Unveiled: Anonymous researcher found guilty of fraud in Canadian funding agency documents
Margaret Munro, a Postmedia News reporter whose work we’ve had the chance to admire before, has a few great stories running in Canadian papers today about what happened in some recent scientific fraud investigations.
She bases the stories on Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) documents obtained under a freedom of information request. NSERC — which provides $1 billion per year for research — seems to have gone far out of its way to keep the names of the researchers a secret.
In one set of heavily redacted documents, however, they did mention a December 2008 retraction. As Retraction Watch readers know, we investigate retractions…well, not exactly for a living, but we sure spend a lot of time doing it. So we threw ourselves at our favorite database and made some connections.
Long story short: We’re quite sure we’ve found the unnamed researcher.
Meet Fawzi Razem, who resigned from the University of Manitoba in the midst of an investigation that later found he had committed fraud. According to an August 2009 report in the Winnipeg Free Press:
Concerns about the research emerged last summer when a team of researchers from New Zealand couldn’t replicate Razem’s work — a red flag that there could be serious problems with the original findings.
A December 2008 online edition of Nature said the study made “erroneous conclusions” and there is no evidence to support Razem’s findings.
The university would not initially confirm if an internal investigation was underway.
That changed July 30 when the U of M issued a statement in a newsletter confirming that Razem had committed fraud.
“Specifically, the committee concluded that certain experiments claimed to have been conducted, in fact, were not, and that results were fabricated,” the bulletin said. “This case is a very rare and isolated incident, and there are already safeguards in place to prevent such occurrences.”
The statement said the U of M has implemented sanctions against Razem and that he will “never be recommended for an academic appointment of any kind at the university.”
Razem resigned when the initial allegations surfaced.
Those details square with those in the Postmedia report:
He “resigned his employment at the university concurrent with the timing of the allegations of misconduct against him,” the university vice-president reported to NSERC in July 2009. “At this time, he has no active association with our university; It is my understanding that he is now employed at another institution.”
The university, which had to be “reminded” twice by NSERC officials of the requirement to investigate and report misconduct to the council under the federal research rules, began a full investigation into the allegations in January 2009, more than six months after the concerns were raised.
The investigators, who interviewed witnesses and reviewed experimental data, concluded in June 2009 that the researcher engaged in “academic fraud.”
*The unnamed researcher in the documents obtained by Postmedia had retracted a
Nature paper in December 2008. So did Fawzi and his co-authors: “The RNA-binding protein FCA is an abscisic acid receptor,” which appeared in Nature in 2006. [See clarification at end of post.] And that retraction came after, according to Postmedia:
another scientist informed the unidentified Canadian researcher in June 2008 “that her lab was unable to reproduce results from several of (his) experiments.”
That researcher, in Razem’s case, was the University of Otago’s Catherine L. Day, who wrote a letter to Nature pointing out the flaws in the study, published alongside the retraction.
The original Nature paper, published in 2006, has been cited more than 200 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
According to the NSERC documents, the fraudster is now at another institution. The Postmedia report said NSERC had hinted that it was outside of Canada. The Razem in the Winnipeg Free Press story is now a faculty member at Palestine Polytechnic University, although he goes by Fazim Alrazem.
We also found another retraction by Razem and his colleagues, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), of related work, “Purification and characterization of a barley aleurone abscisic acid-binding protein.” The 2010 retraction notice:
This article has been withdrawn at the authors’ request. The data presented in Figs. 7 and 8 are not reproducible, and there is no significant binding of abscisic acid to the recombinant protein. The data in Fig. 2 are also not reproducible, and it is questionable whether ABAP1 exists as a native protein.
The 2004 JBC paper — and let us be the first to commend the editors for a detailed retraction notice so unlike the ones we’ve seen lately — has been cited 46 times.
We’ve contacted Razem and the University of Manitoba for confirmation that we’ve identified the unnamed scientist in the NSERC report.
Don’t miss Munro’s stories, which include the tale of a researcher who committed fraud but won’t need to retract any papers — because he made them up.
One of the themes of both stories is the secrecy under which NSERC operates:
The council says the Privacy Act does not allow it to release details of research misconduct cases, which critics say must change.
“NSERC’s primary obligation is to the public,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, who is calling for more transparency.
“If someone is convicted of research misconduct, that should be known,” Turk said in an interview, stressing that allegations of misconduct must be investigated in private. “But if there is a finding of research misconduct then I think it should be made public.”
To say we agree would be a contender for understatement of the year. The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) — where Ivan is on the board — is engaged with other journalism organizations in a protest of similar secrecy by the Obama administration. The Health Resources and Services Administration has recently removed the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank, “a public database of physician discipline and malpractice payments.” The AHCJ and other groups would like to see that change.
*Clarification, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, 9/20/11: Clarified sentences with asterisk to make it clear that the redacted NSERC documents did not include a reference to Nature, only to a December 2008 retraction. The Nature retraction surfaced in our search of PubMed for NSERC-funded research.