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.
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.
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.
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.