ORI: Ohio State researcher manipulated two dozen figures in NIH grants, papers

terry elton
Terry Elton, via OSU

Terry S. Elton, a researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus who studies genetic expression in various heart conditions and Down syndrome, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity for fabricating and/or falsifying data in a number of NIH grants and resulting papers.

According to an OSU statement sent to Retraction Watch last night, it was an anonymous whistleblower who alerted the university to the potential misconduct in July 2010. The ORI report notes that he two OSU investigations, along with the ORI investigation, found that Elton:

falsified and/or fabricated Western blots in an NIH grant application in three submissions of the same grant application:

  • Figures 4, 7, 11C: 1 R21 HD058997-01
  • Figures 7B, 7E, 8B: 1 R21 HD058997-01A1
  • Figures 3C, 3F, 6C: 1 R21 HD058997-01A2

and false Western blots were also included in Figure 6 in grant application 1 RC1 HL100298-01.

falsified and/or fabricated Western blots in eighteen (18) figures and in six (6) published papers. Specifically false and/or fabricated images were included in:

  • Figures 2C, 2D, 2F, 3C, 3E, 4G, 5C, 5F: J Biol Chem 285(2):1529-43, 2010 Jan 8
  • Figures 3B, 3C, 3F, 3H, 3I, 3J: Biochem Biophys Res Commun 370(3):473-7, 2008 Jun 6
  • Figures 2, 3, 4B, 5B, 6, 7B, 8A, 9B: Am. J. Physiol. Lung Cell. Mol. Physiol. 293(3):L790-9, 2007 Sept
  • Figure 6: J Biol Chem 282(33):24262-9, 2007 Aug 17
  • Figure 6: Mol Cell Endocrinol 249(1-2):21-31, 2006 Apr 25
  • Figures 5, 6B, 7B, 9B: Biochim. Biophys. Acta 1680(3):158-70, 2004 Nov 5.

The 3-year sanctions, with which Elton voluntarily agreed, include:

(1) to exclude himself from any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government referred to as “covered transactions” pursuant to HHS’ Implementation (2 C.F.R. Part 376 et seq) of OMB Guidelines to Agencies on Govermentwide Debarment and Suspension, 2 C.F.R. Part 1805 (collectively the “Debarment Regulations”) for a period of three (3) years, beginning on November 26, 2012;

(2) to exclude himself voluntarily from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant for a period of three (3) years, beginning on November 26, 2012

The Columbus Dispatch was first to report the news.

OSU has also imposed sanctions, according to their statement:

Dr. Elton has received a written reprimand; will be required to participate in mandatory counseling on research misconduct and complete formal training on research ethics; and he is prohibited from supervising or serving as a primary advisor to any undergraduate or graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, or laboratory technicians for three years.  In addition, all manuscripts and grant applications that Dr. Elton participates in will be reviewed and approved by university officials prior to submission for a period of five years.

OSU added:

Ohio State University takes allegations of research misconduct seriously and will continue to work diligently to protect the integrity of research produced by members of the university community.

Elton is a reasonably well-cited researcher, with 13 papers cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

OSU recommended that six papers be retracted. One, “TGFß1 stimulates human AT1 receptor expression in lung fibroblasts by cross talk between the Smad, p38 MAPK, JNK, and PI3K signaling pathways,” published in 2007 in the American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, already has been:

This article is being retracted by the American Physiological Society at the request of the Corresponding Author and with the approval of the coauthors because it contains improperly prepared data in Figs. 2A, 3B, and 4B that are unreliable. The authors apologize to the readers for this error and for any inconvenience associated with the publication of the article.

That paper, retracted in April of this year, has been cited 36 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The other papers, which the ORI agreed should be retracted:

Hat tip: Earle Holland

14 thoughts on “ORI: Ohio State researcher manipulated two dozen figures in NIH grants, papers”

  1. And yet he keeps his job…I wonder if OSU imposed other sanctions too? The punishments do not sound that onerous. Basically attend a reeducation camp not have to deal with students.

    1. It is safe to say, he will not be dotting the i at the Shoe any time soon … It is commendable that no grad student or postdoc has been scapegoated for this mess. Terry Elton has taken the sole responsibility although I cannot imagine that he himself forged all the blots. He probably “just” encouraged it. But I wonder what will happen to all his current grad students and postdocs. After all, he is prevented from keeping them.

    2. It is my impression that tenured faculty are protected from the most serious consequences, even if they gained tenure by means of unethical conduct. Irony is everywhere in academia.

      The major punishment in this case is that his career is effectively on hold for several years. He cannot apply for federal grants, so he cannot bring in the massive “indirect costs” that universities skim from such grants in order to balance their budgets. The grants for which he can apply carry much smaller allowable indirect costs, so he will not be a valued member of his department or his university. He will not be in charge of any employees or students, so he will not be able to claim their output as his output on his annual progress report. Any grant proposal or manuscript with which he is involved must undergo university scrutiny, so no other professors will want the time delay or the extra level of oversight associated with collaborating with him. He is a pariah in his university for five years. He will earn no raises during that time because he has no scientific output and he is not bringing in outside money. There is a cumulative penalty in that, because raises often are done on a percentage basis. He is dead in the water for five years and he will be significantly behind everyone else when he is permitted to start rowing again.

      As for not having to deal with students, I think the main task he can still perform is teaching, so he will be dealing with students more than ever. He will be lecturing to 250 freshmen in an amphitheater-style classroom. Perhaps several times a day. He might even be assigned to teach lab sections. I assume he will warn the students not to fake their lab notebooks or they will end up like him. 🙂

      As chirality says, it is good that no underlings are being scapegoated. It’s unfortunate that so many early-career researchers will be tainted by being in his lab and possible listed as authors on the retracted papers. Let’s hope they learn the lesson “don’t cheat” and not the lesson “don’t get caught”.

      1. Tenured faculty are not always protected from the most serious consequences. Dipak Das was found to have engaged in data fabrication, data falsifications and duplicate publication of images in 24 papers by the University of Connecticut Health Center. His tenure was revoked by the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees, and he was fired in 2012.

    3. Yes, Student at Ohio State University have been kicked out of school for minor violations of the Student Honor System/Code.

  2. How much in Federal funds did he receive from those six NIH grants awarded for applications which contained faulty data.?To submit a false statement to the Federal government is considered fraud. It is punishable by incarceration and /or fines..Why no prosecution in this or other such cases?. Those prosecutions are very few and far between. If they were more common, would that not have a chilling effect on potential violators?

    “Dr. Elton has received a written reprimand; will be required to participate in mandatory counseling on research misconduct and complete formal training on research ethics”

    A little late. Didn’t his parents teach him that it is wrong lie, cheat or steal ?

    Donald S. Kornfeld, M.D.

  3. Clearly he is not a cadet at a military academy. Nor is the federal government.

    But really, what do people expect? It’s difficult to cheat just one time. Once you start cheating, you have to continue. If you must cheat to get into a program, you will find that you have to cheat to stay in the program.

    There are far more supervisory jobs than there are good supervisors. There are far more brilliant, grant-winning professor jobs than there are brilliant, grant-winning professors. The expectations are unrealistic, and yet official pronouncements continue to tout superlative achievement as the minimum requirement for employment. If a new professor doesn’t bring in $5 million in grant money, publish half a dozen break-through papers, and win the department’s “teacher of the year” award within seven years, s/he is out and the university will institute a search to hire someone who can do all those things. It’s insane. Even tiny Podunk State University wants to hire only Super(wo)men. What’s the average professor to do? Claim to be Super(wo)man during the interview and then lie, cheat, and steal like crazy to live up to the expectations.

    1. Judy, I was a colleague of Dr. Elton’s in this same college. I was an assistant professor and tried to do everything right. I published good papers, mentored a number of graduate students, and even won Teacher of the Year award. Unfortunately, the only thing I couldn’t do was get an NIH grant. I was also not a member of the “old boys club”. There was no mentoring to speak of because the tenured professors, including Dr. Elton himself, were too busy enriching their own pot. After 7 years, I was “encouraged” to leave, which I did and am very happy with my current situation. You are right that the universities care only about the bottom line–i.e. NIH dollars. The other unfortunate part of this is that students who plagiarize a couple of sentences or cheat on a quiz are treated much more harshly than Dr. Elton was for his misconduct. Also, as Dr. Kornfeld mentioned, why isn’t falsifying data for federal grants a punishable crime?

  4. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between this and the recent Eric Smart case at the University of Kentucky although Smart did combine his research misconduct with sexual harassment of his lab workers and an ongoing (but ultimately ineffective) whistle blower scapegoating campaign.

    To make matters worse, my recollection that Elton was Interim Director of the OSU Heart research center for several years while this was going on appears to be correct:

  5. 2016 retraction of 2006 paper.

    Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2006 Apr 25;249(1-2):21-31. Epub 2006 Feb 28.
    TGF-beta(1) regulation of human AT(1) receptor mRNA splice variants harboring exon 2.
    Martin MM1, Buckenberger JA, Knoell DL, Strauch AR, Elton TS.
    Author information
    1College of Pharmacy, Division of Pharmacology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.

    2016 retraction notice.

    This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor.

    An investigation by the Office of Research Integrity determined that falsified and/or fabricated images were included in Fig. 6 of the above article (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-26/html/2012-30866.htm).

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