More on the latest Cell retraction: PI says a graduate student was at fault

Carsten Carlberg

This morning we reported on a new retraction in Cell involving fraud from a lab in Finland, which led us to a second retraction of a paper by the same group in the Journal of Molecular Biology. The first author on both papers was Tatjana Degenhardt, who at the time was a graduate student in the lab of Carsten Carlberg, professor of biochemistry at the University of Kuopio.

A few minutes ago Retraction Watch spoke with Carlberg, who had this to say about Degenhardt:

It’s all her fault, and probably today is the worst day of her life when the world sees what she has done.  I was here betrayed by a student I thought I knew pretty well. A year ago I would have put my hand in fire for her.

In our first post, we quoted extensively from a letter on Carlberg’s web site discussing the JMB retraction. Carlberg’s group also has posted a lengthy explanation of events for the Cell paper, some of which follows:

A number of weeks after the publication, we were alerted by a kind and attentive colleague that two bands in figure 2D of the publication are identical whereas as they should correspond to different experiments. This induced us to go through every detail, retrieving the original experimental data and reconstructing the presentations of the experiments in the publication. Because we were able to work as a team of all the authors, we have now been able to do all this.

This team has come to the following conclusions:

1. Although most of the experimental data points presented in the publication are real, some of them have been manipulated by one of the authors, such that the resulting ‘data sets’ together were more in keeping with the occurrence of the oscillations.

2. Experimental figures on the basis of the true experimental data do not provide evidence of statistical significance, neither for oscillatory behaviour nor for the absence of such behaviour.

3. The figures and tables resulting from the modelling aspects are all in good order.

As a team we have therefore decided to retract the experimental parts of this work. In discussion with the journal, this has led to a retraction of the publication as a whole, again with consent of all authors. All authors stand by the modelling results of the paper, however. We obviously feel very bad about this.

The letter goes on to say that Carlberg’s lab will be taking steps to avoid such unpleasantness in the future — although as he acknowledged in his interview with us, human behavior can, and often does, defy barriers to mischief.

We have reconstructed how and why this has happened and we are putting procedures in place to prevent recurrence. The grave mistakes were made by a PhD student in training. We shall be instructing future PhD students explicitly as to what is and what is not, proper data processing (the present data manipulation was in the grey zone between non-professional outlier elimination and data creation). We shall also limit the competitive pressures to which our PhD students are subject. Although we expect our post-docs to have been trained in what are and what are not proper procedures in science, we shall also repeat the instructions for them. At the same time we are discussing standard procedures one should put in place in research groups to prevent all this from happening, e.g. was in which group leaders can identify illegitimate data manipulations.

One line in there is worth a second look: “We shall also limit the competitive pressures to which our PhD students are subject.”

That’s a refreshing notion. Many doctoral students in the United States, at least, would argue that the P stands for Pressure (or Publish, which amounts to the same thing). As readers of this blog have pointed out, perhaps the publish-or-perish ethos in academia has outlived its usefulness, whatever that once was.

May 20, 2011: Please see an update on an investigation into this situation by the University of Luxembourg, which may cost Carlberg his job there.

0 thoughts on “More on the latest Cell retraction: PI says a graduate student was at fault”

  1. Regarding the pressure on students – I repeatedly made it clear to students in my lab that cherry-picking, manipulation, etc… was *absolutely* unethical and I would not stand for it, i.e. they’d be booted out of the lab.

    However… the biggest concern for me wasn’t the outright unethical student but the student who wanted to please. To reduce the pressure on that student I used to also tell my students a version of the following – if their data didn’t line-up, at all, partially or fully, with the expected result in the short term it was a pain-in-the-ass but who knew about the long term. Maybe there was something even more fascinating out there and if they cherry-picked/manipulated/etc data we might well miss out on something so much more interesting.

  2. I read the Degenhardt article in Cell this spring in a journal club for my major. We’ve already read some articles of arguable quality, but this one seemed to be just bad quality fraud.
    When I re-read this paper today and went to see other publications from those authors, I was delighted to find your article giving background information about the retraction…
    Thanks – and keep it up!

  3. What the senior authors write on their site stepping up to their responsibilities is only to be applauded.
    “However, we are co-responsible, because we were the leaders of the groups that were involved in the study as a whole. We have not been attentive enough and have
    been too focused on interpreting the data as presented to us, rather than checking whether those data corresponded to actually experimental data.
    Again we express our sincere apologies to the scientific community and to you as a
    Carsten Carlberg and Hans V. Westerhoff”

  4. I share the opinion with ktwop concerning the written statements from the senior authors. However, I have to admit that, after I read the comment from Mr. Carlberg (as long as he really said it like that) I am not so enthusiastic anymore about those written statements. I am referring in particular to the beginning of his statement, namely “It’s all her fault”.

    It is absolutely not to tolerate if a researcher is manipulating data or figures, but after reading this very great blog in general, I ask myself why do these young scientists do that. They should be smart enough to estimate what may happen if their fraud comes out. For example Tatjana Degenhardt: I made a tour through pubmed and if I see correct she had already some publications before the Cell paper. Of course the question is, how many of those might be also affected by data manipulation, but assume that the papers are “clean”, why did she start to change her behavior? Did she need the Cell paper for her career? What is the real responsibility of supervisors? If I got the Cell paper story correct there was a computational model existing, which should have been confirmed by experimental data? Who of us does not know the discussions with a supervisor or group leader trying to explain that experiments do not support their hypothesis? I am not looking for any excuse, but I would like to understand the reasons. It would be really great to find a way to ask those scientists who obviously faked data: “why have you done that?”. Perhaps, if one starts to listen to them in the same manner as we are listening to their supervisors, we could learn much more, how to prevent this kind of behavior.

  5. A number of weeks after the publication, we were alerted by a kind and attentive colleague that two bands in figure 2D of the publication are identical whereas as they should correspond to different experiments.

    I’m curious why haven’t reviewers done their job…

  6. Actually, four bands in fig. 2D are identical — both inputs, and 75 and 120 min time points. The 120 min band is just slightly elongated, but displays the same features. Also, what’s an input in a 3C assay? The product is formed only during the assay, not before.

  7. After seeing all of these new retractions, I am curious as to how long it takes for the senior authors to be notified of the possibility of fraudulent data within the paper by the journal editors? In the current paper from Cell he notes “a number of weeks” which could mean anything from two weeks to six months after publication.

    How long is the process from the reader contacting the journal, to the journal then contacting the authors. It seems that many of these papers which are found to contain fabricated images by readers are retracted within a year or two of being published.

  8. “We shall also limit the competitive pressures to which our PhD students are subject.”

    Wise words, however I have heard this is the exact opposite of what is actually happening…

    1. Precisely. That quote from him is utter hypocritical rubbish; it is common knowledge that PI’s milk their students for all they’re worth en route to the Nobel Prize.

  9. The Grand Duchy’s third level institution reports good and bad news.

    In what is the first scandal to hit the University, formal procedures have started against a German professor after he used controversial data collected by one of his students in official reports.

    Carsten Carlberg had been working on the Limpertsberg campus since 2005, leading a team in the field of bioinformatics, but his reasearch methods were called into question after a tip-off by an expert, and the data used was soon found to be invalid. When searching for funding, this is clearly a significant breach of scientific and ethical norms.

  10. Sorry for joining this late, but I only just came across the website. I agree that Retraction Watch is providing something very valuable by promoting description and discussion of issues surrounding academic misconduct and scientific errors.

    However I think there is a balance to be struck between highlighting these critical issues for science and further criticising the investigators who have admitted responsibility. Scientific investigation is fundamentally a human exercise and hence subject to standard human failings. I do not accept that the publish or perish system which clearly drives fraud / sloppy work is necessarily wrong or can be changed; nor do I believe that any computerised system or audit trail can prevent such problems. We have to live with a certain level of sloppy or fraudulent science, and hope that it is brought to attention when it does occur.

    Scientists who state publicly that work they have published is incorrect (whether through honest mistake or fraud) are displaying scientific integrity, and more importantly humility. The fact that Carlberg previously corrected an article in 1997 simply says to me that he is prepared to admit that he made a mistake, unlike many other scientists who produce misleading work and never admit it. I would refer everyone to Robert L. Park’s book on this topic, ‘Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud’. Park describes scientific fraud as a road down which one travels, and reminds us that almost all scientists will at some point in the careers face a situation in which they realise that, for whatever reason, work that they have published is significantly mistaken and misleading. Those who recognise in time that they are ‘headed in the wrong direction’ turn back, either by publicly admitting that they were wrong (or at least abandoning the research line entirely as a compromise). Such scientists have essentially not committed serious fraud, since they are not seeking to advance their careers on the basis of misleading work.

    More concerning is the surprising number of scientists who refuse to turn back, but continue further down Park’s ‘Road to Fraud’. Retraction Watch, by definition, is unable to describe the cases of scientists who commit research fraud and get away with it, either because no one raises concerns or because investigational processes are not robust enough to get to the bottom of the matter. Such scientists are a liability for their institutions, and produce untold misery for students and post-docs who join the lab and are required to build on the fraudulent work. Their field also suffers hugely, although often experienced scientists will know that the relevant work is not to be trusted.

    Carlberg is clearly in the former category; he has recognised that the work was wrong and admitted it. That it took an outsider to point out the problem is not in the end relevant – fundamentally he has issued a public apology and retracted his paper. This is how the human process of science should work.

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