ORI sanctions collaborator of Nobel winner Buck for data fabrication

ori logoThe Office of Research Integrity has sanctioned a former researcher in the lab of Linda Buck, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for falsifying data in two papers written with the support of grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The researcher, Zou Zhihua, worked with Buck as a post-doc at Harvard and then at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, Buck’s current home. After leaving there in 2005, he spent three years at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and now appears to be a faculty member at Jilin University in China.

According to the report:

Based on the reports of investigations conducted by Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) and additional analysis conducted by ORI in its oversight review, ORI found that Dr. Zhihua Zou, former Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Neurobiology, HMS, and former Staff Scientist, Division of Basic Sciences, FHCRC, engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grants R01 DC001622 and R01 DC004842.

ORI found that Respondent engaged in research misconduct by falsifying data that were included in two (2) publications:

  1. Zou, Z., Horowitz, L.F., Montmayeur, J.P., Snapper, S., & Buck, L.B. “Genetic tracing reveals a stereotyped sensory map in the olfactory cortex.” Nature 414:173-179, 2001 (hereafter referred to as “Nature 2001″).
  2. Zou, Z., Li, F., & Buck, L.B. “Odor maps in the olfactory cortex.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102:7724-7729, 2005 (hereafter referred to as “PNAS 2005″).

As a result of the investigations, both publications have been retracted.

Specifically, ORI finds that Respondent:

  • falsified Figures 2k, 2l, 3a, 3f, 3h, and 3i in Nature 2001 and Figure 5C(b) in PNAS 2005 by manipulating the images to alter the number and location of positively stained cells in the olfactory bulb and olfactory cortex of mice.

Zou agreed to a three-year settlement in which he must be supervised while doing any research with Public Health Service money.

We covered this case in September 2010.

Here’s the notice for the PNAS paper:

The undersigned authors wish to note the following: “This article described patterns of c-Fos labeling in anterior piriform cortex following exposure of mice to odorants. In efforts to replicate this work, we have observed c-Fos in sparsely distributed neurons, as reported, but we have found no evidence for the reported finding that odorants induce related patterns of c-Fos labeling in the two hemispheres and in different individuals. Inconsistencies have also been found between several images shown in the paper and the original data. Because of these discrepancies, the undersigned authors are retracting the article. We sincerely apologize for any confusion it has caused.”

Here’s the notice for the Nature article:

This Article described patterns of labelling observed in olfactory cortex when a transneuronal tracer was co-expressed with single odorant receptor genes in the mouse olfactory epithelium. During efforts to replicate and extend this work, we have been unable to reproduce the reported findings. Moreover, we have found inconsistencies between some of the figures and data published in the paper and the original data. We have therefore lost confidence in the reported conclusions. We regret any adverse consequences that may have resulted from the paper’s publication.

Interestingly, the ORI report makes no mention of a 2006 Science paper by Zou and Buck that she also retracted because her group could not replicate the findings:

In the Report “Combinatorial effects of odorant mixes in olfactory cortex” (1), we described subcellular patterns of Arc (arg3.1) mRNA expression in anterior piriform cortex neurons after mice had been exposed to odorants. We reported that some cortical neurons express Arc in response to a mix of two odorants but not either odorant alone. My laboratory has been unable to reproduce this finding. I am therefore retracting the Report. I sincerely apologize for any confusion that its publication may have caused. Z.Z. declined to sign this Retraction.


18 thoughts on “ORI sanctions collaborator of Nobel winner Buck for data fabrication”

  1. “Zou agreed to a three-year settlement in which he must be supervised while doing any research with Public Health Service money.” Zou was working in a ‘supervised’ (post-doc) position when the fraudulent work was done so how is this going to make anything different?
    It is high time that the PIs (supervisors/ mentors) are also held accountable for failure in their supervisory activities. The system needs a change.

      1. What is extremely curious about the faculty page* is that the profile of most of the professors and associate professors is missing. Why would academic faculty want to hide any information? And several of those that do display some information do not show their e-mails. I have always been concerned with academic staff whose CV is not complete, closed to the public, listing retracted papers without disclosing that they are retracted, outdated pages, etc. This is one reason why we will continue to have serious problems still amlong way into the future, because there is a lack of or lax level of transparency. I believe that all academics have the responsibility of showing their full CVs, including a full list of papers, symposium papers, book chapters, notes, etc. The faculties they work for then should be held responsible for ensuring that their academic staff has an updated and accurate CV online, preferably with a link to all full texts, in open access format. The fact that in so many countries we see such badly structured and incomplete (i.e., opaque) professional profiles opens up quite alot of questions related to honesty. I admire the Brazilian Lattes system that tries to at least keep the professional profiles strictly updated and opaque. Has anybody thought of dropping an e-mail to the Jiling University authorities to alert them of this problem? Maybe they are not even aware of his retractions. In China, it is not uncommon for a scientist to obtain a professorship automatically with only just one high profile publication like Science, so is this the case with Zhihua Zou? The university should definately be contacted to clarify these issues.

        * http://life.jlu.edu.cn/?ui=english&mod=info&act=view&id=204

      1. They are pressing charges for providing false statements to the government, not to recoup the monies from the researcher. Legally, they could ask for some sort of money in a small claim to strong-arm the guy into paying rather than being brought to court on a criminal matter, but the monies were used for their intended purpose (research, albeit fabricated research).

        So, my bet is on the false statements. I expect this to come out sort of like the Pohlman case.

    1. It’s not like you go out and buy a new McMansion with R01 funds. The university slurps up the indirects and the rest goes to reagents. You can go after the postdoc, but chances are they don’t have much assets. I suppose you could take their house and their car using asset forfeiture, but getting back an R01’s worth of money from a postdoc’s assets? Hah. As for PI’s…some are very well off and some aren’t. Also a mixed bag. Or you could go after the universities too to try and clawback indirects, but that will pit state universities against “big government”.

      Won’t be long before scientists have to take out “malpractice insurance” on their line of research…

      1. I have received notice that the members of that department have all been contacted and have been requested to comment here at RW and provide explanations. There is nowhere to run now, now that the university colleagues and authorities are all congnizant of this situation. The key question is, will Jilin University stand by this researcher, or not?

        1. Impressive publications with Buck…PNAS, CELL and SCIENCE.

          3. Zou, Z. and Buck, L. Combinatorial effects of odorant mixes in olfactory cortex. Science 311(5766): 1477-81, 2006

          4.B oehm, U., Zou, Z., and Buck, L. Feedback loops link odor and pheromone signaling with reproduction. Cell 123(4): 683-695, 2005

          5.Zou, Z., Li, F., and Buck, L. Odor maps in the olfactory cortex. PNAS 102(21): 7724-7729, 2005

          Source: http://life.jlu.edu.cn/?mod=info&act=view&id=216

          Does anyone see anything worth reporting with respect to the data?

        2. Why would they do that? The members of the department and lab do not owe us any explanation. I’m not sure what you’re after other than attempting to bootstrap more accusations onto an individual who has already had said accusations verified and sanctions imposed.

          1. I totally agree. All the retraction notices can easily be found, using pubmed or a simple google search. Surely some of this information was available to the university before they hired him. As for the other faculty members, why get them involved?
            Generally speaking, RW is in danger of turning into click bait, due to the “contributions” of a single commenter.

          2. Michael, RW already commands 600,000 clicks a month, so most likely this is not because of a single “commentator”. When a scientist stays silent, I think it’s a great idea to contact the whole department. In some cases, the silence exists for a reason. And, since retractions are about increasing transparency in science, a discussion should be induced, for those who might not be aware. Making colleagues aware is not always a pleasant experience, but it is an important one. Finally, some of the unknowns I note above remain unknowns, so how to make them knowns when Zou remains silent?

          3. I can see these results perfectly, but can they see them clearly in China? It is always easy to assume that the rest of the world functions in the same mold as the US (or the EU), but it doesn’t. The world is not Google (fortunately). My personal experience in China is that Google is unreliable, and access can be determined by politically charged events* and the presence/absence of dissent. This could potentially also include dissent in scientific circles, too.
            * http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/02/china-google_n_5430108.html

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