Expressions of Concern arrive in Milena Penkowa case

The scientific literature has started to hint at the fallout of a case of potential fraud in Denmark. As Nature reported in January:

A high-profile neuroscientist in Denmark has resigned after facing allegations that she committed research misconduct and misspent grant money. Meanwhile, the administration at the university where she worked has been accused of ignoring her alleged misdeeds for the better part of a decade.

Milena Penkowa, a 37-year-old researcher who was lauded in 2009 by the Danish science ministry, denies all the accusations against her and stands by her work, but left her post as a full professor at the University of Copenhagen in December.

Penkowa has published about 100 papers, many of them focused on neuroscience and a family of proteins known as metallothioneins. While the investigation into her lab continues, two journals have published Expressions of Concern about Penkowa’s work:

Such Expressions of Concern, as we have noted before, often precede retractions, but not always. Both of these basically say the same thing, namely that one of Penkowa’s co-authors has notified the journal of some issues:

Experimental Physiology has been informed by Bente Klarlund Pedersen, MD, DMSc, Professor of Integrative Medicine, Director of the Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism, Department of Infectious Diseases and CMRC Rigshospitalet at the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Health Sciences, Copenhagen, Denmark, of concerns about the validity of some of the data contained in an article published in the journal (Penkowa M, Keller P, Keller C, Hidalgo J, Giralt M, Pedersen BK. Exercise-induced metallothionein expression in human skeletal muscle fibres. Exp Physiol 2005 Jul; 90(4), 477-486; published ahead of print Jan 7, 2005, doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2004.029371) and informed us that this matter is being investigated as part of a larger investigation into a more extensive body of published work. While awaiting the outcome of our investigations and further correspondence with the authors, The Editor-in-Chief, Paul McLoughlin, wishes to notify readers of our concerns regarding this article.

The case is complicated. According to one report, the university has paid 2 million Danish Krone (about $380,000 US) back to

the fund IMK Almene Fond, which believes that Penkowa has used the money for lawyers’ bills, clothes, travelling and restaurants.

Her work has been questioned since she was a graduate student, Nature reports:

Questions over Penkowa’s research began at least as early as 2002 with suspicions over her doctoral thesis. For instance, [Per Soelberg] Sørensen says, Penkowa claimed to have performed experiments on around 1700 rats over several months. The committee rejected her thesis.

Sørensen, who sat on Penkowa’s original thesis committee — a second granted her a PhD — was one of 58 Danish scientists who signed a December 2010 letter calling for a transparent review of the alleged misconduct, according to Nature.

We’ve tried to reach Penkowa and her co-author, Pedersen, and will update with anything we hear back. While we haven’t found any other papers subject to an Expression of Concern, we should note that neither of the papers’ original abstracts, nor their PubMed abstracts, mention the Expressions of Concern.

When we pointed that out to the editor of Experimental Physiology, he noted that a search for “Penkowa” on PubMed reveals the two Expressions of Concern. However, those Expressions are not linked to the original papers, nor do they appear in a search of “Penkowa M” as author, since they are written by the journals’ editors. The editor of the journal said he would look into that, and that the online version of the original paper would be watermarked “Expression of Concern” shortly.

All of that suggests to us that it’s possible that there are other unmarked papers out there subject to the same questions. If Retraction Watch readers know of any, please let us know.

Hat tip: Mark Burnley

11 thoughts on “Expressions of Concern arrive in Milena Penkowa case”

  1. Please note, however it is not her PhD thesis that was originally rejected, but her “habilitation”, a post-PhD grade. It’s all a bit confusing, I must admit, as this thesis then gives her the right to call herself Dr.Med., which is the ‘PhD’ degree you get in Germany.

    I’m still waiting for the “expression of concern” for a 2000 article with Juan Hidalgo, as this is the one that was very important in the first rejection of her ‘habilitation’: she claimed a LOT of rat-experiments, which the committee found unlikely. She provided the university with evidence, which now has been found to be falsified.

    For more information, see also
    Note, amongst others, that a prize she received in 2009 has been revoked. Too bad it is the university that is paying the money back…

    1. OK, I apparently need to be more clear: Penkowa already received her PhD in 2000.

      The thesis that was originally rejected in 2002 was for a post-PhD-degree.

    2. habilitation is a post-PhD grade at German universities, which allows you to call yourself PD (“Privatdozent”)… and the German version of PhD is “Dr. rer. nat.”, and not “Dr. med” (which is the German version of MD)…

  2. It seems that it is “expression of concern” times for this case. A notice of concern has been published by the editors of FASEB J for the article: Penkowa, M., Keller, C., Keller, P., Jauffred, S., and Pedersen, B. K. (2003) Immunohistochemical detection of interleukin-6 in human skeletal muscle fibers following exercise.

  3. Interesting twist in this story that I had not noticed before: the originator of the “expressions of concern” is Bente Klarlund Pedersen, another professor at the University of Copenhagen. As “myopia” points out Pedersen was a frequent collaborator of Penkowa’s for many years, and may have been very happy that Penkowa always came through with the right data to support her hypotheses. It now looks as if a collaborator of Pedersen’s is accusing her of knowing full well that these data were not to be trusted, and then trying to distance herself when the stuff hit the fan:

    1. Victor, please note the link Ivan provided in the other thread:

      Despite the bad English translation, I think it is clear that several of Timmons’ accusations appear rather overinflated. One may also wonder why he still published with Pedersen well after he was so certain Pedersen willingly and knowingly published wrong data (he co-authored a paper with her submitted in September 2009, when the Diabetologia paper was already published).

      It’s unfortunate I cannot get this link translated:
      It is an interesting read…

      1. Yes, I noticed the link posted by Ivan in the newer thread about Milena Penkowa after I had posted mine. Sorry about the redundancy. There are clearly a lot of personal animosities coming to the surface, and a few scores that are being settled. No one comes out of this smelling like roses. It looks like all the protagonists including Timmons were happy not to ask too many questions until things started going south. Maybe time for a major cleanup at the University of Copenhagen?

        Unfortunately I do not read Danish so cannot get the angle offered by this latest link.

  4. Dear Victor j,

    All the molecular data my lab produced with the pedersen lab was done under my supervision or with people I trained. Pedersen supplied tissue samples only and had no input on data analysis.

    I have been pointing out that issues with the “home grown” cim data for several years and submitted report documenting unsound activities I could actually prove rather than just guess at.

    Thus your comments regarding my lab are NOT merited. I certainly have not “needed” a collaboration with pedersen – but once started the projects needed completed for both medical ethics reasons and to respect the work of staff in my group.

    Professor James a timmons

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