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:
- Exercise induces interleukin-8 expression in human skeletal muscle, from 2005 in the Journal of Physiology (cited 54 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge)
- Exercise-induced metallothionein expression in human skeletal muscle fibres, from 2005 in Experimental Physiology (cited 16 times)
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