Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

ORI finds Parkinson’s-pesticides researcher guilty of faking data; two papers to be retracted

with 3 comments

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has found that a neuroscientist who studied the effects of pesticides on a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease made up data.

As The Scientist reported on Friday, the ORI found that Mona Thiruchelvam faked cell counts in two grant applications and a number of papers that claimed to show how the pesticides paraquat, maneb, and atrazine might affect parts of the brain involved in Parkinson’s. The Scientist notes:

A collaborator at UMDNJ first brought the matter to the attention of university research integrity officials a few years after Thiruchelvam joined the university in 2003, when he realized she was publishing cell density data without using his lab as she had done before. An initial inquiry was launched, for which Thiruchelvam provided the name of a researcher in California who she said had provided her with data. The witness, who Thiruchelvam said by that point had moved to England, was called and confirmed the story, but further investigation by UMDNJ revealed that this was a false witness. When investigators got a hold of the actual person Thiruchelvam had named, they learned she still resided in California and that she denied providing any data to Thiruchelvam.

Thiruchelvam

produced 293 data files she said were the product of a confocal microscope system manufactured by the company Micro Bright Field (MBF). When UMDNJ investigators gave MBF the data to interpret, the company concluded that the files were corrupted and couldn’t be verified as real or false. However, when the case was passed to the ORI for oversight review, agents used forensic computing software to determine that many of the files, despite having different file names and dates, were identical in content.

Thiruchelvam has agreed to retract two papers:

The JBC paper had already been the subject of a correction in 2008 in which co-author Eric Richfield was removed. We asked Richfield why his name was taken off the paper, but he declined to comment. It’s not clear if Richfield is the collaborator referred to in The Scientist story.

The JBC usually prints unhelpful one-line retraction notices saying only whether the study has been retracted by the author or editor, and claims that any other information is confidential. Given that the ORI has given the reasons for this retraction in the Federal Register, we’ll see what the JBC publishes.

Thiruchelvam left UMDNJ in February 2010, according to The Scientist, and is now barred from receiving federal grants for seven years. That’s a longer ban than we typically see in ORI cases.

Comments
  • Toby White July 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Some interesting background on this matter in three brief editorials in Toxicological Sciences 100: 1-3 (2007), 103: 217-218 (2008), and 103: 222-223 (2008), arguing that the whole line of experiments may have been pointless and badly designed, without regard to data quality issues. For example, injecting paraquat directly into fetal brain tissue is unlikely to do neural development much good, but that result doesn’t really tell us anything very useful about either pesticides or Parkinson’s.

  • paddylol July 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    If the research grants were from a US government source, Mona Thiruchelvam could be liable for both criminal and civil violations of the False Claims Act. Claw back of the grant funds is one of several remedies. See http://www.taf.org/whyfca.htm for an explanation of the law and links to the statute itself.

    • elledr1ver July 7, 2012 at 8:11 am

      That’s an interesting idea. But I think the grant is technically to the University, not the individual. Hence, the claw back would be from the University. This brings into focus that the investigation was conducted by the University…

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