On Saturday, we highlighted a great two-part series by Joseph Neff of the News & Observer diving into the story of “Stefan Franzen, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University who has been trying unsuccessfully to correct the scientific record.” Today, that series became a three-part series, with a new story revealing that an investigation by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) had found “reckless” falsification in the work in question.
One of the key papers in the controversy was published by Lina A. Gugliotti, Daniel L. Feldheim, and Bruce E. Eaton in Science in 2004 and cited 125 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. (Eaton is now at the University of Colorado at Boulder.) In 2011, Nature reported on the situation:
In 2009, Terri Lomax, the NCSU’s vice-chancellor for research, drafted a letter to Science recommending that the journal retract the paper or contact the authors for an erratum. The letter was not sent, however, and some months later, Lomax sent a milder version that simply noted the misstatements and suggested that the editors assess whether these had been corrected in the record.
A spokeswoman for Science says that, after reading the letter, editors contacted Eaton and Feldheim, who replied that their 2008 response to Franzen contained the necessary correction. Aware that the inspector-general of the NSF was still investigating, Science decided not to take further action.
That investigation would appear to be complete, although its recommendations have not been approved by top NSF OIG. According to a September 2013 report to Congress published today by the N&O, however, NSF investigators
…determined two faculty members and a graduate student at a North Carolina university recklessly omitted experimental details and overstated their experimental results in a published article, to an extent that constituted falsification.
To be clear: The NSF OIG report is anonymized, so even though the circumstances match, the N&O couldn’t confirm that it was the Eaton case. A university spokesperson told the newspaper, however:
The OIG report appears to be the Franzen-Eaton-Feldheim case, and it does appear that the OIG has found research misconduct and recommended sanctions, but we cannot definitively confirm that.
According to the report to Congress, the university did request a retraction:
The university’s investigation concluded that at least one of the faculty members had falsified but had done so carelessly, which did not constitute research misconduct. Nevertheless, the university requested that the authors retract the article. When the authors disregarded that request, the university sent the request directly to the journal – which did not retract the article.
And now, the NSF OIG — pending final approval — recommends the same thing:
We concluded that collectively the coauthors recklessly falsified their work in the original article. We recommended that NSF require retraction of the article and three years of certifications and assurance for each author, and bar each author as an NSF reviewer, advisor, or consultant for three years.
Eaton wrote what can only be called a remarkable letter to Neff in response to a request to interview him. Excerpts:
Every year just before the holidays professor Franzen launches some attack of some sort. Numerous institutions and government agencies have had scientific experts review the allegations. Professor Franzen has not been satisfied by their conclusions and so he has come to you and the popular press.
“I do not care about this area of science at all,” Eaton wrote, citing a 2010 paper he co-authored as “the definitive article that explains everything:”
I did care at one time, but Franzen’s relentless attacks have killed the program. He has won and you can write an article to congratulate him on stifling innovative thought and creativity. Furthermore, you can encourage him to write threatening letters to my students as he has done where he promises to ruin their careers. Great guy, you should work closely with him and get inside his brain. I am sure you will be fascinated to learn how it works.
The N&O reports that
Franzen said he had warned graduate students of falsified data and scientific problems. He said he never threatened anyone’s career.
Find some time to read Neff’s whole series here.