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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

ORI investigating University of Florida ob-gyn researcher accused of misconduct

with 20 comments

A prominent researcher at the University of Florida is under federal investigation for research misconduct and has lost at least one paper as a result of the fraud.

The researcher, Nasser Chegini, was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the U of Florida until about six months ago, when he retired, according to the chair’s office. Nasser has received at least $4 million in federal grant funding, according to the university.

The retracted paper, “MicroRNA 21: response to hormonal therapies and regulatory function in leiomyoma, transformed leiomyoma and leiomyosarcoma cells,” was published in 2010 by Molecular Human Reproduction. The authors were Qun Pan and Xiaoping Luo and Chegini.

As the notice explains:

Following an investigation by the University of Florida providing evidence of the senior (third) author’s use of manipulated or falsified data in Figures 1,3 and 4, the Journal wishes to retract the paper published in Molecular Human Reproduction (MHR) 16: 215 – 227 (2010) ‘MicroRNA 21: response to hormonal therapies and regulatory function in leiomyoma, transformed leiomyoma and leiomyosarcoma cells’.

The information presented in these three figures is key to the conclusions of the paper. Neither Qun Pan nor Xiao Ping Luo were the subject of any investigation. Although beyond its control, the Journal sincerely apologises to its readers.

The paper has been cited 21 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Luo was remarkably terse in an email interview about the case, responding “no” to every question we posed– including whether “no” was the answer to any specific questions or to our queries in general.

But we had better luck with Helen Beard, managing editor of the journal:

The first communication came by email on 18 May 2012 from The Senior Associate Dean for Research Affairs and the Chair of the Department of Obstretics and Gynaecology of the University of Florida. At our request this was followed up by additional information on July 12 2012.

Evidence for falsification of Figures 1,3, and 4 obtained following an investigation by the University of Florida was provided by the departmental Chair. All three researchers responded to our follow-up emails and we derived the wording of the retraction statement with their collaboration, and with the approval of the Associate Vice president for Research at the university of Florida, and representatives of the ORI. We believe this wording is complete and true.

Beard said she was unaware of any other affected publications, but added that the investigation is not complete:

At the request of the ORI the investigation of scientific misconduct by Dr Chegini has been re-opened and extended in scope.

We’ll obviously be watching this case for more developments.

Update, 1:45 p.m. Eastern, 10/29/12: Beard tells us:

The first investigation was by the ‘College Research Advisory Committee’ of the University of Florida. The investigation has been re-opened at the direction of the ORI. The finding of the first investigation was that the respondent had committed scientific misconduct.

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20 Responses

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  1. They have wiped that paper clean. I could not find the whole article with the figures online.

    Dave

    October 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm

  2. If that is Florida in the Retraction Watch column do you think that Ivan and Adam have a chance of winning the election?

    fernando pessoa

    October 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  3. The article is still available on Pubmed Central with figures.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2816170/

    Shirley Ainsworth

    October 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    • Thanks for that information. It is marked as retracted here:

      http://molehr.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/3/215

      If you went from PMC page directly to the PDF you would not know.

      In reply to donald s kornfel, md October 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      The times may be changing.

      http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/pdf.opinions/10-2301P-01A.pdf

      fernando pessoa

      October 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      • Fernando,

        I was unaware of that case and wonder how well publicized it was within the scientific community.
        I believe that if there were more such prosecutions and the scientific community made more aware of them,
        it could have a chilling effect.

        DSK

        Donald S. Kornfeld, M.D.

        October 31, 2012 at 11:21 am

      • There was also Poehlman and Van Parijs.

        Sam

        October 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  4. Four million dollars is a significant sum of money. If this investigator were a federal employee or the recipient of any other form of federal grant they would be prosecuted for fraud. Why are such prosecutions rarely initiated against recipients of research funds ?

    DSK

    donald s kornfel, md

    October 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    • Maybe because the institutions are the recipients of the funds, not the PI? And research misconduct is not considered fraud, at least, in accordance with how the law defines fraud; namely, that the monies are used for something else other than what they were intended.

      My main question is how can a first author, or any other authors, NOT notice that some of their data was changed after their PI saw the manuscript? Doesn’t make much sense, especially considering that the paper was released in 2010, implying that the authors failed to notice it for some time.

      Brad Casali

      October 29, 2012 at 11:17 pm

      • Brad,

        You’re correct, “scientific misconduct”, per se, is not necessarily fraud. However, if a federal grant application contains reference to falsified or fraudulent data that is considered fraud under federal law.

        Don

        Donald S. Kornfeld, M.D.

        October 31, 2012 at 11:26 am

    • Depends on the agencies. PHS/NIH seems loathe to do this; NSF, not so much. It has sought repayment in similar cases.

      Theresa Defino

      November 1, 2012 at 7:47 am

    • Don et al,

      Federal grants are awarded almost always to institutions (almost never to individuals). Thus, attempts tp recover federal grant funds would have to be addressed to the institution (which has already spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in faculty, administrators, and legal counsel time to pursue the allegations, inquiries, and investigations, and even appeals at the institution, often over several years. Furthermore, grants are made as assistance/aid to institiutions (not as contracts witih deliverables). Thus, Federal agencies and prosecutors seldom try to seek recovery of grant funds. Further, Federal prosectors are reluctant to take the time and money to try to prosecute individuals for fraud (false statements in federal grant applications, under US 1001). When I was in ORI (1989-2006), the Department of Justice generally did not pursue cases with less than $1 million possible recovery.

      However, in some cases, they have done so – the Eric Poehlman 2005 ORI-case at University of Vermont was one in recent years (but he had started the action (seeking an injuction in federal court to stop the university from informing ORI of the case) which led to the U.S. Department of Justice entering the case (with assistance fronm ORI scientists) and prosecuting him, ending in a 1-year prison term plus 2 years probation for lying in an NIH grant application, with a $180,000 civil fine. ORI then debarred him for life. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/magazine/22sciencefraud.html?_r=1&pagewanted=6
      and http://frwebgate2.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgiWAISdocID=Cjb5Fq/2/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve

      – Alan Price

      Alan Price

      November 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm

  5. It is very noble of Chegini to have taken the whole responsibility for this. The idea that he himself manipulated some figures sounds a bit far fetched, though. He most likely encouraged either Mr No or the other co-author to do the dirty work and these guys had too much to lose to say “No” to this particular request. As such, the retraction notice informs about “the senior (third) author’s use of manipulated or falsified data”, not about him performing the manipulation. Since the other co-authors were not subject of any investigation, their specific role in all of this remains unknown – it is probably better this way.

    chirality

    October 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

  6. I agree with chirality. Seems improbable that the other two authors were uninvolved in any way.

    Chip_MoMo (@Chip_Molly)

    October 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    • Except the post doc who’s data was used and falsified without consent and long gone from the laboratory when the paper, unbeknownst to her, was published with her name on it. Noble, my ass.

      Kevin

      October 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      • You probably misunderstood my comment. “He most likely encouraged EITHER Mr No OR the other co-author to do the dirty work”.
        I do not buy into the idea that a guy near the retirement age would have necessary skills to Photoshop Western blots. Moreover, if somebody doctored data I had provided, I would spot this in a nanosecond.

        chirality

        October 31, 2012 at 5:04 am

      • Touche!

        Someone who knows the facts.

        December 18, 2012 at 2:16 am

  7. If the first investigation showed misconduct, why would ORI need to have it “reopened?”

    Theresa Defino

    October 31, 2012 at 8:55 am

    • Maybe because new evidence shows that the misconduct was more extensive than they thought.

      • Oh, I see. I missed the word “extended.” Under PHS and ORI policy, the first committee conducts an “inquiry,” which is generally not required to document all misconduct, only enough to warrant the second “investigation,” which is more thorough. So I guess it was the investigation that ORI kicked back, as it is wont to do.

        From ORI’s website, see especially the last line:

        Inquiries

        Following the preliminary assessment, if the institutional official determines that the allegation provides sufficient information to allow specific follow-up, involves PHS support, and falls under the PHS definition of research misconduct, he or she should immediately initiate the inquiry process. In initiating the inquiry, the official should identify clearly the original allegation and any related issues that should be evaluated. The purpose of the inquiry is to make a preliminary evaluation of the available evidence and testimony of the respondent, whistleblower, and key witnesses to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of possible research misconduct to warrant an investigation. The purpose of the inquiry is not to reach a final conclusion about whether misconduct definitely occurred or who was responsible. The findings of the inquiry should be set forth in an inquiry report.

        Investigations

        The purpose of the investigation is to explore in detail the allegations, to examine the evidence in depth, and to determine specifically whether misconduct has been committed, by whom, and to what extent. The investigation will also determine whether there are additional instances of possible misconduct that would justify broadening the scope beyond the initial allegations. This is particularly important where the alleged misconduct involves clinical trials or potential harm to human subjects or the general public or if it affects research that forms the basis for public policy or clinical or public health practice. The findings of the investigation need to be set forth in an investigation report that is submitted to ORI for oversight review.

        Theresa Defino

        November 1, 2012 at 7:44 am


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