading researcher

    fernando pessoa

    December 13, 2012 at 8:15 am


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