Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Volunteer researcher faked weeks’ worth of data

with 6 comments

A volunteer researcher at Florida Atlantic University fabricated the results of mouse experiments over a 14-day period in June, 2016, according to a new finding issued by the U.S Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

According to the ORI, Alec Mirchandani made up the results of behavioral experiments to make it seem as if he had done the work, and falsified animal transfer logs, which affected research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

More specifically, the ORI determined that Mirchandani had “knowingly and intentionally:”

-fabricated the results that he recorded for the T-maze behavioral experiment in three of the five TMZ control mice on the laboratory data sheets and white board on fourteen (14) of the sixteen (16) eligible days in June 2016, to make it appear as though he had conducted the experiments

-falsified the animal transfer logs on twelve (12) of the sixteen (16) eligible days in June 2016, to make it appear as though he had conducted the experiments

-fabricated the times he recorded on the laboratory data sheets on fourteen (14) of the sixteen (16) eligible days in June 2016, to make it appear as though he had conducted the experiments

-incorporated and recorded the fabricated and falsified data with his previous data in his laboratory notebook and reported the results to his laboratory supervisor and principal investigator, such that the experimental control data (five animals) for experiments conducted from January 2016-June 30, 2016, were not accurately represented

Mirchandani admitted to at least some of the fakery, according to the ORI finding.

The research was supported by grant R15 MH099590-01A1, with Robert Paul Vertes at Florida Atlantic University as the PI. The grant also supported research that appeared in this 2016 paper, with Vertes as corresponding author. Mirchandani is not on the author list.

Vertes told us:

Alec was a member of my lab when this occurred.  We began to suspect that something was amiss by looking at his data; it seemed that the rats were not being run properly — or at all.  We then looked at swipe card information for entry to the vivarium and it did not match the times he claimed he was there to pick and return rats for his experiments.  On some days he merely fed the rats and on others he was not there at all.

We discovered this very early and hence it had essentially no effect on our research. “All” rats assigned to Alec were removed from the study.

He added:

This has never happened before in my lab and I expect it will not again.  However, I will continue to vigilantly monitor the actions of all lab personnel.

According to Mirchandani’s LinkedIn profile, he is now working at a vacation rental company and an e-business company. It says he left Florida Atlantic University in January, 2017, after 1.5 years. The ORI’s notice describes Mirchandani as a “former post-baccalaureate research volunteer,” but his profile lists him as a biomedical graduate student at FAU. It’s unclear whether he obtained his master’s degree.

As part of the ORI’s finding, for the next two years, Mirchandani must be supervised if he conducts any research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which includes the National Institutes of Health. He’s also not eligible to serve on PHS peer review committees during that time.

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Written by Alison McCook

July 14th, 2017 at 11:07 am

Comments
  • rfg July 16, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    This is the first ORI case that I’m aware of that does not involve some sort of falsification appearing in either a grant application, progress report or scientific paper.

    The volunteer did not show up to do the work he said he would do and falsified logs to make it seem like he had. Data was fabricated.

    Misconduct for sure.

    But he was caught and the fake data never made it into the scientific record.

    It’s also a rather light punishment – fitting the crime. Also unlikely that the just graduated volunteer was ever going to be tapped to review grants.

    It’s surprising to me that ORI somehow was engaged in this case.

    • Theresa Defino July 17, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      This is not the first such case. Eg, see Rashanda Robertson. Yes, ORI is still struggling, as I was the first to document, but it appears to be making findings according to the legal requirements. This one was the result of an admission on the part of the lab worker.

  • RetiredRIO July 17, 2017 at 10:52 am

    rfg,
    Good observation.

    This is a sign of a struggling ORI trying to get its misconduct numbers up after a year of no findings. We will see more cases like this in the future, I bet.

  • Wim Crusio July 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    This really is a non-event…

  • Alan R. Price July 20, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    No, RFG. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) actually did make several findings of research misconduct that did not involve any public falsifications/fabrications (the data were not included in publications, grant applications, outside presentations, etc.) during the years that I was a scientist and later the senior investigative officer in ORI from 1992-2005. They were made against persons including: Victoria Santa Cruz, 1996; James B. Boone Jr., 1997; Karrie Recknor, 1999; Katrina Berezniak, 1999; Vilma Valentin, 2002; Sheila Blackwell and Khalilah Creek and Lajuane Woodard, 2004 (most were support staff in clinical or social science research).

    [While the ORI Annual Reports with summaries of these cases were removed last year from the ORI website, the ORI summaries can be found online using Google searches for the names in Federal Register or NIH Guide listings.]

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