Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

What a report into scientific misconduct reveals: The case of Frank Sauer

with 12 comments

Oct. 3, 2011, was the beginning of the end for Frank Sauer’s tenure at the University of California, Riverside. On that day, an anonymous emailer contacted Sauer’s institution with accusations that the biochemist had cooked his research in at least eight papers over a 16-year period.

Sauer was found to have doctored images in studies using government money — nearly $3 million of it. He went on to lose his position at UC Riverside, several papers to retraction, and, in May, a subsequent legal battle over the severity of the federal sanctions. Along the way, he concocted a fantastic tale of sabotage against German scientists (like himself), replete with poison-pen letters and fabricated credentials. 

Retraction Watch has obtained a copy of UC Riverside’s report on the Sauer case through a public records request. The report, which is undated but which describes committee meetings and interviews from October 2011 to October 2012, lists 33 allegations of scientific misconduct against Sauer, 20 of which the committee determined to involve deception. Of the remaining 13, the committee either could not find proof of guilt or determined that the data were legitimate.

Most of the allegations stemmed from the anonymous emailer. About six weeks later, the journal Science raised five additional allegations. The investigative committee subsequently tacked on another allegation after a referee raised concerns about a paper Sauer had submitted to Nature in 2005.

Among the claims are that Sauer spliced images without revealing the edits; reused images in different figures; and manipulated or falsified other images. For help, the university turned to a private company called Califorensics, based in Roseville, which conducted analyses of Sauer’s work and personal computers.

Although in some instances Sauer appeared to be behaving recklessly at best, in some cases “the evidence demonstrated that the research misconduct was committed intentionally and knowingly.”

However, the investigative committee did not recommend that Sauer be fired. Rather, it called for a variety of penalties, including that the researcher be banned from publishing papers for five years, that he be ineligible for merit pay raises for five years, and that he be required to attend “training the trainers” workshop on research ethics — after which he not only would have to demonstrate that he understood the but would then have to “direct a research ethics course” at the university for at least three years.

The 109-page document makes for interesting reading — which is exactly why we plan to obtain and post more of these institutional investigations.

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Comments
  • TL July 19, 2017 at 8:08 am

    Banning someone from publishing papers sounds neither feasible nor legal.

    • Pointerout July 19, 2017 at 9:57 am

      If actually enforced, it would still have the effect of ending his career. And then they recommended he teach a course on ethics. That would be rich!

    • Klavs Hansen July 19, 2017 at 1:24 pm

      Surely you can ban somebody from publishing papers with your institution’s name on it.

      • TL July 20, 2017 at 4:37 am

        It is infeasible because an institution is not usually informed of papers being submitted by its people. The first they would hear of it is by the time the publication comes out. What would they do then, demand a retraction? On what grounds?

        Furthermore, what is the point of keeping a researcher on the books but preventing them from doing one of the key activities of a researcher?

    • Lighton Phiri July 19, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      * Perhaps it may be feasible and legal if an institution’s policy is designed that way?
      * On Page 106 of the ‘UC Riverside’s report on the Sauer case’ referred to in the post, it says that “the UC Riverside Policy and Procedures for Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct Section V11.F.3 requires the Investigation Committee to offer its recommendations”

  • Richard Smith July 19, 2017 at 8:48 am

    It’s a good idea to publish these reports. They should surely all be published: justice must not only be done it must be seen to be done. You might publish the report of the Memorial University of Newfoundland into R K Chandra, a report on which the university failed to act. We need to achieve a world where universities can have no confidence that reports will remain buried.

    • rfg July 19, 2017 at 11:45 am

      I could not agree more!

      Right now ORI seems at best reluctant and at worst unable to proceed with cases that a University choses to stonewall.

      Achieving “a world where universities can have no confidence that reports will remain buried” is going to take a transparency, but also a change in laws or culture.

      Put some teeth into regulations against burying misconduct. Universities would not like to be forced to payback grants for example.

  • fernandopessoa July 19, 2017 at 10:11 am

    Science. 2000 Sep 29;289(5488):2357-60.
    Ubiquitin-activating/conjugating activity of TAFII250, a mediator of activation of gene expression in Drosophila.
    Pham AD1, Sauer F.
    Author information

    1
    Zentrum für Molekulare Biologie der Universität Heidelberg (ZMBH), Im Neuenheimer Feld 282, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany.

    Figure 4. http://imgur.com/DAsfEj9

  • Till Bruckner July 19, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Nice piece, though I agree with the previous commenter that a publication ban seems unlikely to be legal – First Amendment anyone? It would also set a precendent that others could later abuse to shut up troublesome academics not guilty of fraud.

    Question to the Retraction Watch team: What is the usual timeline for getting an FOI response from a US university? (Here in the UK, it’s maximum 20 working days by law, rarely more than 30 working days in practice.) RSVP. Thanks!

    • Ivan Oransky July 19, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks for the comment. As for timeline of responses from US universities, really depends on individual state public records laws, since only a handful of universities would be considered Federally FOIA-ble (West Point, Naval Academy, etc.). And private universities aren’t subject to the same public records laws. UC Riverside is a state university. “Response” can be “we’re looking into it,” in any case. More information here: https://www.muckrock.com/

  • joshhaydn July 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    RW has taught me enough to have formulated the following conclusion: as long as the potential benefit of fraud is more significant than the perception of the potential risk of being caught and/or the punishment, there is insignificant deterrent to research misconduct. The logical conclusion is that there MUST be risk of civil and criminal penalties for those who cause tangible losses due to their misconduct.

  • Johny DasGupta August 31, 2017 at 9:14 am

    “the investigative committee did not recommend that Sauer be fired”…what else does he need to do to be fired?

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