The laboratory of Michael Hertl, a German dermatology researcher with an international reputation, is under investigation for possible misconduct, according to a legal official at Hertl’s institution, Philipps-Universitat Marburg.
The acknowledgement was prompted by our query earlier this week about a 2008 paper from Hertl’s group that had been retracted by the journal Immunology. According to the July 25 retraction notice:
The following article from Immunology, ‘Desmoglein 3-specific T regulatory 1 cells consist of two subpopulations with differential expression of the transcription factor, Fox p3′, by Christian Veldman, Andreas Pahl and Michael Hertl published online in Wiley Online Library (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2567.2008.02932.x) on 17 September 2008 and in Volume 127, Number 1, pages 40-49, has been retracted. The retraction is based on the incorrect data supplied in Figures 2a and 4a and the authors’ inability to supply corrected data.
The paper has been cited five times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
We emailed Hertl for comment and received a reply instead from Felicitas Riedel, a legal officer for PUM:
In-house proceedings have been instituted to go into the merits of the case, including a minuteness examination of all related documents.
I kindly ask for your understanding that a number of European and German legal provisions applicable impose the duty to treat all information strictly confidential until final completion of the proceedings.
The public will be informed in due course.
Is academic misconduct involved?
The proceedings initiated regulate cases of potential academic misconduct. Yet, please notice that the proceedings currently are pending at the initial step. The Ombudsman of the University was asked for an examination and comment whether it could be a case of academic misconduct or not, including a closer specification of the potential type.
Consequently as things are now the information is restricted to the fact that the competent organ of the University is investigating. No result whether it indeed is a case of academic misconduct, the potential type or extent is achieved at the time.
We attempted to contact Danny Altmann, editor of Immunology, but have not received a response yet.
Meanwhile, we’re not the first to notice something amiss in Hertl’s shop. Problems in three of his papers with Veldman — there appear to be 11 in all– were flagged by the Abnormal Science blog earlier this summer. The first one mentioned is the retracted paper in Immunology, and the blog does a nice job of pointing out what seem to be manipulated, identical histograms in that paper and two others from the Journal of Immunology: “Inhibition of the Transcription Factor Foxp3 Converts Desmoglein 3-Specific Type 1 Regulatory T Cells into Th2-Like Cells” and “Type I Regulatory T Cells Specific for Desmoglein 3 Are More Frequently Detected in Healthy Individuals than in Patients with Pemphigus Vulgaris.”
Jeremy Boss, editor of the Journal of Immunology, said he hadn’t been contacted by anyone about the investigation or the two papers cited above.
I don’t know anything about it. I’ve heard from nobody on this.
Boss said he would take a look at the materials, but he advised us that in his experience, problems with duplication in figures generally result from innocent error, not misconduct.
In our experience, the opposite is true. However, we acknowledge that by the time we see such cases, they’re in retractions.
Hat tip: Commenter Ari W.