Retraction for stem cell scientist facing misconduct inquiry

scadcoverHere’s a retraction from Stem Cells and Development that we’re just now getting around to covering. The paper, “Non-viral reprogramming of skeletal myoblasts with valproic acid for pluripotency,” appeared in June 2012 in a preliminary online form and was written by a group at the University of Cincinnati. As the retraction notice states:

At the request of all authors of the Rapid Communication article entitled, “Non-viral reprogramming of skeletal myoblasts with valproic acid for pluripotency,” by Pasha Z and Ashraf M, which was published online ahead of editing (DOI: 10.1089/scd.2012.0080), the paper is being officially retracted from publication in its current form in Stem Cells and Development.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Zeeshan Pasha, indicated that some of the figures in the article were inadvertently and erroneously switched with another, more in-depth article that was being prepared at the same time for submission to another journal.

The authors regret this unfortunate circumstance.

Regrettable indeed. But not quite so simple. Are the authors apologizing for the switcheroo — or the bait and switch? That “more in-depth article” might well have constituted a duplicate submission depending on how similar it was to the retracted paper.

In fact, this case is more interesting than the semantics. Ashraf is Muhammad Ashraf, a former professor at the University of Cincinnati now embroiled in a rather bizarre lawsuit involving the institution. According to local media, Ashraf is suing U of C, from which he resigned in June, for refusing to allow him to reverse the decision to leave.

Reportedly, Ashraf, the recipient of “millions” in federal funding, was upset that U of C would not allow him to transfer those grants to his new institution, Georgia Regents University, which we once wrote about. So, rather than leave The Queen City, he decided to stay — but was rebuffed. According to an August 2 story:

Attorneys for the University of Cincinnati argued at a federal court hearing on Friday that Ashraf only wanted to leave because the school had launched an investigation into alleged academic misconduct against him.

Ashraf denies misconduct.

17 thoughts on “Retraction for stem cell scientist facing misconduct inquiry”

  1. Without getting into the details of this case, it’s a pretty bad when a University does not allow a faculty member to take their grants with them when they leave. Money talks in academia, and it’s kind of assumed if you’re being recruited somewhere, that one of the reasons is the grants you’ll bring with you. Sure, administrators drag their feet and sometimes prolong the close-out process and delay releasing funds to the new institution, but to flat out refuse to release the grants at all, is plain douchebaggery. NIH has procedures in place to transfer grants, so it’s something that happens regularly. I would be intrigued to hear what specific reasons UC gives for refusing to release the funds in this case, and would imagine they will come under fire from NIH if they maintain that position.

    It’s odd that UC goes on the record as accusing Ashraf of misconduct, and that they would choose to go public with the announcement as a response to being sued. Typically schools like to keep these types of investigations under wraps, especially those overseen by ORI (we can assume this one is because it involves federally funded research). Why go public with this announcement, unless your intent is to discredit your legal opponent? If there were no basis to Ashraf’s claims, a simple statement on why he doesn’t have a case would have been enough. What this suggests is someone high up at UC is actually scared about this legal matter, and chose to take the sleaze option. Why else would they do that?

    It’s also strange that GRU (according to the news article) has rescinded their offer. However, it’s not unheard of for a University to learn of a faculty member’s intent to leave, and “sabotage” their efforts, because they don’t want to give up the indirect costs that come with the grants. According to this document ( the indirect cost rate at UC is around 57%, so on $20m of funding that amounts to $11.5m, or about $1m a year.

    This is not meant a defense of any kind of misconduct (if present). Just to say that it’s important to draw a line between retraction/misconduct, versus the moving of grants and personnel issues.They’re separate problems and need to be handled as such. It’s very easy to jump into the intrigue behind a case, but we should always consider the motivations (esp. financial) for parties acting they way they do.

  2. Quoting vhedwig: “Without getting into the details of this case, it’s a pretty bad when a University does not allow a faculty member to take their grants with them when they leave.”

    Bad, no doubt, but formally correct. Grants are to the organization and not to an individual. Otherwise you’d have every professor flouncing off with “I’ll just take my grants elsewhere…” In this case it seems possible that Ashraf was leaving merely to avoid an internal investigation. In which case the action of the university is appropriate and would probably be supported by the NIH. We need to know if there is an ORI investigation.

    “Why go public with this announcement, unless your intent is to discredit your legal opponent?”

    This blog post says that the claims of misconduct were made in open court and reported by a local newspaper. The university did not “go public” with it.

    “It’s also strange that GRU (according to the news article) has rescinded their offer.”

    It isn’t that strange if there are significant reasons for believing the accusations are true.

    1. A search for Muhammad Ashraf on PubMed leads to 251 hits, but after finding so many Pakistani scientists with the same name, I decided to enter Cincinatti into the search, too. This brought it down to 84 hits. The first one was from 2002. 84 papers in quite spectacular journals in just over 10 years. I didn’t check Elsevier or Springer data-bases, but something is extremely strange here. I wonder if anyone has independently gone through all of his papers… This is not my field of study, but I only know one scientist in my field who is almost 75 years of age who has achieved as many or more papers in the same period of time. What is also particularly strange is that Dr. Ashraf is listed in most papers (rough screening) as the last author. In my field of study, last author signifies the leading supervisory position. Thus, in my mind, two questions arise: a) when did Dr. Ashraf obtain his PhD? b) if 2002 was the first paper to appear on PubMed, and he was listed as the last author, does this sound odd to anyone else, too?

      1. Addendum: I was surprised to learn, from my search on, that papers as far back as the early 1980’s had been published, suggesting that Dr. Ashraf is much older than I originally thought! Therefore, my comments about the PhD would not be valid above. It seems that he has been with UoC for over 30 years, so a high salary would not surprise me. However, first paper on PubMed only in 2002?

  3. Quoting vhedwig: “I would be intrigued to hear what specific reasons UC gives for refusing to release the funds in this case, and would imagine they will come under fire from NIH if they maintain that position.”

    NIH awards grants to Insitutions not individuals (with a few exceptions). UC doesn’t have to give any reason why they are keeping the grant. They just have to propose a suitable PI as a replacement. As a general matter I think that NIH is wise to stay as far away from these types of situations as possible.

    1. Yes, strictly speaking, NIH makes the award to the institution, but don’t for a minute think that an institution which tells its faculty “this is our grant not yours and you can’t take it with you” is going to be able to hire anyone in the future. Word spreads fast when institutions pull tricks like this. Are they behaving within the letter of the law? Absolutely! Is it a badly written law that’s almost universally ignored in the interests of good-will in academia? Absolutely!

      1. Everyone who writes grants already knows this. It’s not nefarious, tricky or complicated. Any faculty member who is contemplating a change in employer knows they must have all their ducks in order. Ashraf is also learning the hard lesson that a freely offered resignation is essentially impossible to challenge in court.

        1. 5R01HL095375-05 ends November 2013
          5R37HL074272-10 ends May 2014

          He has another R01 that’s been in a no cost extension since 2011, an active R01 that’s ending and a coveted Merit award (R37) that ends early next year.

          So both of the active grants he was apparently trying to transfer are now at the end of their final year of support. Generally at my place when we do this sort of thing we hire people at the beginning of their grants…

          There may be legitimate reasons why UC don’t want to relinquish these grants at the end of the funding period. For example, maybe there are outstanding financial obligations.

          I don’t have anything to add about the misconduct issues but it probably would not have been a good idea for him to seek employment at GRU without telling them he was under investigation for misconduct at UC.

          1. Fuuuuuuu……..jaw hits floor. $304,000 per year at a public university for a PhD level scientist! With the NIH salary cap at 179, even if he was nominally at 100% effort on his grants, someone in the Dean’s office was picking up an additional 125k of his salary, which is a lot!

          2. UC is a private university but still….perhaps he had some sort of an endowed chair?

            Like many universities with a healthcare business, most if not all of the heavy hitters at UC will be employees of UCHeath and consequently won’t show up on the regular university payroll. I can guarantee you that all of the “faculty” in UC cardiology or UC anesthesiology (for example) will be on much more than $300K/year…

          3. @Scotus.

            It’s not unusual for MDs to be above the NIH salary cap, but quite rare for regular old PhDs unless they’re in some sort of administrative role such as Department chair or Dean. So, while the anesthesiology/cardiology faculty you speak of may well be pulling in large salaries (starting salary for an anesthesiologist is $400-500k), those are MDs, and the PhDs in those clinical departments will mostly be below the NIH cap. Even for an endowed/named position, a salary of >300 is very unusual.

          4. No doubt he was making an unusually high salary for a Ph.D without any obvious administrative role.
            With those grants ending in the coming year and a suspicion that he may have been involved in some dodgy research my guess is that UC were pretty pleased that he resigned..

  4. There is just so much to chew on here… it’s really a fascinating case. But to pick one tidbit, I have to say that it is time that scientists, accused of improper behavior, come up with something more creative than “the figures were erroneously switched”. If this had REALLY happened to me, I would be too embarrassed to use this excuse; it’s the scientific equivalent of “my dog ate my homework” and it should not be tolerated by any self-respecting journals (I believe there is still a few of the latter around). At one extreme, this kind of mistake indicates that the PI condones shaky practices of data handling and presentation, some of which may be downright fraudulent. At the other extreme—and minimally—this issue provides proof that the PI is asleep at the wheel, and is neglecting his/her responsibilities as the gatekeeper of scientific rigor for material produced by their laboratory. As PI’s we have a few essential jobs, one of which is being able to attest to the provenance and honesty of all data that is in publications bearing our name. A mistake like this is intolerable, because it touches on an essential function of the lab head, and involves what is the most critical step in the scientific process—publication. Someone who had published so much simply had to know better. I originally had written more on this topic, but inadvertently sent those comments to PubPeer instead…

    1. +1.
      In a prominent case that will remain nameless, the person in question had managed to accumulate 37 “mistakes” spread across 26 papers. Most of these have now been subjected to corrections, leaving the person free to seek further funding for their research. The question is, at what point should we (grant peer reviewers) refuse to fund people who make a lot of “mistakes”. I would argue at <10% NIH pay-lines, we should absolutely be taking previous sloppy record-keeping into account when making funding decisions. It would be a relatively small effort for NIH to demand a 1-line addition to the biosketch, stating the # of corrections/retractions alongside the publications list.

      1. I think your suggestion is spot on. For the topic of investigator “sloppiness” or even downright fraud to become a standardized review metric, it will be crucial to have this as an itemized part of the review criteria. At the moment this happens on a very limited basis under the category of “Investigator”, and I have seen a couple of interesting discussions in study section centered on investigators who have had work retracted or subject to repeated or mega “corrections”. But that’s a couple over the course of 10 years of pretty much continuous study section participation. I think it’s more common for reviewers, who privately hold suspicions about an investigator, to find other ways to trash grants from these investigators, typically in the “Approach” section of the review. And it’s probably even more common that reviewers ignore the whole thing altogether, either seduced by the productivity of the investigator, ignorant of the concerns that have been raised, or not willing to get involved in discussions of this type. It’s interesting that the NIH has reworked the biosketch format to put the emphasis on positive impact, rather than publication bean counting, and yet not taken any steps to address negative impact. A statement of the type you suggest would be a good first step. Of course, like publications themselves, not all retractions/corrections are created equally. Some are the result of sloppiness or fraud, but some PI’s get caught by having dishonest folks in their labs, and we’ve seen some rather brave examples here of investigators who have retracted work that has, over the fullness of time, proved to be incorrect (even though the work was done and presented entirely honestly at the time). This latter category is noble in my book, and I’d hate to dissuade others from following suit because they’d have to check the “naughty box” on their biosketches. Maybe we need to go a bit further and have the biosketch include a statement on “research integrity”?

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