Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Cardiff University looking into allegations of misconduct by group headed by its dean of medicine

with 31 comments

Last December, we reported on a Journal of Immunology paper that was retracted after a Cardiff University investigation found the senior author had inappropriately manipulated images.  The inquiry found that there had been “no intention to mislead and subsequent repeats of the original experiments have shown that the paper’s conclusions remain sound,” the university told us at that time.

The senior author of the paper, Rossen Donev, had since moved on to the University of Swansea, and Cardiff had notified the Medical Research Council, which funded the work. The case seemed to end there.

But other work by Donev’s former lab group, which is led by BP Morgan, the dean of Cardiff’s medical school, has been the subject of scrutiny by at least one anonymous whistleblower. That whistleblower’s allegations — which also center on image manipulation — have been reported on the relatively new site Science Fraud, which posts allegations anonymously. They involve papers published in Cancer Research, Molecular Immunology, and the American Journal of Physiology.

We’ve now learned that Cardiff has “initiated its Procedure for Dealing with Allegations of Academic Misconduct in Research” after Clare Francis, another anonymous whistleblower whose name will probably be familiar to Retraction Watch readers, forwarded the concerns to university officials. Now, according to an email from Carole A Evans, Cardiff’s Director of Governance and Compliance Division:

Following an initial consideration of the allegations it has been agreed that a Screening Panel be established to undertake a preliminary evaluation of the available evidence.

The university seems to be taking their responsibilities seriously. This inquiry seems to be at the very earliest of stages, and we should make it very clear that allegations don’t necessarily mean any misconduct has taken place. We’ll have to wait for the results of the investigation to say anything definitive.

Francis has also sent his concerns to the editors of journals where Morgan published. One of them, Julio Lucino, editor of the Pharmacogenomics Journal, examined images from “Upregulating CD59: a new strategy for protection of neurons from complement-mediated degeneration” and wrote to Francis:

To my dismay I found that on close examination, two images from what is reported as two separate and distinct experiments turn out to be one and the same.

Lucino also sent Morgan these annotated pdfs, marked with the alleged duplications.

We’ve asked Morgan — who has at least 30 papers which have been cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge — and Cardiff for comment. In the meantime, Morgan did respond to one of Francis’s emails:

I am dealing with specific allegations made in the mail and in the blog you quote.  I will not address those specific here but will do so with the appropriate journal editors.  I do need, however, to address a few statements made in your mail.

1. You state that “BP Morgan has 380 publictions which have the stench of sameness about them. Clever salami slices of what are in fact the salami slices of complement. I suspect that many of the papers are compilations of previous work, and mindless additional data which does not add to the understanding. More data does not always mean more sense.” Indeed, I have over the course of my 30+ year career published many papers and reviews; I completely refute the suggestion that this output represents repetition or “salami-slicing” work that does not add to understanding.  I doubt whether you could find any individuals in the field of complement biology who would agree with this interpretation.  I have made major contributions over the years and am, for good reason, held in high esteem in the field – I am current President of the International Complement Society.  I am copying this mail to the immediate past President (Prof. Mo Daha) and President Elect (Zvi Fishelson) of the Society in the spirit of openness and to provide you with contacts should you wish to further explore my credentials.

2. You state that “Initially they tried to blame a lone rogue Russian for data manipulation, but there is more to it. There was no attempt to blame.  There was a proper University enquiry into the subsequently retracted JI paper.  Dr. Donev (who is Bulgarian by the way) freely admitted that the figures in question were composites generated to show the data in the best light and that he had not made this clear in the figure legend and not informed co-authors of this change.

Dr. Francis, I share your passion for good science and have been devastated to be accused of bringing science into disrepute. I have always done my best to ensure the quality of work done in my lab and am proud to see reagents and methods we have developed used widely in the community.  I have nothing to hide and nothing to apologise for.  I would be happy to discuss these matters in person or on the phone at your convenience.

Update, 9:15 a.m. Eastern, 8/6/12: A Cardiff spokesperson confirmed that the screening panel would be formed, but had no additional comment except

…to reiterate that Cardiff University takes a serious approach when such allegations are made and, in line with its standard policy, is now assessing them.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 3rd, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Comments
  • scifraudster August 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Huh! It looks like Morgan is being selective in who he responds to. I sent him links to the blog article I posted, and he didn’t respond to my email. I guess he doesn’t consider an anonymous blogger worthy enough.

    • Clyde Crashcup August 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      You say that as if that’s somehow surprising or wrong of him to do. Put your own name on the line and stand by the allegations you make. Otherwise you indeed aren’t worthy, and the same goes out to Claire Francis. (maybe Dr. Morgan didn’t realize he/she is also pseudonymous?)

      I work closely with an investigator who was editor of a fairly well-known journal for a time. At any one time, he literally had dozens of open cases alleging impropriety in articles published in his journal. He intimated to me that he routinely had to ignore the anonymous ones for a myriad of reasons. Among them: 1) the legit allegations from investigators who weren’t too cowardly to use their real identities took up enough of his time, 2) he had no clue whether the anonymous finger-pointers were actually knowledgeable in the field and therefore qualified to make such a determination, 3) he was nearly certain that quite a few of them came from scooped competitors and colleagues with grudges, 4) next to none of them had tried to contact the investigators in question, 5) it was impossible to differentiate between genuine anonymous tips and the sort of stuff that gets sent out by religious groups who’re overtly hostile to science and make shotgun-style allegations to journals and institutions apparently for a living (oh yes, they exist) and 6) enough of the anonymous allegations he did follow up on turned out to be dead wrong.

      There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this, and you’re going about it the wrong way. Do you want to really improve the culture of academia as it relates to this problem, or just entertain yourself and the other voyeurs with your little hobby? Do you want to cure the disease, or just go after the symptoms one by one?

      Or perhaps you just don’t want anyone to find a reason to look too closely at your own body of work (if one exists)? Just because you’ve drawn the curtains doesn’t mean your own house isn’t made of glass. Show me the career scientist who has never, ever made any semi-intentional oversight, allowed a trainee to publish something he had nagging doubts about, or whose papers would be left unmarred if every single data point was scrutinized closely enough, and I’ll show you the person who is worthy of making anonymous allegations. I’m at least honest enough to admit that this person probably isn’t me.

      • littlegreyrabbit August 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

        Clyde Crashcup, I was accepting your comment in good faith until I got to this one:
        “5) it was impossible to differentiate between genuine anonymous tips and the sort of stuff that gets sent out by religious groups who’re overtly hostile to science and make shotgun-style allegations to journals and institutions apparently for a living (oh yes, they exist)”

        Mmmmmm, that must indeed be a problem. I imagine the Pentecostals have entire congregations combing journals looking for splice artifacts.

        I contacted two journals about scientific fraud in a lab I had worked in. I was not anonymous, I had contacted the investigators, I had documented the allegation very carefully, I was knowledgeable in the field, I was not a scooped competitor and neither journal replied. Doubtless the journals concerned were snowed under with scientifically literate complaints by hordes of rabid christians.

        Editors, despite your claim, don’t investigate fraud fullstop. It is not their job to do so, they don’t have the time, skill, resources or access to the relevant documentation to do so. The one thing in their power that they do have is the ability to say to an institution “You must formally investigate this and produce a report documenting this investigation or no one from your institution will be published in this journal again.” This won’t prevent an institution producing a dishonest report, but that at least will be a painful and unpleasant exercise that they won’t enjoy.

        People maintain anonymity for very good reason, they rightly fear repercussions. I reported on scientific fraud with my real identity, now I can’t work in science while the fraudsters concerned continue on totally unaffected. That is the reality of the situation.

        Finally,
        ” Show me the career scientist who has never, ever made any semi-intentional oversight, allowed a trainee to publish something he had nagging doubts about”
        In my experience this isn’t the problem. The trainee will be expressing the nagging doubts and senior scientist will be saying doesn’t matter publish it anyway, everybody does it. The rogue graduate student who misleads and destroys the trusting superior, although a figure much talked about by the people who dominate this conversation, is if not quite a mythical beast very very rare.

      • JudyH August 3, 2012 at 11:57 pm

        I agree with you, littlegreyrabbit, about the semi-mythical rogue graduate student who tricks his/her advisor and committee members into publishing rashly without solid support. This is known, but is far more rare than one would think based on the self-serving complaints of professors who want a publication and know they can pin the blame on the graduate student if things go sour. Advisors who truly are misled by their graduate students may not be doing a good enough job of supervising. They should know enough about the data to spot both intentional and unintentional misleading statements and interpretations.

  • Fernando Pessoa August 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Another one who believes in reputation over reality?

    If “in the spirit of openness” why “on the phone”?

  • chirality August 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    It does not look good. Who on Earth takes a band bearing a lot of distinctive features and re-uses it in the same publication.
    Morgan seems very upset by CF’s comments about his publications. It is understandable. CF seems to be missing the point, though. Publishing crappy papers is not a crime. The focus should be firmly on fraud.

    • Daviid Hardman August 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      In reply to chirality August 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

      Clare got his goat on purpose?

  • Conrad T Seitz MD August 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    There is something so wonderful about Dean Morgan, at least according to his letter, that I feel all doubt of him and his institution melting away. How dare we persecute such a wonderful man?

  • Fernando Pessoa August 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    “Dr. Donev (who is Bulgarian by the way) freely admitted that the figures in question were composites generated to show the data in the best light and that he had not made this clear in the figure legend and not informed co-authors of this change”.

    Does sound blasé. Did the others not bother to take a look?

    • Jon Beckmann August 3, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      “who is Bulgarian by the way” Huh? What it the relevance here?

      • Marco August 4, 2012 at 3:20 am

        The relevance is Clare Francis comment “Initially they tried to blame a lone rogue Russian for data manipulation”.

        One suggestion to Clare Francis: if you complain about scientific misconduct, be sure to only add facts. This type of sloppy mistakes makes it easy to dismiss such complaints: if such basic errors are made, why look at the more complex issues?

      • Anonymous August 4, 2012 at 12:59 pm

        The relevance is that Francis stereotyped everyone with a slavic-sounding name as Russian? Oh right, it doesn’t matter if Francis makes things up, let’s hop back on the hate train. Morgan’s reply in my opinion was professional and well written; couldn’t ask for more. Now the matter is in University’s hands, and it doesn’t really matter to whom he replies or not.

      • Jon Beckmann August 5, 2012 at 4:54 am

        I agree with Marco here about objectivity. There was no reason at all to add the rogue Russian comment in the message by CF.

  • David Hardman August 3, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    In reply to Jon Beckmann August 3, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    http://www.retractionwatch.com/2011/12/19/cardiff-university-misconduct-investigation-leads-to-journal-of-immunology-retraction/

    The 2011 J Immunol retraction stated:

    “Bands in Fig. 1A and 1B were pasted from multiple gels without indicating that this had been done.The last author, Rossen M. Donev, takes full responsibility for this action; the other authors were unaware of and had no part in the manipulation of the images.”

    however, this website http://www.science-fraud.org/?p=261
    shows that there is image reuse (and rotation) in a paper
    where BP Morgan is the senior author, but which does not have Dr. Donev as an author.

    Am J Physiol Renal Physiol. 2012 May;302(10):F1245-51.
    Membrane complement regulators protect against fibrin exudation increases in a severe peritoneal inflammation model in rats.
    Mizuno M, Ito Y, Mizuno T, Harris CL, Suzuki Y, Okada N, Matsuo S, Morgan BP.

  • Clare Francis August 4, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    In reply to Anonymous August 4, 2012 at 12:59

    Dear anonymous when you write “The relevance is that Francis stereotyped everyone with a slavic-sounding name as Russian?” I think you got the wrong end of the stick.

    When somebody writes that somebody from nationality X was blamed I do not think that is saying anything negative about nationality X.

  • Clare Francis August 5, 2012 at 6:16 am

    In reply to Jon Beckmann August 5, 2012 at 4:54 am

    Rather than talking about extracts from an e-mail please tell me what you think about the images from 2 Cancer Research papers.

    General tip: It may be helpful to open the webpage, and then enlarge by clicking once (it all comes with the offical website). Tilting the screen backwards can help. Full on the screen can be too light.

    The paper: Cancer Res February 15, 2006 66; 2451

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/66/4/2451.long

    The figures:

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/66/4/2451/F1.large.jpg

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/66/4/2451/F4.large.jpg

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/66/4/2451/F5.large.jpg

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/66/4/2451/F6.large.jpg

    The paper: Cancer Res. 2008 Jul 15;68(14):5979-87.

    Figure 2A:

    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/14/5979/F2.large.jpg

    • Jon Beckmann August 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      Yes, I had looked at those. There is no question they are the same, but that is my point: You have enough objective evidence, there is no need to add anything else (like the “Russian” comment that ended up being incorrect). By the way, why did you focus on this person? Did you know him? Did you have an axe to grind? These are legitimate questions people should ask, since your email seemed to reveal an odd emotional component.

    • Myra Hindley August 23, 2012 at 10:56 am
      • Conrad T Seitz MD August 23, 2012 at 11:42 am

        Um, yeah, I did follow that link (to my regret.) The first part is an explanation of the actions that COPE took in response to an allegation of duplicate publication by ‘Clare Francis.’ Apparently CF wasn’t satisfied with their non-actions. It didn’t sound like a big deal compared to these image manipulations and other meaty-type frauds, like the Bulgarian graduate student incident. So I guess Myra feels that CF is pushing too hard or making mountains out of molehills. That may be (or not.)
        The funny part is that the second comment, dated August 21, is an obvious bit of spam pushing fake label handbags in the most primitive English-as-a-second-language-idiom imaginable. How did that comment get through the editor of the COPE blog?
        On the other hand–four fingers and a thumb. Anonymity is essential to whistleblowers, whose careers are usually destroyed when their actual identities are exposed. Any competent editor should be able to distinguish between an allegation that is meaningful, regardless of the identity of the allegator(is that a word?), and an allegation that is bogus, irrelevant, nit-picking, or made by someone who doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. So refusing to consider allegations from anonymous sources is bad business. Even if it does cut down on the amount of work you have to pretend to do.

      • David Hardman August 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm

        “COPE supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous and would encourage editors to respond to any allegations of unethical behaviour as long as there is specific evidence and not just vague accusations.”

  • Sebastian Kurscheid (@GenomicsIo) August 6, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Just as a further comment regarding those annotated PDFs linked above (http://retractionwatch.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/pharmacogenomics.pdf):

    The “error bars” (no idea what they are actually depicting… SEM? SD? whatever?) across all of the bar plots look very, very regular. In my hands replicates of experiments tend to create very different SEMs and the error bars always have different magnitudes (e.g. housekeepers vs. gene-of-interest, control vs treatment).

  • Jon Beckmann August 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    “Francis has also sent his concerns to the editors”

    So, now we know it’s a “he”.

  • Clare Francis August 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Jon Beckmann August 6, 2012 at 12:36

    Figure 2A. “Western blotting” panel. Lower left corner.
    http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/14/5979/F2.large.jpg

    is from Cancer Res. 2008 Jul 15;68(14):5979-87.

  • Clare Francis August 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    In reply to Jon Beckmann August 6, 2012 at 12:36

    I do want to clear this up. In the e-mail extract I wrote:

    “Initially they tried to blame a lone rogue Russian for data manipulation, but there is more to it.”

    i.e.they were trying to blame somebody else. I did not mean he was to blame, but on the contrary.
    I do not know R.M. Donev,or nay of the authors, and do not think that Iam trying to pick on him.

    The e-mail is one I received, not sent. Please see just before it “In the meantime, Morgan did respond to one of Francis’s emails”. It is his response.

  • scifraudster August 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Updated my blog with problem images as reported in comments here and at science-fraud, plus 3 more papers: http://www.science-fraud.org/?p=313

    @Clyde Crashup’s comments on anonymity. If you hang around here long enough, you will see that the people being found guilty of misconduct are big-shots. They’re often the ones who control the purse strings, be it at the institutional or federal level, or via their heavyweight status within a certain field. For those of us whose jobs depend on a steady stream of grant funding, publications, speaking slots at conferences, etc., to use our real names would be career suicide. I would think that is obvious to anyone actively in this line of work.

  • Andrew August 29, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Another name that is common in most of these papers is of Sivasankar Baalasubramanian who is now leading his own group
    http://www.sics.a-star.edu.sg/research

  • Ressci Integrity August 30, 2012 at 1:09 am

    andrew: the link didnot work for me. any way, it appears that lot of these people have moved to Singapore these days? retraction watch and abnormal science have covered quite few cases in the last year or so…

  • David Hardman August 30, 2012 at 1:51 am

    This link works:

    http://www.sics.a-star.edu.sg/research.html?sciID=5&sciType=

    In most of his publications he appears as Sivasanker, B., in a few as Baalasubramanian, S.
    In the webpage above if you look at the top publication in the list it is written as

    Tediose, Teeo; Kolev, Martin; Sivasankar, Baalasubramanian; Brennan, Paul; Morgan, B Paul; Donev, Rossen. Interplay between REST and nucleolin transcription factors – a key mechanism in the overexpression of genes upon increased phosphorylation. Nucleic Acid Research.2010 May; 38(9):2799-812.

    but in pubmed it is:

    Interplay between REST and nucleolin transcription factors: a key mechanism in the overexpression of genes upon increased phosphorylation.
    Tediose T, Kolev M, Sivasankar B, Brennan P, Morgan BP, Donev R.
    Nucleic Acids Res. 2010 May;38(9):2799-812. Epub 2010 Jan 25.
    PMID: 20100803

    I believe that is one of the publications under investigation by Cardiff University.

  • Tim Hughes April 10, 2013 at 5:46 am
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