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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Leiden University fires employee for research fraud, two retractions to follow

with 16 comments

Opnames tbv LUMC website

courtesy LUMC

A researcher at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands has been fired for research fraud, and the university is retracting two papers, the Dutch press is reporting.

But don’t ask us who the employee was. That information is conspicuously absent from the medical center’s communications on the subject.

Here’s a press release from Leiden, in English via Google Translate:

LUMC fires fraudulent researcher

August 14, 2013 | PRESS RELEASE

Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) has fired an employee who has committed fraud in the collection of research data. An internal inquiry showed that the employee deliberately manipulated laboratory research. The employee has confessed and accepted the dismissal. Additionally, the LUMC withdraws two scientific publications by this employee. The fraud was discovered by immediate colleagues at the Rheumatology Department.

“The LUMC deeply regrets the incident,” says Pancras Hogendoorn, Board member and dean of the LUMC. “It is clear that at no time a dangerous situation has arisen for patients because the manipulation took place with test material in the laboratory.” Following a report by an employee an investigation committee had been set up in June. The committee investigated the cause of the poor reproducibility of certain research findings in the laboratory of the Rheumatology Department. The outcome of the study showed that one employee had consciously committed fraud.

Scientific Integrity

“The LUMC praises the behavior of the alert colleague who brought the fraud to light,” said Hogendoorn. “Scientific integrity is an absolute need to obtain and keep the trust of patients, researchers and society.” The clinical trial which the laboratory research was part of, has been stopped. It is about a study was designed to predict for whom the drug omalizumab can suppress the disease activity of rheumatoid arthritis. All participants in this study have been informed meanwhile.

Checking more publications

In addition to the two publications to be withdrawn, the investigation committee now checks previous scientific publications where the researcher has been involved. Depending on the outcome of this follow-up investigation, other scientific publications will be retracted if necessary.

Integrity CodesThe LUMC applies integrity codes based on the national codes. There is a counselor for reports of suspected scientific misconduct. Each mention leads to an investigation and initiation of an internal committee that uses formal procedures and hears both sides. In addition, the LUMC has a research code. The code reminds employees (and the outside world) of scientific integrity and transparency. Good employment is obviously also important: no one is guilty until proven otherwise.

And here’s a somewhat redacted report from Leiden (in Dutch).

We realize that this post is a bit like ESPN announcing that there has been a baseball game, that some runs have scored, and that one of the teams won. But we’ve had a number of messages on Twitter and elsewhere on the report, so we decided to post what we know, and perhaps our Dutch-speaking readers can help us find out more.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

August 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Posted in the netherlands

16 Responses

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  1. Based on reports in the Dutch press, I will give a bit more details.

    The only researcher that meets the description — PhD in Antwerp, heading the TIGER trial, which has now been terminated — is Dr. Schuerwegh, who did her PhD at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) and moved to the Leiden University Medical Center in 2006.
    She wanted to study a specific type of antibodies in rheumatoid arthritis and had developed a test to detect these. In the first experiments the test seemed to give positive results but later on the test ‘stopped working’ to detect the antibodies in patient sera. According to the report, Dr. Schuerwegh then entered the lab at night to add murine antibodies to the patient samples so that they would show up positive in the test.
    Last March some of her colleagues were becoming suspicious of the data when they turned out to be irreproducible. The head of the department then started an investigation and found out that she entered the lab during the night (by checking the data on her badge that she used to enter the lab). A camera was then installed in the lab and she was caught adding antibodies to the patient sera.
    When confronted with this evidence Dr. Schuerwegh admitted to fraud in June. She blames the pressure to publish high-profile publications in combination with her tasks in teaching and patient care. One of the papers that will be retracted appears to be this high-profile publication in PNAS [http://www.pnas.org/content/107/6/2586.short; cited 54 times according to Google Scholar]. In addition, her personal website at the LUMC is suspended (google schuerwegh LUMC and click the top link).

    QStel

    August 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    • I would think that Dutch privacy laws stop the university and the press naming the researcher in question.

      Richard Tol (@RichardTol)

      August 15, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      • The name of the fraudster is indeed redacted away in most news articles, but it is bound to come out soon because it is all but literally mentioned in the available public report.
        The report does state in its conclusions (item 3.2 on p.6) that “the BAT-test is manipulated by the staff member that developed the test, also first author of the PNAS publication”. The publication is easy to find in PubMed on the basis of keywords

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=basophil+artritis+leiden+%22Proc+Natl+Acad+Sci+U+S+A%22

        So that narrows it down to the point where we may de facto consider the name to be public, I think.

        Dave Langers

        August 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  2. This is a really unbelievable story. The University checked the scientist’s entry badge details AND put up CCTV camera’s to follow her movements during her nightly visits to the lab when she messed with the patient samples. “In fragrante delicto”. Want me to translate the report?

    Dirk Geerts

    August 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    • Yes please. Why didn’t they publish the report (also) in English, at least an “Abstract”?

      Prof. Dr. Alexander Lerchl

      August 16, 2013 at 2:45 am

      • Dear Alex,

        In defence of the Leiden faculty: The reason this document is in Dutch is because it is a legally binding, official document, that is cause for termination of the investigator’s tenure. Such documents are required to be in Dutch, by law. And I have gathered the scientist in question is Flemish, so would also speak Dutch.

        Science in the Netherlands is almost completely English. Even informal meetings are in English, and sometimes we realize halfway through that there is not a single non-Dutch person in the room. And continue in English :-)

        Dirk Geerts

        August 16, 2013 at 3:21 am

  3. Looking through the Dutch statement it mentions that the researcher was lead author from the rheumatology department in Leiden on a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA publication. It states that he manipulated laboratory testing, namely the basophil activation test. Putting in the journal, the year, Leiden and rheumatology as search items on Pub Med came up with the following:

    Schuerwegh AJ et al. Evidence for a functional role of IgE anticitrullinated protein antibodies in rheumatoid arthritis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2010; 107 (6): 2586-91. To date it has been cited 52x.

    Interestingly, her name (Annemie Schuerwegh) has been removed from the Leiden University Medical Center. She is a senior academic with a MD/PhD.

    Under the Nederlands (Dutch) Trial Register she is the lead investigator of the trial :

    Anti-IgE therapy (omalizumab) in IgE-ACPA positive RA.

    Acronym TIGER trial

    Rob Siebers
    Research Associate Professor
    Department of Medicine
    School of Medicine and Health Sciences
    University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
    [cid:image001.jpg@01CD0B62.AB926110]

    siebers

    August 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  4. The report says it is the first author of a PNAS 2010 article. As it is very recent (july) it seems that the article is not yet retracted. In PNAS there are only two 2010 articles by LUMC-researchers. Another article will be retracted from Ann Rheum Diss. I came up with only one possible match.

    Piet Bakker

    August 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm

  5. A translation (or a link to text and not just images of text) would be great – the PDF isn’t OCR’d so I can’t run it through Google Translate even.

    m3gan0

    August 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm

  6. i thought it was someone-else from another department….

    Ressci Integrity

    August 16, 2013 at 9:48 am

  7. Wonder how many- if at all -citing those fraudulent findings suggest reproduction and verification of the fabricated results!

    aceil

    August 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  8. In general “any judgement rendered should be made public” , why wasn’t the name of the employee mentioned?

    aceil

    August 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm

  9. What we see here is an important cultural difference: in Dutch culture, the university concerned knows the name(s) of those involved and takes responsibility for checking whether other papers need to be retracted. The names of the people are not published so that these people have a chance of rebuilding their lives in the future.

    In the Netherlands even people who have committed serious crimes do not have their full name or photo published in the press. Otherwise people coming out of prison, for example, would find it impossible to get a job, leaving them further alienated from society – which is bad for us as well as them.

    Nick

    August 17, 2013 at 5:36 am

    • As Nick points out, it’s encouraging to see the Leiden University taking responsibility for checking previous papers — that sets a good example. My question is that, if the university (under Dutch law) is not allowed to reveal the name of the discredited researcher, presumably they could not inform any journals that need to retract papers? So do they leave retractions to the person found guilty of misconduct (who may not be so keen to do this)? And, if so, does anybody check to make sure the journals are informed?

      Liz Wager

      August 19, 2013 at 5:50 am

      • It’s a cultural issue, not a legal one – giving the names of people involved in a case like this in situations where it is unnecessary is not illegal (as far as I know), just “not done”.

        Nick

        August 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm

  10. I’ll provide a translation of the conclusions and recommendations here:

    Conclusions

    1. The reason for the poor reproducibility of the research data at the Rheumatology department is manipulation of the results of the BAT-test;

    2. The BAT-test was manipulated by the staff member who developed the test, who is also first author of the PNAS publication. This is apparent (amongst others) from the data presented by the department, including card data [presumably key / access card] and photographic material. The staff member has confessed to this. The Committee is of the opinion that the manipulation should be regarded as a serious breach of scientific integrity.

    3. The finding of manipulation invalidates the scientific basis for the TIGER trial;

    4. Publications on research that used the BAT-test should be regarded as (partially) unsound;

    Recommendations

    1. The Executive Board [of the LUMC] shall take a decision regarding the Committee’s judgement that there has been a breach of scientific integrity;

    2. The Executive Board shall take a decision regarding the consequences of this for the defendant’s legal position [i.e. whether to fire the defendant];

    3. The publication in PNAS shall be retracted;

    4. The publication in Ann Rheum Dis is partially based on manipulated data. It needs to be investigated whether retraction or correction is necessary.

    5. The clinical trial (Tiger trial) has already been stopped. Participants and sponsors will have to be informed further.

    6. The Executive Board is advised to report the findings of the committee, especially concerning the TIGER trial to both the Central Committee Human-related Research (CCMO) and the Health Inspection.

    7. The Committee will as soon as possible publish a subsequent report concerning the two publications involving defendant and for which manipulation can not be excluded a priori, the consequences for the authors of those publications and current PhD tracks, and the consequences for potential industrial partners and/or other funds.

    JA Pascoe

    August 19, 2013 at 7:01 am


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