A Swedish ethical review board has censured two biologists and their employer, Uppsala University, for events related to “extensive image manipulations” in five papers published between 2010 and 2014. The case has led to criticism from an outside expert — who brought the allegations to Uppsala — over the current system in Sweden for handling such investigations.
Four of the papers have been retracted, and the authors have requested a correction in the fifth.
After an eight-month investigation, in September the government-run Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board in Stockholm, Sweden, concluded that Uppsala professor Kenneth Söderhäll — who has published more than 200 papers — and lecturer Irene Söderhäll acted “negligently” and “dishonestly” by failing to adequately supervise a doctoral student, Apiruck Watthanasurorot, who manipulated the images.
Neither the Expert Group nor an internal university investigation found the Söderhälls guilty of scientific misconduct due to lack of evidence of malicious intent, a prerequisite for misconduct according to both groups. The full Expert Group investigation report, in Swedish, can be found here; you can read our English translation by One Hour Translation here.
The Expert Group had harsh words for Uppsala University for “significantly” delaying the investigation by not securing requested information and for not complying with “established scientific routines and standards,” such as archiving original data and research ethics training.
According to the report and retraction notices, Watthanasurorot manipulated images in the following four papers, all of which have now been retracted:
- Watthanasurorot, Jiravanichpaisal, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2013), “A calreticulin/gC1qR complex prevents cells from dying: a conserved mechanism from arthropods to humans,” Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, Retraction Note
- Watthanasurorot, Saelee, Phongdara, Roytrakul, Jiravanichpaisal, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2013), “Astakine 2—the Dark Knight Linking Melatonin to Circadian Regulation in Crustaceans,” PLoS Genetics, Retraction Note
- Watthanasurorot, Jiravanichpaisal, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2010), “A gC1qR Prevents White Spot Syndrome Virus Replication in the Freshwater Crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus,” Journal of Virology, Retraction Note
- Watthanasurorot, Guo, Tharntada, Lo, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2014), “Hijacking of Host Calreticulin Is Required for the White Spot Syndrome Virus Replication Cycle,” Journal of Virology, Retraction Note
The Scientist reported on three of these retractions last month.
Those condemnations illustrate “the weakness of the current Swedish system” to prevent and investigate scientific misconduct, according to zoologist Olof Leimar at Stockholm University, who reported the manipulated images to Uppsala in a letter requesting that the Expert Group become involved.
According to the Expert Group report, the Söderhälls maintain that Watthanasurorot is “solely responsible” for manipulating images and creating original files and that they are not responsible for this or any other misconduct.
The fifth paper, cited for image manipulation in figure 5A and 7B, has not been retracted. That paper is:
- Watthanasurorot, Jiravanichpaisal, Liu, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2011), “Bacteria-Induced Dscam Isoforms of the Crustacean, Pacifastacus leniusculus,” PLoS Pathogens
K. Söderhäll told Retraction Watch that fifth paper will be corrected:
We are communicating with the journal, and ask for a correction. Several independent groups have confirmed the findings in this paper.
During the investigation, two other papers from the laboratory that do not list Watthanasurorot as a co-author were found to have unintentional mistakes, and “will be corrected,” according to Söderhäll.
- Jearaphunt, Noonin, Jiravanichpaisal, Nakamura, Tassanakaj, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2014), “Caspase-1-Like Regulation of the proPO-System and Role of ppA and Caspase-1-Like Cleaved Peptides from proPO in Innate Immunity,” PLoS Pathogens
- Lin, Söderhäll & Söderhäll (2008), “Transglutaminase activity in the hematopoietic tissue of a crustacean, Pacifastacus leniusculus, importance in hemocyte homeostasis,” BMC Immunology
K. Söderhäll told us that he first became aware of the accusations of image manipulation in September and early October 2014 from the journals:
We then contacted and informed the head of our faculty immediately early in October 2014 after that we discovered that A. Watthanasurorot had manipulated figures.
After spotting some comments on PubPeer, Leimar downloaded the papers in question and began to suspect some misconduct had occurred. On December 12, 2014, he sent a letter to Uppsala vice-rector, Johan Tysk, noting his concerns in 10 different papers from the lab and asking that Uppsala involve the Expert Group at the Central Ethical Review Board.
Leimar gave us his account of the Swedish system for investigating misconduct:
Up to a few years ago, the Swedish Research Council handled these investigations. In my opinion, that was a good system. However, as a result of a “scandal”, where the administration at the research council failed to properly file the huge number of letters and comments sent in by a person accused of misconduct, the leadership of the research council decided to end that investigation and to close down the entire activity of investigating allegations of research misconduct. This was not a wise decision, I think. As an alternative system, which is currently operating, each university handles allegations of misconduct against its own researchers, and also has its own policy and requirements about this. For instance, Uppsala University requires that intent to, e.g., manipulate images is proven in order to find a researcher guilty of misconduct. In contrast, the previous policy by the Swedish Research Council had requirements implying, e.g., that leaders of research groups had a certain responsibility to maintain data integrity.
In the new system, there is also an Expert Group at the Central Ethical Review Board, which has an advisory role. If either the person making a formal request for an investigation, or the university responsible for the investigation, asks that the Expert Group gives advice on the matter, this will happen. This policy is set by government regulations (the Swedish term in this case is “högskoleförordningen”).
Leimar added that he believes this incident illustrates weaknesses in the current system in Sweden:
I think the reason that the Expert Group performed an investigation in this case is that I explicitly asked for it in my formal letter to Uppsala University, where I cited the relevant part of the regulations. My guess is that Uppsala University otherwise would not have asked the Expert Group for advice. I think it is a weakness of the current Swedish system that a university tends to be protective of “its own researchers”. Most likely, this is precisely what happened in the current case.
The University opened a preliminary investigation on January 12, 2015, and just over a week later asked the Expert Group for Scientific Misconduct to look into the matter as well. The Expert Group appointed an expert, Björn Dahlbäck of Lund University, to look into the case.
The Uppsala investigation, concluded on March 16, found “a certain degree of negligence has occurred,” according to our translation of the Expert Group report, but detected no malicious intent on the part of the Söderhälls. Therefore, they were found not guilty of scientific misconduct.
The Expert Group, whose investigation stretched until September 2015, likewise concluded that Irene and Kenneth Söderhäll did not commit scientific misconduct due to lack of intent, but did note the biologists “failed in their roles as supervisors and department head and have thus acted negligently” and “dishonestly.”
Kenneth Söderhäll told us that he rejects the report’s conclusion:
The report concluded that we have been careless, and there was no intention from us to be careless. The rules for this committee say that if you are careless and even without intention that is dishonesty, which in our opinion is totally wrong.
Notably in the report, the Expert Group states that the University failed to secure primary data they requested on three occasions, which “significantly” delayed the investigation. A hard drive to a scanner in question was also not secured by the University when requested. The report adds (according to our translation):
In general, the university is responsible for handling and archiving the original data and for research ethics training. In this matter, Uppsala University has failed to comply with established scientific routines and standards. This should be rectified.
The report also recommended that Uppsala revoke Watthanasurorot’s PhD, and the university says an investigation into the dissertation is ongoing.
A university spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about the investigation or outcome, but instead emailed us this statement from Vice-Rector of the Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Johan Tysk:
Uppsala University has a culture of taking allegations of research misconduct very seriously. The researchers in question personally contacted me at an early stage, and an investigation was launched in accordance with University policy. They also contacted the concerned publications to discuss a potential retraction.
In Sweden, the responsibility for this type of investigation rests with the universities. In accordance with the current legislative framework of the University, intent is required for a case to be deemed research misconduct. No intent or premeditation was found in this case. At present, definitions differ between government agencies, and the University welcomes the ongoing national investigation of the possibility of introducing a uniform set of rules and regulations in this area.
According to an October 5 notice from the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish government has decided to appoint a special investigator to examine the need for a new way to investigate misconduct in research.
Dahlbäck did not respond to our request to comment, and we have been unable to reach Watthanasurorot. Söderhäll told us he and colleagues have been unable to reach Watthanasurorot since mid-November 2014.
Hat tip: Rolf Degen
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