Unveiled: Anonymous researcher found guilty of fraud in Canadian funding agency documents

Margaret Munro, a Postmedia News reporter whose work we’ve had the chance to admire before, has a few great stories running in Canadian papers today about what happened in some recent scientific fraud investigations.

She bases the stories on  Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) documents obtained under a freedom of information request. NSERC — which provides $1 billion per year for research — seems to have gone far out of its way to keep the names of the researchers a secret.

In one set of heavily redacted documents, however, they did mention a December 2008 retraction. As Retraction Watch readers know, we investigate retractions…well, not exactly for a living, but we sure spend a lot of time doing it. So we threw ourselves at our favorite database and made some connections.

Long story short: We’re quite sure we’ve found the unnamed researcher.

Meet Fawzi Razem, who resigned from the University of Manitoba in the midst of an investigation that later found he had committed fraud. According to an August 2009 report in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Concerns about the research emerged last summer when a team of researchers from New Zealand couldn’t replicate Razem’s work — a red flag that there could be serious problems with the original findings.

A December 2008 online edition of Nature said the study made “erroneous conclusions” and there is no evidence to support Razem’s findings.

The university would not initially confirm if an internal investigation was underway.

That changed July 30 when the U of M issued a statement in a newsletter confirming that Razem had committed fraud.

“Specifically, the committee concluded that certain experiments claimed to have been conducted, in fact, were not, and that results were fabricated,” the bulletin said. “This case is a very rare and isolated incident, and there are already safeguards in place to prevent such occurrences.”

The statement said the U of M has implemented sanctions against Razem and that he will “never be recommended for an academic appointment of any kind at the university.”

Razem resigned when the initial allegations surfaced.

Those details square with those in the Postmedia report:

He “resigned his employment at the university concurrent with the timing of the allegations of misconduct against him,” the university vice-president reported to NSERC in July 2009. “At this time, he has no active association with our university; It is my understanding that he is now employed at another institution.”

The university, which had to be “reminded” twice by NSERC officials of the requirement to investigate and report misconduct to the council under the federal research rules, began a full investigation into the allegations in January 2009, more than six months after the concerns were raised.

The investigators, who interviewed witnesses and reviewed experimental data, concluded in June 2009 that the researcher engaged in “academic fraud.”

*The unnamed researcher in the documents obtained by Postmedia had retracted a Nature paper in December 2008. So did Fawzi and his co-authors: “The RNA-binding protein FCA is an abscisic acid receptor,” which appeared in Nature in 2006. [See clarification at end of post.] And that retraction came after, according to Postmedia:

another scientist informed the unidentified Canadian researcher in June 2008 “that her lab was unable to reproduce results from several of (his) experiments.”

 That researcher, in Razem’s case, was the University of Otago’s Catherine L. Day, who wrote a letter to Nature pointing out the flaws in the study, published alongside the retraction.

The original Nature paper, published in 2006, has been cited more than 200 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

According to the NSERC documents, the fraudster is now at another institution. The Postmedia report said NSERC had hinted that it was outside of Canada.  The Razem in the Winnipeg Free Press story is now a faculty member at Palestine Polytechnic University, although he goes by Fazim Alrazem.

We also found another retraction by Razem and his colleagues, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), of related work, “Purification and characterization of a barley aleurone abscisic acid-binding protein.” The 2010 retraction notice:

This article has been withdrawn at the authors’ request. The data presented in Figs. 7 and 8 are not reproducible, and there is no significant binding of abscisic acid to the recombinant protein. The data in Fig. 2 are also not reproducible, and it is questionable whether ABAP1 exists as a native protein.

The 2004 JBC paper — and let us be the first to commend the editors for a detailed retraction notice so unlike the ones we’ve seen lately — has been cited 46 times.

We’ve contacted Razem and the University of Manitoba for confirmation that we’ve identified the unnamed scientist in the NSERC report.

Don’t miss Munro’s stories, which include the tale of a researcher who committed fraud but won’t need to retract any papers — because he made them up.

One of the themes of both stories is the secrecy under which NSERC operates:

The council says the Privacy Act does not allow it to release details of research misconduct cases, which critics say must change.

“NSERC’s primary obligation is to the public,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, who is calling for more transparency.

“If someone is convicted of research misconduct, that should be known,” Turk said in an interview, stressing that allegations of misconduct must be investigated in private. “But if there is a finding of research misconduct then I think it should be made public.”

To say we agree would be a contender for understatement of the year. The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) — where Ivan is on the board — is engaged with other journalism organizations in a protest of similar secrecy by the Obama administration. The Health Resources and Services Administration has recently removed the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank, “a public database of physician discipline and malpractice payments.” The AHCJ and other groups would like to see that change.

*Clarification, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, 9/20/11: Clarified sentences with asterisk to make it clear that the redacted NSERC documents did not include a reference to Nature, only to a December 2008 retraction. The Nature retraction surfaced in our search of PubMed for NSERC-funded research.

9 thoughts on “Unveiled: Anonymous researcher found guilty of fraud in Canadian funding agency documents”

  1. Let me tell you something..
    Why the allegations of fraud cannot be made public? In particular, what’s behind the fact that my allegations of fraud and plagiarism against my former PhD advisor and a row of Canadian academic officials including UofT President and NSERC President cannot be made public despite all my efforts since 1993? Nobody ever gave a clear answer to this. I made public over 50 documents of this affair. Nobody sued me. I never received any notice that the publication of my allegations and documents somehow contravenes the law. I published the NSERC document bearing a large stamp CONFIDENTIAL. I never heard any objections. Of course, the same can be published by any journalist, the same Margaret Munro, and in any journal.

    What about the silence of NSERC? Well, they are not telling the public the real reason for it. They refer to some confidentiality that actually does not come from the law. Now I’ll tell you where it comes from. The thing is that CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) with their Executive Director James Turk is nothing else but a trade union of professors, but with a more polite name. Turk is a former railroad union official; had nothing to do with academia. CAUT made each university in Canada to sign a collective agreement with the professors. There are clauses in it that protect criminals, that’s correct – professors-criminals, in various ways, I am not kidding. And that’s where “confidentiality” comes from. It always seemed to me that a professor-criminal must first be thrown out of the union (their LOCAL) because THERE IS SUCH CLAUSE in the CAUT rules about INTEGRITY. Moreover, the LOCAL that is taking no action, must be, according to another clause, thrown out of CAUT. Yet, nothing on the integrity side of these rules works. The Head of the UofT LOCAL told me: If we act against her (my former PhD supervisor), she can sue us! Please, see this long page on my web site – http://www.universitytorontofraud.com/doc45.htm

    Do I believe their explanations as to why the freedom of the press is suspended when it comes to Canada’s universities? Do I believe the single word of these officials? Not for a second! But that doesn’t matter, believe I or I don’t. I can’t do anything. I remind you, this is a second case where Canada breaks all laws and rules. The first, that of Dr. V. Fabrikant, ended in shooting. What Canada does now is provoking the second victim of this system: the corrupt academia is making universities totally unaccountable, letting everybody to know that no justice will ever be possible – see

    1. A minor correction. Your correspondent Mr Pyshnov makes light of the academic career of Dr James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and responsible for the mild mannered (Canadian) response to NSERC’s secrecy provisions. Dr Turk’s C.V. is freely available, and somewhat more distinguished than that claimed by Mr Pyshnov. This unfortunately casts doubt on some of the other statements in his comment.

      1. Turk was a union boss in railroad. And that’s how he is best known. In the exchange of emails with me, he made giant effort to avoid any understanding of academic fraud. These emails show his building of a brick wall making it completely impossible for me to fight the fraud. He clearly is on the side of the corrupt university officials while indeed his position obliged him to confront these officials. There is no question about collusion here. And that is the number one crime regularly commited by corrupt union bosses, too well know.

        I quote from my doc45 file:
        No doubt, CAUT had to investigate my complaints, – this is what their web site says:
        “Delegates to CAUT’s 51st Council meeting in November voted overwhelmingly to adopt policy statements asserting the rights of graduate students to be treated as members of the academic community … the policies assert that academic freedom should extend to graduate students engaged in teaching and research in the university … The rights of recognition and protection of their intellectual property were affirmed …”
        “The tragedy at Concordia might have been avoided if the university administration had accepted the proposal of the faculty association to include an article on fraud and misconduct in the collective agreement before the Fabrikant incident.”
        Yes, and this article, in fact – the whole “Model Clause on Fraud and Misconduct in Academic Research and Scholarly Activity”, is adopted by CAUT and it’s on their web site!
        And the famous Arthurs Report on Fabrikant “incident” (sic!) specifically recommended CAUT to investigate such complaints!

        Turk categorically refused to do anything. He refused even to acknowledge the existence of my law suit against UofT. This court case was struck out by the first judge. I then won it back at the Supreme Court of Ontario. That alone was an exceptional event in Canada. The press always covers such events. But not in my case… And Turk worked together with that conspiracy of silence, with the OMERTA – the unwritten law of organised crime.

        The CAUT website and Turk himself are talking democracy, academic freedom and freedom of enquiry. While being a part of the conspiracy of silence.

  2. Congratulations.
    I see Margaret Munro has now followed up with full credit to Retaction Watch for connecting the dots.
    “Fawzi Alrazem, who went by the name Fawzi Razem when caught faking experiments in Canada, is now listed as a faculty member at the Palestine Polytechnic University where he specializes in industrial biotechnology and food bio-safety…………… Retraction Watch, a U.S.-based group working to keep scientists honest and open about their mistakes and misconduct, was quick to connect the dots.”

  3. This article is very timely and much needed, and the ethical Canadian science community (rare as it possibly may be in some disciplines) is indebted for its courageous publication. The ethics of some sectors of Canadian science is in a very bad state. Indeed, I have been a victim of this misconduct, as I have detailed extensively in my blog (http://sierra-rayne.blogspot.com/). There is a tremendous amount of junk science being published (i.e., studies that have wasted taxpayer money on erroneous investigations, and where the authors subsequently fail to correct/retract their mistakes), as well as ethical transgressions including irregularities in academic hiring practices (see my issues with institutions such as Okanagan College, University of the Fraser Valley, Thompson Rivers University, Grant MacEwan University; related blog entries can be obtained by searching my blog for the institutional name), stolen ideas and work (see discussions of Mazza and Oomah), faked credentials (Bowen), bizarrely high granting agency awards to unproductive research groups (Van Hamme), etc.

    For those interested, I detail a large number of studies on my blog (many of which are from Canadian groups such as those of Wania, Mabury, Giesy, Ikonomou, Gobas, Ellis, Mora-Diez, Martin, Mazza, Oomah, Eggers, Hosseinian, Ross; readers with a background in Chemistry and/or Environmental Science should be able to evaluate the scientific concerns I raise; all other readers should be able to assess the ethical issues).

    For these efforts, I was recently attacked (see http://arts.blog.mytru.ca/2011/09/18/how-do-we-balance-the-right-to-safety-v-the-right-to-access-higher-education/; my reply at http://sierra-rayne.blogspot.com/2011/09/comment-on-how-do-we-balance-right-to.html) on the official blog for the Dean of Arts at Thompson Rivers University (i.e., Dr. Michael Mehta). Mehta tried to equate my efforts at uncovering unethical behavior and junk science in the Canadian postsecondary system as some type of personal safety threat to post-secondary campuses, which of course, is nonsense and a bizarre attempt to inhibit the ability of the public (and those such as myself who have been victimized by this behavior) to scrutinize and criticize (where warranted) to post-secondary system that it funds.

    1. Agreed, but I note that someone at NSERC has already spent the last hour (as of the time of writing this) looking at my blog (http://sierra-rayne.blogspot.com/). This Nature editorial (and the comments by readers below it) has evidently gotten someone’s attention. Canada’s academic system is effectively broken, as the corruption goes too far up and down the heirarchy in each institution for anything but a systematic and complete overhaul to fix our system.

      It is disgusting to think of all the promising young academics whose careers have been trashed by the CDN academic establishment.

  4. What is the matter with people today? I’ve been working on health focused public realtions efforts for over 15-years, and have very much enjoyed the scientific studies I’ve worked on—a vast majority have been posted in peer-reviewed medical journals. Legitimacy, accuracy, and the TRUTH are key in moving true scientific discoveries forward. What is discouraging is that any scientitist/institution that may have added his findings to their own studies may have been set back, both in time and finances. Fortunately, I’ve never had to work with a fraudster before…it’s terribly upsetting and frustrating to see this, but I think your blog and Margaret’s comittment to the truth is an important staple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.