We have an update on the case of Olav and Axel Gressner, a father-son (or, in this case, son-father) pair of German liver researchers caught up in a fraud investigation. The inquiry focused on Olav, who left the University of Aachen under a cloud of suspicion. A 2008 research letter on which he was a co-author (his father was senior author) was retracted earlier this year by the Journal of Hepatology.
The journal’s position in the retraction notice, published online in June and in print in September, bears repeating here. The authors:
made major modifications at the stage of the galley proofs without informing the Editor or the Associate Editor.
1. The number of rats per group was reduced from 5 to 1; therefore, instead of a total of 20 rats being studied, a total of only 4 rats were studied.
2. Throughout the manuscript sentences have been changed from “rats” to “rat”.
3. The standard deviation values were removed at the proof stage and more importantly some results were completely altered.
4. A full paragraph was added at the end of the paper, which was not present in the original version submitted to the journal.
The publication concluded that the authors:
presented falsified results which misled the Editors. As a consequence to the aforementioned breaches, we have decided to retract this Letter to the Editor.
At the time, we hadn’t heard back from the Gressners. Now we have. Last month, Axel Gressner posted this comment on Retraction Watch:
Contrary to what is claimed by the editor-in chief Didier Samuel of J Hepatol., both authors have never published any “falsified results”. Indeed, the corrections made in the manuscript prior to publication were approved by the issue manager Majella Darcy of Elsevier. Because of the major changes, she was explicitly asked whether another editorial review of our communication before publishing is needed. She replied that this was not necessary. Thus the authors have handled the communication correctly prior to publication. The editor-in chief of J Hepatol, Didier Samuel, should be informed about this process. We can provide all the respective Email correspondence regarding this matter leaving no doubt that we handled the matter correctly in agreement with the issue manager and according to the policies of the Journal of Hepatology.
We asked Axel Gressner for the correspondence and he sent us a PDF which apparently shows e-mails between himself and an Elsevier employee discussing corrections to the research letter in question.
when re-reading the letter, I noticed that there is a big mistake that happened, as regarding the study design, the actual performed experiment and one planned experiment seem to have been confused. As this results in major changes of the manuscript, I integrated all the corrections into the proof myself in order to avoid any confusions. May I therefore ask you to just replace (“copy/paste”) lines 25 – 102 …
What follows is a lengthy revision of the manuscript, including alterations to a figure caption and removal of references.
That much editing evidently didn’t faze the publisher’s rep:
this is ok. Please find attached the corrected version of your letter. I have noticed that the typesetters omitted to incorporate the corrections to the Fig. 1 caption but I will ensure these are incorporated prior to publication.
I would be very grateful if you could approve the revised proof by return.
But the journal’s editor, Samuel, dismissed the correspondence between Axel Gressner and Elsevier as irrelevant and misleading:
I was aware of this correspondence between the Author and the publisher since the start (communication with the dean of Aachen). As said previously, the publisher is not in charge of the scientific content, this is the responsibility of the Editor. As said, the previous Editor took a decision of acceptance based on the submitted paper. You can see that the final version not seen by the Editor was almost completely rewritten by the authors given at the end a different paper from what was accepted. This mean also that the results presented in the submitted version were pure invention. Prof. Gressner try to put the responsibility on the publisher, but the responsibility are on the authors.
He wasn’t finished:
Prof. Gressner, the father is extremely upset about our decision to retract the letter to the editor. However I have nothing to add to the fact described in the retraction notice. these facts are very clear. Olav Gressner et al. submitted a wrong version (to a previous team of Editors) with experiments not done , they make all major changes after editorial acceptance. The publisher (Elsevier) is not involved in the scientific content, only the editorial team. This is not the first paper of Prof Gressner, he knows perfectly that changes done at time of galley proofs with the publisher are usually minor changes and not major changes which modify deeply a paper. The editorial team has never been contacted directly by Olav Gressner that every thing was wrong. I remind you that they submitted a manuscript with 20 rats studied in 4 groups , and that in the final published manuscript , only 4 rats (One per group !!!!!) were studied , and all results were modified. This clearly mean hat it was not a typewritten error as claimed by Prof. Gressner, but clearly falsified results which misled the Editors.
We’ve also heard now from Olav Gressner, who suggests that the whole affair is the result of a witch hunt aimed at toppling not only himself but his famous father.
The only “investigation” on a possible scientific misconduct of my person were started by the dean of the medical faculty Prof. Noth, who, by the way, will retire next month, by the vice dean Prof. Floege and by Prof. Weiskirchen, who has been declared temporary director of the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry as well as Central Laboratory by the executive board of the RWTH university hospital (which includes Drs. Noth and Floege), i.e. the institute in which I was formerly employed. The motivation of Dr. Noth and Dr. Floege, such as the one of Dr. Weiskirchen, are, unfortunately, very unobjective and the claim of a scientific misconduct was only thought to serve as a vehicle to get rid of me:
Being the son of the former director of the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry as well as Central Laboratory at this hospital, who has published more than 400 papers and received several high-ranking awards in the field of Hepatology, there has always been scientific jealousy, which since my arrival in Aachen in 2007 has been focused on me, being the more easily accessible family member.
Describing himself as the “bête noire” of the hospital, Olav Gressner said that he left his post at Aachen voluntarily and that there was never an “official” investigation into his work. Which seems like hair-splitting because he notes that he was stripped of all of his staff, medical students and resources and “summoned several times” to appear before the administration. All of this, he argues, was spite:
Dr. Weiskirchen has initiated a denunciation campaign against my father and me that only find parallels in recent German history. Some of his actions included massive defamation, defacing of the laboratory doors with stigmatizing symbols or exchanging the locks of the office over night and not providing new access.
Olav Gressner also took issue with our reporting that he received money from the German government to conduct his research. Although at least one of the papers on which he was an author discloses support from the government, he said his father was the recipient of the grant.
Hope that clears things up. We aren’t sure it does.