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Braggadacio, information control, and fear: Life inside a Brigham stem cell lab under investigation

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anversa

Piero Anversa

The following post was written by a former research fellow in the lab of Piero Anversa to whom we’ve promised confidentiality. Anversa has previously told us that he cannot comment because of an ongoing investigation.

Regular readers of Retraction Watch will note the recent news regarding the work conducted in the laboratory of Piero Anversa at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. In the early 2000s, his laboratory published a series of papers regarding the regenerative qualities of bone marrow-derived and cardiac-resident “stem cells.”

Those initial findings, as well as the research conducted since those early studies, have always been surrounded by controversy, as many have been unsuccessful in efforts to replicate their results. Controversy among competitors is not uncommon in our profession, but this particular one has blossomed into a formal investigation of their findings, and has, to date, led to the retraction of one paper and an expression of concern about another.

The “Science”

I think that most scientists, perhaps with the exception of the most lucky or most dishonest, have personal experience with failure in science—experiments that are unreproducible, hypotheses that are fundamentally incorrect. Generally, we sigh, we alter hypotheses, we develop new methods, we move on. It is the data that should guide the science.

In the Anversa group, a model with much less intellectual flexibility was applied. The “Hypothesis” was that c-kit (cd117) positive cells in the heart (or bone marrow if you read their earlier studies) were cardiac progenitors that could: 1) repair a scarred heart post-myocardial infarction, and: 2) supply the cells necessary for cardiomyocyte turnover in the normal heart.

This central theme was that which supplied the lab with upwards of $50 million worth of public funding over a decade, a number which would be much higher if one considers collaborating labs that worked on related subjects.

In theory, this hypothesis would be elegant in its simplicity and amenable to testing in current model systems. In practice, all data that did not point to the “truth” of the hypothesis were considered wrong, and experiments which would definitively show if this hypothesis was incorrect were never performed (lineage tracing e.g.).

Further, controls that suggested that the data might be artifactual were ignored or not conducted. However, I challenge the readers to determine any of this information from the published manuscripts. So how does this slip through the cracks for years? The fault for this can likely be attributed to multiple sources although a conspicuous lack of stringency in the peer review process of the journals in which they were published come to mind.

Beyond the science, ironically, a certain braggadocio also existed surrounding this hypothesis. Anyone who attended the pertinent sessions at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions could attest to this. In essence, to Dr. Anversa all investigators who questioned the hypothesis were“morons,” a word he used frequently at lab meetings. For one within the group to dare question the central hypothesis, or the methods used to support it, was a quick ticket to dismissal from your position.

Information Segregation + Machiavellian Principles = Successful Lab

The day to day operation of the lab was conducted under a severe information embargo. The lab had Piero Anversa at the head with group leaders Annarosa Leri, Jan Kajstura and Marcello Rota immediately supervising experimentation. Below that was a group of around 25 instructors, research fellows, graduate students and technicians. Information flowed one way, which was up, and conversation between working groups was generally discouraged and often forbidden.

Raw data left one’s hands, went to the immediate superior (one of the three named above) and the next time it was seen would be in a manuscript or grant. What happened to that data in the intervening period is unclear.

A side effect of this information embargo was the limitation of the average worker to determine what was really going on in a research project. It would also effectively limit the ability of an average worker to make allegations regarding specific data/experiments, a requirement for a formal investigation.

The general game plan of the lab was to use two methods to control the workforce: Reward those who would play along and create a general environment of fear for everyone else. The incentive was upward mobility within the lab should you stick to message. As ridiculous as it sounds to the average academic scientist, I was personally promised money and fame should I continue to perform the type of work they desired there. There was also the draw of financial security/job stability that comes with working in a very well-funded lab.

On the other hand, I am not overstating when I say that there was a pervasive feeling of fear in the laboratory. Although individually-tailored stated and unstated threats were present for lab members, the plight of many of us who were international fellows was especially harrowing. Many were technically and educationally underqualified compared to what might be considered average research fellows in the United States. Many also originated in Italy where Dr. Anversa continues to wield considerable influence over biomedical research.

This combination of being undesirable to many other labs should they leave their position due to lack of experience/training, dependent upon employment for U.S. visa status, and under constant threat of career suicide in your home country should you leave, was enough to make many people play along.

Even so, I witnessed several people question the findings during their time in the lab. These people and working groups were subsequently fired or resigned. I would like to note that this lab is not unique in this type of exploitative practice, but that does not make it ethically sound and certainly does not create an environment for creative, collaborative, or honest science.

Lessons Learned

So what, if anything, did I learn from spending a period of my life in my scientific nightmare? The conditions I have written about are not unique, although the particulars of how the misconduct happened may be. The simplest explanation is that, in spite of the efforts of ethical watchdogs, these are behaviors that science is selecting for with its current funding and publication mechanisms. I was glad to learn of the investigation regarding this lab but without vigilance and alterations to current structures, newer, more careful versions of Piero Anversa will undoubtedly move in to take his place.

Written by amarcus41

May 30th, 2014 at 10:30 am

Comments
  • Donald Kornfeld,MD May 30, 2014 at 11:29 am

    What can realistically be done to protect whistleblowers ? Fear of retaliation obviously,kept many in this lab from taking action earlier.

    Don Kornfeld

    • david hardman May 30, 2014 at 11:45 am

      In reply to Donald Kornfeld,MD May 30, 2014 at 11:29 am

      “What can realistically be done to protect whistleblowers ?”

      Retraction Watch? Pubpeer?

      The reltaliation may not be from the miscreant lab, but also from managerialism everywhere.

    • Sylvain Bernès May 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      PubPeer, RW, or any well established post-review system with widespread diffusion is obviously a suitable route for whistleblowers. This is however limited to publications. The protection of whistleblowers reporting mobbing is by far a more complex issue, with which many universities are uncomfortable.

      • AI May 30, 2014 at 6:45 pm

        There are stupid data manipulators and there are smart manipulators. Stupid ones leave a visible trail that can be picked up and focus is always more on fudged blots, reused images etc. These are the ones that will get attention on RW, PP etc.
        For the smart ones images will be perfect but may be the only time the experiment worked. From my former lab a publication in CNS group has certain images which are perfect to look at, were needed as final confirmation but that is 1 out of 3-4 experiments done (so basically the reverse is true as 2-3 times no change is the representative data). It is the same in some other publications too. One or 2 core findings are valid beyond that it is use only the data that supports the core story. If it is not reproducible then there are lot of things it can be blamed on – cell lines, reagents, hands etc etc. There is no way I or anyone else can speak out about these without the identity becoming known. I have known that my piece of data was misrepresented in his grant application but the moment it comes out it would be known that only I could have leaked the information.

      • Albert Donnay June 12, 2014 at 9:25 am

        Neither PubPeer or RW open to whistleblowers seeking to document scientific misconduct and request retraction. RW says it only reports on published retractions, not requests for retractions, unless published somewhere else first, and both PubPeer and PubMedCommons prohibit people from posting any allegations of research misconduct or requesting retraction. It would be nice if we RW would host “Retraction Request” database to simply log all the requests that readers are filing which could then be updated later with the outcomes. This way we researchers begin to see how long such requests take to conclude, and which journals are faster than others vs completely unresponsive…

    • harshark1978 May 30, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      “…. This combination of being undesirable to many other labs should they leave their position due to lack of experience/training, dependent upon employment for U.S. visa status, and under constant threat of career suicide in your home country should you leave, was enough to make many people play along…”

      If this is the environment someone is working in, I am not sure there would be many whistleblowers. There are numerous students/postdocs/early career researchers who are visa holders, starting off their lives in the US. I am not sure any of them would jeopardize their career (or burn bridges). Unless you are one who firmly believes “principles trump career outcome” !!

    • michaelhbriggs May 30, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      One reason sub-standard publications get through (i.e. publication review doesn’t work as it should) is that the editors on the journals and the pool of reviewers they select from may be friends or associates of the authors. By having double-blind review, in which the editors and reviewers have to judge a paper on its scientific content, rather than who the authors are and where they come from, would help.

      • Michael May 30, 2014 at 6:20 pm

        This sounds great in theory but in reality double-blind review for a scientific paper is virtually impossible. For most manuscripts it would only take a little bit of research to identify the lab.

        • michaelhbriggs May 30, 2014 at 7:12 pm

          Yes, not perfect, but guessing the authors would at least require reading the paper, and would not do any harm.

    • michaelhbriggs May 30, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      This author of this piece should be given a medal for having the courage to speak out.

      • AI May 30, 2014 at 6:27 pm

        It is easy to criticize on the blogs but in the real world the moment you take on a big name you become a pariah for the scientific community. I say this from my experience where my applications for another post doc were turned down with “I don’t consider people who are seeking a 2nd post doc” and/ or “without previous PI’s recommendation”. So you are either the option to join an equally bad or worse lab (this behavior is far more pervasive than we are willing to acknowledge) or leave science.

  • Eric May 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Correct, to the point, and well written. the issue of scientific misconduct has been extensively written about. The issues are not new. All senior and experienced scientists have seen these and different aspects of misconduct. There is no solution until biomedical failures consume lives and resources. Only then will the performance of science begin to change for the better.

  • Leonid Schneider May 30, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    And this is exactly how most successful research labs operate and the reason most high-impact papers are irreproducible. The whistleblower is absolutely right: “these are behaviors that science is selecting for with its current funding and publication mechanisms”.

    • JATdS May 30, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      If this is any indication of the trend observed in high IF journals, then I would hate to know what is taking place in low IF journals. I still claim that among all bad options, the relative quality control in place in these traditional peer reviewed journals that typify most IF-related journals is far better than the total rubbish published in many of the predatory OA journals listed in Beall’s list. It is the latter group that poses a greater threat to science integrity, although knowing that cases like this exist in high IF journals is extremely worrisome. I have personally become extremely embittered and disilusioned with science and with scientists in my field of study, plant science, for staying passive. Just yesterday, I was forced to submit a paper highlighting 9 cases of retractions in plant science that represent serious cases of academic fraud and misconduct to a journal liste don Beall’s list. I had to do this because the paper had been rejected by about a dozen “traditional” plant science journals. Except for one Sprnger journal, at least 6 papers of mine that are either case studies or in-deth analyses about retractions or post-publication peer review in the plant sciences have been vigorously (if not aggressively) rejected. Of course, the reason they will use is that the paper is “out of scope”. BS, how can retractions in plant science be “out of scope” in a plant science journal? So, at least in plant science, I believe that we are dealing with rigid, implemented and rigid structures in research institutes, among the elite of academia, that wants to reject change, analysis of the published content, and has ZERO apetite to correct it, unless it is a blatant fraud. My struggle against the “system” over the past 6-8 years is now starting to show the signs of burn-out, and although there is still so much to analyze, critique, and expose, contact with thousands of peers and specialists from around the world over the years have indicated that there are mmost likely less than 4 or 5 individuals who are willing to take up intellectual arms to battle what is clearly a deep-rooted crisis in plant science publishing.

      • John June 1, 2014 at 8:38 am

        I don’t think it is fair to compare a 3-10 IF journal with something on Beall’s list. In biomedical sciences the standards are pubmed and Reuters ISI. Anything not listed in those indexes should be read with extreme caution.

        • JATdS June 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

          John, a lot of the trash published by publishers on Beall’s list are referenced 10-fold more than those ranked by Thomson Reuters’ IF. The comparison is realistic, that’s how bad the situation is.

    • FooBar May 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      “And this is exactly how most successful research labs operate and the reason most high-impact papers are irreproducible”

      Do you have any data to support this ? Can you share it with us?

  • Jayk May 30, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    The information embargo tactic is not unique to large labs. As soon as you have division of labor due to specialization, all sorts of data manipulation becomes feasible. All you need is three persons, two perform the bench work and one does the synthesis and imaginative interpretation/manipulation, usually the PI.

  • Michael May 30, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Quoted from the write-up. “Raw data left one’s hands, went to the immediate superior (one of the three named above) and the next time it was seen would be in a manuscript or grant. What happened to that data in the intervening period is unclear.” If this is/was a general modus operandi, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  • Scrutineer May 30, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Blimey! Where have we heard all this before? Ah yes – now I remember! Same lab system was being applied next door in Connecticut (until U CONN stomped on it).

    The late Dipak Das operated almost exactly the same system, importing Indian nationals, imposing Omerta, and threatening summary reverse export for any hint of bolshiness.

    As U CONN researcher “Mallika” commented on an RW report at the time: “I did know a couple of people in Dr Das’s lab and interacted with them outside the lab. I was always surprised at how rapidly they seemed to produce data and got tons of publications where we struggle to get our experiments and papers out. Also, their work seemed to be very compartmentalized- as also mentioned in the report. It was like an assembly line more or less-that way I guess one person did not get to know about the other’s manipulation in details.”

    But there was an even more illuminating comment on a different blog that I now can’t find. Maybe Paul Brookes could search the sciencefraud.org archive for a comment by a recovering ex-Das Lab researcher? In my memory, it is so like the report above, that you could just change the PIs’ names.

    This internet thingy is such a double-edged sword. For any aspiring sociopath entering the sciences for whom personal fame rates above accuracy, caution and control, new knowledge, genuine medical advancement etc., the template for career advancement has just been laid out above. Well, apart from the figure fabrication bit that nowadays can cause stellar careers to suddenly go all pear-shaped. Yep, they are going to have to find a way round this newfangled PPPR scrutiny.

    For those of us who find that openly and enthusiastically discussing our research endeavours with our colleagues is one of the few rewards of pursuing a scientific career, such an environment must be worse than death.

    • AI May 30, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      I have often wondered why is there complete silence when there are labs that function almost entirely on imported post docs but there is so much hue and cry when a company gets people on visa? Why there is no cap on the number of visas a university can sponsor when the same applies to industry? Is it not a fact that the time spent as postdoc has been on the rise and barely 15-20% end up with academic career (at least in life sciences), unemployment is only 1-2% lower in PhD/ postdocs than general public? So why free import of post docs is allowed?
      Interestingly, for pursuing bachelors/ masters/ graduate foreign born individuals need to have communication skills in english as demonstrated by TOFEL scores but for post doc even if you can’t speak 1 complete sentence in english it is allowed as long as you can communicate with the PI in your native language.
      I have nothing against individuals coming to this country for doing research, making a career but that is a fallacy. They come with dreams of making it in academia, not a lot of them know that a career in academia is an alternate career, and a lot of them end up getting used as cheap disposable labor with little or no career options by the time they realize it. So discouraging at the entry may not be as bad as it sounds.

  • Edward Michelini May 30, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    This dysfunctional dynamic is entirely due to the strict hierarchical power structure. The military does exceptionally poor science. Interlab communication is supposed to be free discourse, but the efficient labs sucking up all the resources tend to have no intralab communication; everything is directed to the few alphas. And if the scientific questions are worth anything its usually too much for any diminished subset to digest and fully understand. Add ridiculous productivity expectations and misconduct is likely the norm, detected only sporadically. “Speculative” data which guesses right will be reproduced, eventually.

    • Allison (@DrStelling) June 1, 2014 at 11:39 am

      I’d just like to say, it depends on which branch of the military. (The lab I’m in is funded by the Navy; and they have done a pretty good job of getting top-notch science done- not to mention funneling it into technology for use by consumers.) Apparently they expect a PRL or PRX per every $100K spent, which is reasonable for computational fields.

      I’m not saying the military is perfect. However, they do seem to be decent at understanding that the scientist has to go into a dark little room for two years flat and code: they have a pretty good grasp of the time needed to get the science they fund accomplished. (Or they seem to, in this specific situation.) Whereas the NIH seems to get caught up in a lot of field wide funding loops; partially due to Congress *not* really understanding the timescales involved. (No, Congress, we’re not going to “cure cancer” in one year. No matter how much money you throw at your scientific superstars.)

      This is not to say that money should just be thrown, willy-nilly, at scientists with no accounting for where it goes- but measuring natural science on, say, quarterly timescales is measuring noise; not signal, and usually just slows down the scientist. (Applied science is obviously different- when natural science becomes technology, quarterly reports are in order.)

  • Edward Michelini May 30, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    we only detect the falsified and wrong subset

  • Scotus May 30, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Could the author comment on how interactions with the “collaborating labs” were handled? I’m particularly interested in the Bolli “collaboration”. Bolli was only too eager to take credit for the scipio trial but now seems quite eager to distance himself from these problems, stopping just short of completely throwing Anversa under the bus.

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2014/04/11/harvard-investigation-leads-expression-concern-brigham-led-stem-cell-research/iTubGX14dxVXqVT4K1UzRP/story.html

    “I am of course as anxious as anyone else to see the results of the ongoing investigation by the BWH,” Bolli wrote in an e-mail Friday. “The data in question were generated by Dr. Anversa’s lab independently of us in Louisville; we in Louisville have nothing to do with the issues cited in the Expression of Concern.”

    • Sinking ship May 31, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Shame, they were far more buddy-buddy only a short time ago, when they were riding high:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9w2FWxiNyk

      SCIPIO trial was almost called the GARAGE trial (approx 9 mins into video)!

      • Chuck June 5, 2014 at 2:25 pm

        Although Bolli seeks to distance himself from the controversy, he is also culpable. Bolli uncritically accepted cells grown by Anversa, infused them into gullible patients, and, I think, exaggerated the significance of his findings. As Darrel Francis has pointed out, most of the SCIPIO patients were cherry-picked rather than randomized. Also, unbelievably, only 1 million cells were infused (into an organ containing >20 billion cells), which is the same dosage that Bolli had used in rats! Now that the integrity of the characterization of the cells has been questioned, what might the worst-case scenario be? What was given to the patients in SCIPIO is not what was advertised. Who knows what was infused. This episode is a blot on the face of medical science: a case study of the perils of setting out to prove a hypothesis, rather than testing one.

        • Sylvain Bernès June 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm

          @Chuck. Thank you for that.
          Regarding your comment about “the perils of setting out to prove a hypothesis, rather than testing one”, note that a hypothesis is never something one can prove or disprove. It’s just a testable statement, based on previous observations or any accepted background. This is very different from a conjecture, which is an unproven proposition. Once an accepted proof of a conjecture is available, the conjecture disappears. Probably the most emblematic recent example is the Fermat’s last theorem.
          The problem currently striking all non-math Sciences is the dreadful confusion between conjecture, hypothesis and working hypothesis (i.e. a provisionally accepted hypothesis, generally the starting point of a PhD thesis). In very extreme cases, a working hypothesis is directly assumed to be the truth !

  • Nick May 31, 2014 at 11:35 am

    The whistleblowers who outed Diederik Stapel’s fraudulent research practices — which, as far as I can tell, were not accompanied by a bullying management style — have chosen to remain anonymous to this day, because they fear for their future employment prospects. Since Stapel is hardly in a position to exact any form of revenge, I presume this is because they don’t think that anyone wants to hire people who have proven their integrity to the point of calling out the dean. Even if they are wrong, this is a truly worrying message.

    • Klaas van Dijk June 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Nick wrote: “The whistleblowers who outed Diederik Stapel’s fraudulent research practices — which, as far as I can tell, were not accompanied by a bullying management style”.

      Please read https://www.commissielevelt.nl/wp-content/uploads_per_blog/commissielevelt/2013/01/finalreportLevelt1.pdf

      “Several PhD students also stated in interviews with the Levelt Committee that Mr Stapel misused his position of power in order to silence them. Mr Stapel told a research Master’s student who found suspicious patterns in the
      data: ‘If you want to be taken on here you will have to demonstrate that you can get something finished, so just write up the results.'”

      “On the one hand Mr Stapel had an intensive one-to-one working relationship with the young researchers, and many
      PhD students viewed him as a personal friend. They visited his home, had meals together, went to the cinema, and so on. On the other hand, however, were the threats when critical questions were asked. It would then be made clear to the PhD student concerned that such questions were seen as a lack of trust and that none should be asked. It was precisely the close relationship with Mr Stapel that made it difficult for a junior researcher to see anything in this other than well-intentioned constructive criticism from the senior partner.”

      “In 2010 and 2011 three mentions of fraud were addressed to members of the academic staff in psychology. The first two were not followed up in the first or second instances. Mr Stapel’s virtually unassailable position may have played a part. Suspicions about data provided by Mr Stapel had also arisen among fellow full professors on two occasions in the past year. These suspicions were not followed up as well. The Committee concludes that the three young whistleblowers showed more courage, vigilance and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors.”

  • John June 1, 2014 at 6:26 am

    One interesting note for me is that the whistleblower didn’t mention that they were forced to fake data, which happens a lot to US visa holding scientists, particularly Chinese scientists with multiple children. The threat of being sent home is insanely frightening and they will do what ever is needed to stay. This form of employee abuse needs to come to an end. These are good people trying to make a better life for themselves, not slaves.

    • thue June 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      you are usually not “forced” but strongly suggest that because your data do not match previous results you may have something wrong, that you are not able to do the experiment… Yes they leave you no choice but they never ask you to falcify data… That is the trick…

      • Mathew June 2, 2014 at 9:40 am

        I 100 % agree. PIs indirectly ask their students or postdocs to manipulate the results. Even sometime they draw the hypothetical figures and ask students they are expecting these kinds of results even before conducting the experiments. If you not getting the expected results then they start pointing all sorts of mistakes in your experiments and indirectly force you to manipulate the results. They give indirect hints like there might be some calculation errors please check your data carefully.

    • FooBar June 1, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      “Insanely frightening to have to return to China”, “good people” somehow forced to engage in fraud? What utter nonsense. China is not Stalin’s USSR, it’s actually a prosperous country, especially for Chinese grad students or post-docs who usually are coming from elite universities and well-connected families with ties to the Party (=Chinese nomenklatura).

      They are adults who fully know what they are doing, If you commit fraud, it is only fair to have your H1B visa revoked, and be barred from a green card.

      Enough with the excuses.

      • JATdS June 1, 2014 at 9:07 pm

        “One interesting note for me is that the whistleblower didn’t mention that they were forced to fake data, which happens a lot to US visa holding scientists, particularly Chinese scientists with multiple children.” John, can you provide proof of such instances?

        • John June 2, 2014 at 5:02 am

          I can only write here what a close friend told me about what goes on in his lab meetings. “I want to see by the weekend or I will ship you back to China”. I think it is completely ignorant to expect people that have moved their entire lives to the US and built families and a future using their Uni jobs as the foundation, to give that all up for an academic ideal that is not practiced by their PI or enforced by their university. People have kids to feed. And no, not every foreign student comes from a wealthy family.

          • JATdS June 2, 2014 at 12:03 pm

            A statement based on a single individual? Perhaps the real story here is the imported foreign labor to do jobs Americans no longer want to do. If RW can be a conscious-inducing blog about the rots of science, which express themselves as retractions, then let this Anversa story serve as the spark for debate on the immigration issue, and its implications on science.

          • John June 6, 2014 at 8:14 am

            The question is about which work for what pay. How Americans are willing to pay a 50k for a PhD and then make 50k a year in an expensive major city. Smart Americans, in the current economic climate, take their PhDs and go into finance or they get medical degrees. There is no money for postdocs in academic science, so why do it? There is a reason why a large percentage of American labs are filled with foreign students, many of which whom received a free college education.

          • FooBar June 2, 2014 at 3:30 pm

            [QUOTE]I can only write here what a close friend told me about what goes on in his lab meetings. “I want to see by the weekend or I will ship you back to China”. [/QUOTE]

            That is unacceptable, if true. The PI in question and the university are risking a huge lawsuit. Doesn’t take much to record one of these sessions on a smartphone.

            [QUOTE] I think it is completely ignorant to expect people that have moved their entire lives to the US and built families and a future using their Uni jobs as the foundation, to give that all up….[/QUOTE]

            Of course you are correct. Do you think that the pressure to present “improved” research results is only exerted by a corrupt boss, or it could be a problem once junior, tenure-track faculty? Everything hinges on the Uni job.

          • FooBar June 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

            One more thing, Before joining a lab, you talk to other grad students. Amazing how well the dirty secrets of the faculty are known among the student body. Do your homework!

          • Akhlesh June 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

            I agree with FooBar. Before joining a group, enquire about it from graduate students.

          • Scrutineer June 3, 2014 at 5:16 pm

            FooBar

            How can a person that has never been to the US talk to the student body? Dirty secrets revealed by a quick Skype chat maybe? Pah! In many cases they are being recruited sight unseen. This can be used as a deliberate ploy by unscrupulous lab heads to capture dependent staff to act as their obedient grunts.

            Clearly this places great pressure on the luckless individuals who think they are going to realise their dreams to do real science in the strongest scientific nation in the whole world. Once they find out that they are cannon fodder for some sociopathic monster, they are in a lose-lose situation where it is hard to do the right thing.

            You are then lucky if you can get out quickly to a new lab without committing fraud. What thue and John are saying is that almost any other choice will end your career, your hopes, your dreams. A little dipping into the sorry history of whistleblowing in biomed research would suggest they are right.

          • Akhlesh June 3, 2014 at 6:06 pm

            Scrutineer: your first question was much more pertinent a decade ago than it is now. Skype is one way. However, telephoning people who have been part of the recruiting group also helps. It is not very expensive to make international calls.

          • Scrutineer June 4, 2014 at 4:07 am

            The advice to sound out the lab to the best of one’s ability is of course good. But face to face in the institute is much better than from the other side of the world. If you have that opportunity and don’t take it, you only have yourself to blame. But that is not the situation that we are talking about here. And it certainly was not the situation when these people experienced it a few years back.

          • Sylvain Bernès June 2, 2014 at 4:18 pm

            John’s friend was probably working in the Prof. Smith lab:
            http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1713

          • Sylvain Bernès June 2, 2014 at 9:20 pm

            Note: the PHD comic has been edited after I posted the link. Prof. Smith hangs around and keeps an eye on RW.

  • bleeding June 1, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Some guys get really lucky by getting away with manipulative and toxic actions and behavior. Unfortunately because of such behavior honest people’s careers and lives get destroyed.
    And probably the saddest thing to all those honest humans is that one gets rewarded (career progress, prizes, US status arranged) due to malicious behavior. So many PI’s will never be investigated and they will continue to tarnish medical science while pretending to work in the name of patients and all those who wait for the next cure but at the same time care for nothing besides their next pubication and , of course prize.

  • thue June 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I am a US visa holder, at the beginning of my career and I have been recently in a lab where the dynamic was close to the one described in this article. I quickly understood that the previous “wistle blowers” (or any body asking too many questions) were set up to failed and fired for incompetency (or pushed to leave “for their own good”). After the fisrt few months, I decided to just fly under the radar and looked for another job.

    I am out of this nighmare but I stil grind my teeth when I am congratulated on my recent publication with this lab, where some data are, in my opinion, questionable….
    I know that because of the reputation of the lab and its “proven record” of “novel and cutting edge” science, attested by numerous international publications over the past 20 years.. that, unfortunatly, speaking up would be a career suicide…

    • FooBar June 1, 2014 at 7:56 pm

      Good for you for leaving. Of course, should the fraud you alluded to were to be discovered, your career would be finished as well. Damned if you do, damned if you dont.

      • JATdS June 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm

        Thue, I understand that you are simply protecting your visa, and possibly your family. But that means that you are also protecting misconduct by staying silent. Unfortunately, your position characterizes alot fo scientists’ positions, who always wait for others, like whistlebloswrrs, to do the dirty work for them, and create a system that is better, more functional, and transparent.

    • John June 2, 2014 at 5:14 am

      Good for you for leaving. My personal experience in such a situation, more personnel abuse than faking data, is that it takes one person to leave for other people to gain the courage to do it themselves. It was a US citizen that first left, because they were not legally attached to the PI. A year later the lab was completely shut down by the university.

      • Prof Darrel Francis June 2, 2014 at 7:14 pm

        Thue, FooBar and JATdS are pointing out that you are partly responsible for the problem by staying silent. However, I personally am sympathetic to your position. It is the leaders who should be ashamed of ourselves by putting you in an impossible situation.

        One option may be for you to talk to your new boss about the goings-on at your old lab. Explain your concerns and see what the response is. If the new boss appears interested to support you, start by mutually documenting a conversation in which you describe what you think the problems are. The new boss could then explain what you can do usefully at this stage, if anything. If the new boss (an experienced person) says you can’t do anything, then you can jointly document that this is why you are not doing anything just now.

        If an investigation occurs, however, release your comments publically. Give the investigation panel a copy also, or send them a weblink, so they can’t complain you didn’t tell them.

        On the other hand, if the new boss appears severely disinterested or even angry when you begin to discuss matters of scientific integrity, stop discussing, and think of it as a warning sign of Stugeon’s Law.

  • N June 3, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I wish the author of this would’ve put his or her name to it.

    • John June 3, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Putting their name to it would have been career suicide, regardless of what happens to Anversa. The cardiac adult stem cell crowd is tight and powerful. They run the journals and sit on the funding boards.

      • Chuck June 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm

        True, and shameful. Anversa and Bolli have both won the major scientific awards of the American Heart Association. Bolli edits one of their major journals. In his first two years as editor, Bolli handled, accepted and published no fewer than 10 papers by Anversa…all whilst they were openly collaborating! They reviewed each others’ grants as well. Noe Bolli distances himself from Anversa, presumably in self-preservation. Hopefully this chapter spells the beginning of the end of this insiders’ club, driven more by ambition and greed than by high-minded principle.

        • Mathew June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

          Reviewing each others grants and giving good score is common practice between collaborators. This way they not allow new faculty members to get the NIH grants even their grant application has novel scientific hypothesis. Many times grant reviewer call the applicant and tell them that they have received his/her grant for review and he is going to give good score.
          Same thing is true with peer review of scientific manuscripts. Peer review of scientific manuscript is no more blinded procedure.

        • Rob June 6, 2014 at 11:30 am

          And Joseph Loscalzo is the editor in chief of Circulation, another journal the Anversa group publishes in frequently. Loscalzo and Anversa collaborated together on the retracted Anversa article.

  • donald kornfeld, md June 6, 2014 at 11:10 am

    .
    It is clear that for all the reasons stated above, we cannot expect whistleblowing to be a solution to the problem of research misconduct by senior investigators.. The author of an earlier blog this morning noted that Dr,.Anversa has received 50 milllion dollars of Federal funds to support his flawed research..He has undoubtedly submitted such flawed findings in his applications for renewed funding.In doing so, he has committed fraud, a felony under Federal law punishable by imprisonment and/or fine. Fifty million dollars is a lot of taxpayer money.

    There have been very few such prosecutions. They require that ORI forward such egregious cases to the Justice Dept for prosecution. Senator Grassley has recently asked ORI why a particular investigator found guilty of research misconduct was not prosecuted .It might be helpful if members of the research community informed him that the case he questioned is just a symptom of a larger problem.

    I believe that if there were more well publicized Federal prosecutions of senior investigators,
    it could have a chilling effect on those investigators contemplating acts of research misconduct.

    Don Kornfeld

  • ferniglab June 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    That young researches do not want to take on City Hall is not just understandable, but sensible and the advice I give to any ex-PhD student doing a postdoc and finding themselves in such a situation. Bluntly, you are too young to die.
    However, do drop a comment on Pubpeer. With a bit of luck, those with integrity and in a safe position will take up the comment and progress the argument. This does not mean, of course, that anything will happen. There are plenty of papers on Pubpeer that have been entirely discredited, but not a word from the authors or action from the journals. This does not represent a failure. The comments are there, on record and provide a warning to the reader, including the reviewer of papers and grants. So we chip away, it is slow, but real change is never instantaneous.

  • NOLA July 19, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I had the fortunate opportunity to work, as a postdoctoral fellow, in Dr. Anversa’s lab at the NYMC. I did not experience situations that the blogger described above. While there, I worked directly with Drs Anversa, Leri, Kajstura, and Rota. I always discussed my research results with them as well as other lab members. That is how we decided the next set of experiments. Was this an intense lab to work in? Of course! We were working for one of the major leaders in the field of cardiac stem cells and cardiac regeneration. Dr. Anversa was challenging the existing dogma. He is extremely passionate about his work. These are the two main reasons I applied to work in his laboratory. It was exciting. I did not fear that I would lose my job if I presented negative data. It is obviously important for readers to understand that what is written in this blog is one person’s perspective. As for the retracted papers, the investigation is ongoing. The scientific community has not been presented with evidence and therefore should wait on passing judgement.

  • An investigator July 29, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    He should be deeply ashamed for deceiving so many investigators and wasting a great amount of tax-payer dollars, but he personally earned a lot from his month payment in past many years. It’s pity for us to see such a change.

  • JakTo August 5, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Collateral Damage
    Web of Deception
    Network Propagation
    Idea(s) Domination
    Self-Potency

    The assumption of being / standing innocent until proven otherwise must PREVAIL… my comments are directed to the cardiac regeneration community at-Large. To preserve the integrity of the knowledge network (science) it’s imperative that we never allow the assembly of a self-selective group to dominate / dictate our scientific horizons. The best / ideal approach is to nurture diversity (mix-it-up) and insist by all means possible (self-disclosure; imposed disclosure) against the orchestration of ‘prominence’. All one needs to do is simply examine the evidence / signals: The reoccurrence of selected topics; speaking names / individuals serving as Chairs at AHA / ESC meetings; the circular appearance / reappearance of Editorial Boards / Co-Editors / Study a Collaborators. The patters are not hard to detect, discourage and disrupt (without self-inhalation)…

    – Say NO to ‘Self-Potency’ –

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