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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

University of Perugia researcher faces trial for embezzlement, fraud following 13 retractions and Expressions of Concern

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Stefano Fiorucci, a gastroenterology researcher at the University of Perugia in Italy, has been indicted for fraud and embezzlement, after a university investigation found that he had manipulated images in papers that he used to win about 2 million Euros in grant funding.

The case, which has so far resulted in four retractions and nine Expressions of Concern, has dragged on for several years. The trial is scheduled for July. It’s the first time that embezzlement charges have been brought against a scientist found to have committed fraud, according to reports in Umbria 24 and the Umbria Journal.

Fiorucci’s attorney, Stefano Bagianti, told Umbria 24 that there was

No photomontage, no manipulation and  no misappropriation of public funds.

Umbria 24 notes (translation):

Fiorucci said he had scanned the images to ensure they were well presented, but had not manipulated them in any way. As for money, he denied that he made use of money  that was allocated to the university department where he worked.

Fiorucci was first arrested in June of 2008 for fraud and embezzlement, but has remained in his post since then, and has published some 19 papers. The police are quoted in an APM story published at the time of his arrest:

“During the course of the investigation it was ascertained that some scientific works were inaccurate because they were based on laboratory results which had been manipulated.”

They added that there was evidence that images had been photocopied or electronically altered.

The police said they believe charges of embezzlement could be brought against Fiorucci because of allegations that he used public funds for uses that had not been authorised and for research which proved to be false.

He may also be charged with fraud because worked as a consultant and scientific director for pharmaceutical companies with authorisation, they said.

For example, Fiorucci is quoted in a 2003 press release by NicOx about work of his they funded which was later published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. That paper does not appear to have been subject to an Expression of Concern or retraction. (The company’s stock price took a dive in 2010.)

Antonio Morelli, head of the University of Perugia research team that included Fiorucci, brought the matter to the university’s attention. He is “demanding compensation for damage  to his  personal moral standing  and image  as well as  for  those of the Gastroenterology Section,” according to Umbria 24.

We’ve tried to reach Fiorucci, and will update with anything we hear back.

Here are the four retractions:

The University of Perugia appointed an internal Investigatory Commission to investigate the validity of claims of alleged academic misconduct with respect to several publications including Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 281: G654-G665, 2001. The Commission determined that Professor Stefano Fiorucci, the first and corresponding author of the above mentioned paper, while not necessarily involved in manipulating data himself, should have provided greater oversight of this and other papers submitted from his laboratory and thus is ultimately responsible for any violation of appropriate standards. Review of this article by the American Physiological Society (APS) has led to the conclusion that Figure 1B is fraudulent and that Figure 3F is an inappropriate composite of different images, which may invalidate its conclusions. In accordance with APS publication policies, the above-referenced paper is being retracted due to ethical concerns.

A NO-releasing derivative of acetaminophen spares the liver by acting at several checkpoints in the Fas pathway by Stefano Fiorucci, Elisabetta Antonelli, Andrea Mencarelli, Barbara Palazzetti, Lorena Alvarez-Miller, Marcelo Muscara, Piero Del Soldato, Laura Sanpaolo, John L Wallace and Antonio Morelli (Br J Pharmacol 135; 589–599; 2002) has been retracted by agreement between Professor A Morelli (Head of Gastroenterology, University of Perugia); other co-authors of the paper E Antonelli, B Palazzetti, MN Muscara, P Del Soldato, JLWallace; the Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Pharmacology andWiley-Blackwell.

Concerns were raised about the authenticity of PCR gel band images in several papers of Fiorucci et al; and were investigated by an official Committee of Inquiry set up by the University of Perugia. Although the inquiry was unable to draw conclusions regarding this paper because the original records were not available, it is clear to the Editors that part of a gel band in Figure 4 has been blacked out, without any comment in the text or legend, so this paper is being retracted based upon the Journal’s own expert opinion.

Liver delivery of NO by NCX-1000 protects against acute liver failure and mitochondrial dysfunction induced by APAP in mice by Stefano Fiorucci, Elisabetta Antonelli, Eleonora Distrutti, Andrea Mencarelli, Silvana Farneti, Piero Del Soldato and Antonio Morelli (Br J Pharmacol 143; 33–42; 2004) has been retracted by agreement between Professor A Morelli (Head of Gastroenterology, University of Perugia); other co-authors of the paper, E Antonelli, P Del Soldato; the Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Pharmacology and Wiley-Blackwell.

Concerns were raised about the authenticity of PCR gel band images in Figure 2 of Fiorucci et al; and were investigated by an official Committee of Inquiry set up by the University of Perugia. This retraction was subsequently agreed based on the conclusions of this inquiry together with the Journal’s own expert opinion.

A role for proteinase-activated receptor-1 in inflammatory bowel diseases,” first published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2004 and cited 62 times:

RT-PCR blots published in panel C of Figure 8 of this paper were mistakenly reproduced from a previous publication. The senior author sincerely regrets this error and would like to emphasize that this in no way diminishes the validity of the data contributed by the coauthors of the paper. However, the paper is being retracted in accordance with JCI policy.

The authors apologize for any inconvenience this error has caused.

Here are the nine Expressions of Concern:

  • Three in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for “NCX-1000, a NO-releasing derivative of ursodeoxycholic acid, selectively delivers NO to the liver and protects against development of portal hypertension” (cited 85 times), “NCX-1015, a nitric-oxide derivative of prednisolone, enhances regulatory T cells in the lamina propria and protects against 2,4,6-trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid-induced colitis in mice” (cited 57 times), and “A β-oxidation-resistant lipoxin A4 analog treats hapten-induced colitis by attenuating inflammation and immune dysfunction” (cited 94 times):

The editors wish to note that a reader has raised questions about the apparent duplication in the use of certain figures in the foregoing articles. We have been informed by the University of Perugia, Italy, of an ongoing review conducted by an inquiry committee at the university. We are awaiting the findings of the committee to determine the appropriate next steps.

The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding allegations of figure manipulation or figure duplication in several figures published in JPET. An investigation by an inquiry committee at the University of Perugia, Italy has confirmed or validated findings compatible with alleged hypotheses of electronic duplication and/or figure manipulation. The figure in question in this article is Fig. 6.

The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding allegations of figure manipulation or figure duplication in several figures published in JPET. An investigation by an inquiry committee at the University of Perugia, Italy has confirmed or validated findings compatible with alleged hypotheses of electronic duplication and/or figure manipulation. The figures in question in this article are Figs. 2 and 6.

The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding allegations of figure manipulation or figure duplication in several figures published in JPET. An investigation by an inquiry committee at the University of Perugia, Italy has confirmed or validated findings compatible with alleged hypotheses of electronic duplication and/or figure manipulation. The figure in question in this article is Fig. 2.

The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding allegations of figure manipulation or figure duplication in several figures published in JPET. An investigation by an inquiry committee at the University of Perugia, Italy has confirmed or validated findings compatible with alleged hypotheses of electronic duplication and/or figure manipulation. The figure in question in this article is Fig. 1.

The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern regarding allegations of figure manipulation or figure duplication in several figures published in JPET. An investigation by an inquiry committee at the University of Perugia, Italy has confirmed or validated findings compatible with alleged hypotheses of electronic duplication and/or figure manipulation. The figure in question in this article is Fig. 5.

Other scientists have also raised concerns about a 2002 paper in Immunity, “Importance of Innate Immunity
and Collagen Binding Integrin alpha-1-beta-1 in TNBS-Induced Colitis
.”

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10 Responses

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  1. Things may be going too far… Here’s where a slippery slope begins: “The police said they believe charges of embezzlement could be brought against Fiorucci because of allegations that he used public funds for uses that had not been authorised and for research which proved to be false.”

    How many grant-holders could survive that level of scrutiny, if an outraged authority wanted to comb through your grant records looking to rationalize a vendetta?

    R. Grant Steen, PhD

    January 30, 2012 at 9:46 am

    • I agree, it is a rather odd statement. It is well known (and generally accepted) that parts of some grant money are used for side projects that may not necessarily be written explicitly in the grant, but are related to the work. I don’t see it as a problem and, on the contrary, actually think that it is a scientists job to adapt to the direction of the research according to the results he/she is getting. It makes no sense to plow ahead when there is no benefit to anyone. A statement like this (not including the false part) would probably cause a lot of problems for 99% of US researchers who hold NIH funding, for example.

      Of course, if the money is used to fabricate or falsify data, that is a different issue entirely.

      Dave

      January 30, 2012 at 11:58 am

  2. What is the difference between embezzlement and “grant money … obtained using fraudulent data”?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/magazine/22sciencefraud.html

    Marco Berns

    January 30, 2012 at 9:52 am

  3. In Italy, for structural reasons, a considerable number of legal issues proceed by way of the criminal justice system which would be civil or regulatory proceedings elsewhere. Notably, the prosecutor is an employee of the police and lacks independent prosecutorial discretion. Judicial discretion is very broad, but judicial control tends to be applied later in the process than in other nations.

    Sometimes this is a good system; sometimes not. However, it does mean that a criminal investigation, or even a criminal prosecution, doesn’t have quite the same significance in Italy as it might in a common law country (US & UK) or even elsewhere in the EU.

    Toby White

    January 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm

  4. Cipriani S, Mencarelli A, Chini MG, Distrutti E, Renga B, et al. (2011) The Bile Acid Receptor GPBAR-1 (TGR5) Modulates Integrity of Intestinal Barrier and Immune Response to Experimental Colitis. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025637 October 2011
    Corresponding author: Stefano Fiorucci, Universita` degli Studi di Perugia

    Fig. 5E, duplicate FACS plots

    Michael Briggs

    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    • That’s just nuts, this researcher was first arrested as early as 2008, and possibly aware he was under the spotlight even earlier. Who in their right mind would continue falsifying data under those circumstances?

      Does he think that if he keeps doing it, that we would have to conclude that it’s just an inevitable and unavoidable side-effect of preparing figures for papers, and therefore not his fault. Just innocent “slips of the mouse” that just keep recurring and recurring and recurring…. just so many figures and so little time, these reported anomalies just represent an intrinsic and irreducible (and thus acceptable?) “failure rate”.

      Very odd.

      BoDuke

      January 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    • I reviewed this paper and recommended rejection. A few weeks later I received an email from PLoS One saying that it was accepted after revisions. The revised paper was not sent back to me. The paper was incredibly sloppy and there are many, many problems with it. This guy does not learn. He continues to crank out papers (20 in 2011) on a range of subjects.

      Lawrence Harlow

      February 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm

  5. In reply to BoDuke January 30, 2012 at 7:45

    From Open letter by the Board of Directors of the Research Center Borstel dated April 6, 2011 :

    http://www.fz-borstel.de/cms/fileadmin/content_fz/downloads/Pressemitteilungen/2011/Responsetoopenletter.pdf

    “However, Silvia Bulfone-Paus received repeated warnings (in writing) from her former co-worker, Dr. Karin Wiebauer, as early as January 2004 on inappropriately labeled and presented data.”

    Marco Berns

    January 31, 2012 at 7:44 am

  6. It is pretty clear in the Immunity paper http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074761302004764 that Fig. 1E and Fig. 2E are the same (except for the labeling and the lane on the far right.)

    Michael Briggs

    February 1, 2012 at 3:15 am

    • Nice to see that Stefano Fiorucci did most of the work! He is first author.

      Bernard Soares

      February 1, 2012 at 5:24 am


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