Retraction Watch

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German institute sanctions director after finding him guilty of misconduct

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The executive board of the Leibniz Association in Germany has reprimanded the director of its institute on aging for “grossly negligent scientific misconduct.”

Besides a written reprimand, the executive board has removed Karl Lenhard Rudolph’s “passive voting rights” in association committees, and excluded the institute under his leadership from receiving funds from a multi-million Euro internal funding competition, both for a period of three years.

The executive board identified problems in eight out of 11 reviewed papers, published between 2001 and 2016; it has asked Rudolph to retract one and issue errata for the others. The papers — some of which have been discussed on PubPeer — appear in journals such as Cell, Nature Cell Biology, and the EMBO Journal, and have been collectively cited 552 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Rudolph is the director of one of the 91 independent research institutions that make up the Leibniz Association. He told us he is putting the position of Director of the Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI) in Jena “on hold” while he investigates the allegations:

The commission states that there is no evidence for data fabrication or manipulation by me. I will rigorously investigate all criticized mistakes and will correct these by publications in the scientific journals. At the same time, I will install measures to prevent the occurrence of such mistakes in my group in the future. This process is ongoing and will be reported to the Leibniz Association by November 1st, 2017. In this period, I put the position as a Scientific Director of the Institute on hold to take my responsibility as scientist to the full extent. With this step I wish protect all co-workers in my group and at institute aiming to prevent damage to the development of the Institute.

Here’s more from the Leibniz statement:

-Eight of the 11 scientific publications reviewed contain errors in data representation. These errors include improper duplication of parts of images, unmarked edits when electronically compiling parts of images, presentation of incorrect parts of images, improper selection when presenting results and inadequate loading controls for what are known as ‘Western blots’ on separate gels. Prof. Dr Rudolph is primarily responsible for six of these publications as corresponding author / senior author; he is jointly responsible as co-author for the presentation of criticised data in another publication.

-In eight of the reviewed publications, it was not possible to submit data documentation corresponding to the requirements for good scientific practice with relevant trial protocols and primary data (lab books).

-In four of the reviewed publications, experiments were not sufficiently checked for their reproducibility in accordance with the rules of good scientific practice.

As a result, the executive board has excluded FLI from receiving a type of intramural funding for three years:

Based on the recommendations of the Review Board, the Executive Board has decided to adopt measures including a written reprimand directed at Prof. Dr Rudolph on the grounds of grossly negligent scientific misconduct, the withdrawal of his passive voting rights for Leibniz Association committees for three years and the exclusion of the FLI under Prof. Dr Rudolph’s leadership from Leibniz Association competition proceedings for three years.

The statement confirmed Rudolph’s claim that the executive board did not find evidence that he personally manipulated data; a longer statement from the institution concludes “his breach of the duty of supervision as working group leader and primary author to be grossly negligent:”

While the Review Board does not see any specific indications that data was fabricated or that data manipulation was carried out directly or initiated by Prof. Dr Rudolph, it considers there to be proof of insufficient documentation of the steps and results of the experiments in question in the form of protocols and primary data collection, insufficient quality control that should have ensured the validity and reproducibility of all of the results of this experimental work, inadequate supervision when preparing the publications and insufficient supervision of researchers within the working group. All of these violations arose because Prof. Dr Rudolph neglected his duty of supervision as working group leader (and the main senior author) over a period of more than five years.

A spokesperson for Leibniz sent us a list of the 11 papers, but declined to indicate which one was recommended for retraction.

Rudolph told us:

I would like to clarify that the Leibniz statement says that a retraction should occur according to the recommendation of the commission. The commission [states] “it should be considered if a [retraction] needs to be conducted”. I am in the process of investigating this…

The Leibniz spokesperson explained how the investigation came about:

The Ombudsperson of Leibniz Association received hints of an external expert. There also was a discussion on the Website  about several of the papers in question. Furthermore Dr. Rudolph himself informed the review board about the external allegations.

Regarding the funding ban, the spokesperson explained that FLI was excluded from the Leibniz Competition:

The Leibniz Association Competition is an internal funding program meant to stimulate strategic objectives of the organization. Around 30 Million of Leibniz’s basic funding go to the competition. Institutes can apply annually for different funding schemes…A proposal from FLI under Dr. Rudolph’s leadership will not be accepted in this internal competition for three years.

Since Rudolph said he has put the position of Scientific Director “on hold” until November, we asked if FLI would be eligible for consideration for the 2018 competition, for which researchers have already submitted applications:

There is no final decision on the matter yet. It is still being examined.

One of the 11 papers — published in 2012 by Cell — received an erratum in 2014, citing problems with western blots:

It has come to our attention that the actin loading control for the BATF western blots depicted in Figures 3C and 4C of the article above are from different exposures of the same western blot. Although appropriate actin controls were performed for the experiments presented in Figures 3C and 4C, because the error occurred at the stage of data collection, we cannot provide an image of the correct control bands for the data presented in 4C. The magnitude and impact of this error do not affect the published conclusions. We apologize for any confusion the error may have caused.

The 2012 paper “A differentiation checkpoint limits hematopoietic stem cell self-renewal in response to DNA damage” has been cited 153 times.

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Written by Alison McCook

June 20th, 2017 at 11:39 am

  • fernandopessoa June 20, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Curr Biol. 2001 Jun 26;11(12):962-6.
    Rescue of a telomere length defect of Nijmegen breakage syndrome cells requires NBS and telomerase catalytic subunit.

    Ranganathan V1, Heine WF, Ciccone DN, Rudolph KL, Wu X, Chang S, Hai H, Ahearn IM, Livingston DM, Resnick I, Rosen F, Seemanova E, Jarolim P, DePinho RA, Weaver DT.
    Author information
    Center for Blood Research, 200 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA.

    Figure 2.

    • grobi34 June 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm

      This is clearly a duplication of the lane in the EtBr staining which is not acceptable and should be corrected. The experiment in question should be repeated or deleted from the publication and conclusions. A repetition might be difficult after 16 year but maybe possible.

      That said, how can this now be blamed on Rudolph KL who is fourth author on the publication which did not even come from the lab in which he was in at the time (DePinho lab). Is is proven that he is responsible for the duplication of the lanes?

      I get the feeling that there is a witch hunt going on here! If we want scientific integrity we have to ask for this from all sides including the people that analyse the cases afterwards.

  • mannor June 20, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I knew something is going to happen when I read on pubpeer sometime ago. A common author in 4 of the listed papers has secured a good position here Very unfortunate!

  • fernandopessoa June 21, 2017 at 3:45 am

    That would make the second director of a Leibniz institute to be sanctioned.

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