Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Author of controversial Science fish-microplastics paper committed “intentional” misconduct, says Uppsala

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An investigation at Uppsala University has found the authors of a retracted Science paper — which explored the threat of human pollution on fish — guilty of misconduct.  

The decision, published yesterday, states that both authorsPeter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt“violated the regulations on ethical approval for animal experimentation,” and Lönnstedt, the paper’s corresponding author, “fabricated the results.”

Eklöv told us:

I take full responsibility for the errors for the animal and ethical concerns. …  It was my name on the permission.

The misconduct report does not indicate whether Eklöv or Lönnstedt will be sanctioned. Erik Lempert, the official responsible for the Uppsala University investigation, told us the sanctions are:

something for the dean to decide. A committee will likely look into what kind of action should be taken.

The paper has stirred considerable controversy. Published in June 2016, “Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecologyreceived extensive media attention for its claim that fish larvae prefer “to eat plastic rather than their natural prey.”

Just weeks after the paper was published, the university received a complaint from outside experts alleging that the paper contained “a number of potentially critical flaws,” and requesting the university investigate. Although a preliminary investigation at Uppsala University found “no evidence of research misconduct,” a second investigation conducted by the Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board found the opposite: In April 2017, the ethical board concluded that Eklöv and Lönnstedt were guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” and requested the paper be retracted.

Science had already flagged the paper with an expression of concern in December 2016, and the paper was retracted in May 2017 following the ethical review board’s announcement in April.

Uppsala’s Lempert told us that ethical review board’s investigation prompted the university to take another look at the case. The Uppsala committee found the authors guilty of “two cases of misconduct,” he said:

First, the authors did not have approval for the animal experimentation at the time the experiments were being conducted and the secondmore severeissue was that the project could not possibly have been done in the timeframe presented in the Science paper.

Lempert explained that the paper says the observations were ongoing for at least three weeks, but the committee found that the corresponding author “had only been at the lab using the microplastics for 10 days or less.”

Lempert also noted that the ethical approvals “came after the research had been conducted,” and did not include an official okay to subject the larvae to predators.

The report concluded:

The investigation also indicates that the experiments were not conducted during the period and to the extent stated in the research article. This means that Lönnstedt has fabricated the results. Lönnstedt was aware of this when the article was published and the misconduct must therefore be considered to have been committed intentionally on her part. As co-author, senior researcher and supervisor, Eklöv had a responsibility to check that the research was carried out as described in the research article. He failed to do this and can therefore not escape criticism. However, his failure in this respect cannot be considered to entail a finding of responsibility for intentional misconduct in research.

The university has provided a timeline of the key events related to the investigations and the paper as well as the full report. The article has been cited 40 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, six times since the paper was retracted in May 2017 and 27 times since the expression of concern.

Lönnstedt could not be immediately reached for comment.

Eklöv said he was “very disappointed” in his colleague for fabricating the data:

This is a person I very much trusted who is now shown to be dishonest to me and to the whole scientific community. At same time, it is very good that the committee was able to clarify the issues with the paper.

Update Dec. 8 2017, 17:07 UTC: On Oct. 31, Eklov was one of 325 recipients of grants in Natural and Engineering Sciences, awarded by the Swedish Research Council. In November, a representative of the funding agency told us:

…the Swedish Research Council awaits the decision by Uppsala University and will if needed take the necessary actions.

In light of Uppsala’s decision, we re-contacted the Swedish Research Council representative, who told us:

We just learned about the Uppsala University decision and we will look into the matter. It will be handled as soon as possible.

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Written by Victoria Stern

December 7th, 2017 at 10:55 am

Comments
  • Winfried S. Peters December 7, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    I laugh so hard it gives me painful cramps in my jaw every time a senior professor found guilty of scientific misconduct expresses disappointment about his underlings having been “dishonest to him and the whole scientific community”.

    • peer_review December 9, 2017 at 10:24 pm

      The credit always belongs to PI while the trouble always arises from students.

  • Chris Pemberton December 7, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    How on earth do papers like this get through peer review? If it’s so obvious just weeks after publication that significant flaws exist, do journals like Science think twice about relevant peer reviewers?

  • Morty December 8, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Eklöv was recently funded by the Swedish Research Council. After this decision the grants should be transferred to someone else that follow the rules.

    I am really surprised by the policy of Swedish universities regarding how they handle allegations of misconduct and unethical behaviour in science. I am from Scandiniavia and I though that these cases were taken seriously, but after Macciarini and Sumitran-Holgersson I am very disappointed.

  • Marty Willis December 11, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    It’s time the PI takes responsibility and is fully accountable for the work exiting his/her lab and office space. After all, this work has past his/her desk right? The work has been reviewed by his/her eyes and due diligence has been observed, right? Its about time PIs grew up and took some responsibility for any flaw or dishonesty – anything less is negligence and misconduct.

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