Australian university to repay $275K grant because of “misleading and incorrect” information

Zee Upton, via QUT
Zee Upton, via QUT

Courtesy of The Australian, we have an update on a story we first covered in late 2012.

As we reported then:

A contested retraction in Stem Cells and Development has left the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduate student who fought for it in limbo, uncertain if he will earn his PhD. And many of those who didn’t want the paper retracted have a significant financial interest in a company whose work was promoted by the research — despite any lack of disclosure in the now-retracted paper.

QUT refused to give the student, Luke Cormack, access to an evaluation of the data in question, but also said that it welcomed an independent probe into a related $275,000 grant.

That probe is now complete, reports The Australian’s Julie Hare, and the QUT will be paying the grant back:

THE Queensland University of Technology will repay a $275,000 research grant after one of its academics knowingly provided “misleading and incorrect” information on her stem cell research over five years.

The investigation also found her “failures to correct were made with gross and persistent negligence”.

The investigation centered on two researchers, Kerry Manton and Zee Upton. Upton, as we noted in 2012:

…is consulting chief scientific officer of Tissue Therapies, which QUT spun off to develop technologies based on vitronectin and other compounds. She and other investors co-founded the company in 2003, approached QUT for a license on the intellectual property, and had Tissue Therapies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2004, according to an Upton presentation available on the QUT website. An eprint of another paper by Upton and co-authors available on the QUT site notes that several authors had bought stock in the company.

According to The Australian:

The external inquiry found Dr Manton had “failed to fulfil (her) responsibilities in relation to the responsible dissemination of research findings and that this, coupled with a failure to correct the errors, constituted research misconduct’’.

But it found that while Professor Upton had failed in her duties as a supervising researcher it was due to “extraordinary work commitments and high expectations of performance”. “Her failures … were not deliberate or intentional, more nor were they reckless,” the report said.

Update, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, 2/11/15: Struck through “more” and added “nor were they” to last paragraph, as we have just learned that The Australian’s story was changed at some point.

22 thoughts on “Australian university to repay $275K grant because of “misleading and incorrect” information”

    1. I agree 100% with Neuroskeptic.

      I am also pleased to see the grant money recovered — it’s about time there were some real consequences for malfeasance in science.

      Given the finding of “reckless not intentional”, I would hope Upton will be reduced in rank to a point where her job does not exceed her capacity… but that would require admitting that pretty much everyone in such a job is overwhelmed and vulnerable to such errors, so it will never happen.

    2. A Ph.D. dissertation is not primarily about the research actually performed, but is much more about the ability to do research in a general sense – can the project be designed? Does the person work with the advisor? Can the person carry out the project? Can the committee members be satisfied with the result?

      It would be truly unfair and wrong to punish the student for the larger issues.

      1. The student isn’t being punished for being part of dud project.
        Ha! His thesis review committee (which had no problems with the work of Dr Manton) deemed his work insufficient. They particularly didn’t like his literature review.

        From RW’s original post
        “Although Cormack, a QUT grad student, was not the lead author on the paper, published in February 2010, it “formed the entire basis of my PhD,” he tells Retraction Watch. He submitted that PhD in December of last year, only to have it rejected in March. He didn’t have enough data, nor enough cells to do the necessary assays, and the committee felt the literature review wasn’t sufficient”

        1. He submitted that PhD in December of last year, only to have it rejected in March. He didn’t have enough data, nor enough cells to do the necessary assays, and the committee felt the literature review wasn’t sufficient
          So the poor guy had the misfortune to sign on for an impossible project, of extending earlier results which (because of their nature) could not even be replicated. His replacement supervisors forfeit all credibility for their COI-driven insistence that he carry on with this dead-end line of research.
          In his position, I guess I would apply for a re-assessment of that original rejection of the PhD; negative results can warrant a PhD, if they are interestingly negative.

      2. For those interested this is where Cormack was a year ago (I can’t find anything more recent)

        “The university has offered to provide Mr Cormack $75,000 to fund a new PhD at another institution. The University of Queensland has said it will take him on, but only if he starts again from scratch.

        ”I just don’t think I can face that,” he says.”

        And as far as whistleblower outcomes go, his is a success story.

        1. That story contains the allegations

          Cormack last year found documents in computer files accessible by anyone at QUT showing photos and other images related to the research. The pictures appeared to have been re-labelled multiple times. Each time the results seemed better. Some of the images appeared to have been manipulated in Photoshop.
          He recognised images of cell growth that had been used in a key research paper. The images looked the same, but the labels showed different results than the ones in the paper, published in 2010.

          so the report’s conclusion that any errors were ‘inadvertent’ or at worst “reckless” is an eyebrow-raiser.
          Part of the problem seems to be that Cormack’s original supervisor (Sean Richards) was the key stem-cell researcher; then he left for greener pastures, leaving Cormack with a deskful of irreproducible results. So the remaining two QUT members, Professor Upton and Dr Manton, can be seen as extra injured parties… they were happy to accept the profits from a new growth medium and new stem-cell technologies if those had worked out, while remaining totally innocent if the technologies turn out to be fictitious.

  1. Though funds have been paid back, it looks as it the person who will suffer the most is the student. A little more bright sunlight rather than euphemisms might help here?

  2. Finally a sensible approach to tackling scientific misconduct. If universities and other institutions are forced to return grant money, they will be more careful whom they employ and support!

    1. Totally agree with you!
      This case shows yet again that internal investigations Do_NOT_Work for dealing successfully with all kinds of misconduct. In most cases the thing what these internal investigations do is an active Cover Up, for which they should be held accountable.
      It should be clear for everyone that only External independent investigation can force the institutions to Do_the_Right_Thing!
      It’s time for a change!

      1. There is not even much to investigate. If own paper, which was cited as relevant in grant proposal, was retracted, then the basis for the approval of grant funding is no more provided. The money must be returned then.

  3. Mr Cormack shouldn’t be given a PhD just because of this error in the manuscript. If its true that Mr Cormack’s PhD was deemed unsuitable for a PhD much before all these allegations came through then why should he be given one now. Not that his thesis quality has changed since. As a PhD student myself I feel it is my responsibility to ensure my project is going in the right direction. Maybe Mr Cormack should have done that too.

    1. Just an aside along the lines of perverse outcomes. The downside of requiring universities to repay money is
      a. the money has already been spent on salaries and consumables and so must be taken from money available to other researchers at the institute. The negative effects will be different dependent on the size of the institute.
      b. it just adds to the enormous incentives for Universities to try and suppress whistleblowers.

      1. I disagree. First, the universities will take care to clamp down on the institutional budget of the perpetrator first. Second, it is not like the universities are really keen to pursue hints provided by whistle-blowers as things are now. The status quo does not work. Money is wasted, dishonest scientists are safe in their jobs, and whistle-blowers are always punished.

        1. Taking the comments by littlegreyrabbit (lgr) and Leonid into consideration, but looking at the Obokata case, how does one retrieve the billions of JPN Yen lost over several years in a few laboratories? That research culminated with a retracted in Nature. The Nature paper was retracted, and the repeat experiments (so far 22 by Niwa, a co-author) have not been able to repeat the results. In other words, billions were asted to yield NOTHING. The repetitions also wasted another 75 million Yen. So, indeed, lgr is right when he/she states that “the money has already been spent on salaries and consumables”, but is likely impossible to recover. Obokata and Niwa can simply say that the money was used simply to prove something that can no longer be proved and that this is a natural process in science. But, at the end of the day, a key word is being missed: “productivity”. How much output can be achieved relative to the input. In the Obokata case, we see a gross imbalance: massive output and wastage vs ZERO input. Who must pay for this waste, and how? Currently, Japanese tax-payers are footing the massive bill of this and other crappy science coming out of Japan. At the end of the day, Obokata, Niwa and associated (minus one) must take the rap, and should be thrown out of their positions if, at the end of November, Obokata fails to repeat the experiment and show the existence of fluorescent green STAP cells exist and that they can be regenerated into a new mouse. Simple. Then, for that gross failure and negligence, the wasted funding should be partially recovered from these irresponsible scientists (just allow MEXT dip into their bank accounts and extract the money) so that it can be given to more deserving scientists in the future. This still doesn’t recover the wasted funds, but the entire process (whistle-blowing – public queries – blog comments – challenge to Nature – media pressure – retraction) will make universities more attentive and careful about whistle-blowers and not try to suppress them, as Leonid suggests, simply because now they will fear the repercussions of trying to suppress dissent or critique. I am not sure if this analogy can fit well with the lost vs recovered PhD grant funding, but in principle, it should equate in terms of process and consequences.

          1. Hi Jaime,
            it would of course seem logical to go after personal savings of dishonest scientists. But how to achieve this legally, even if they privately did own such sums? They did not steal or embezzle in the legally relevant manner, and anyway, scientific misconduct with intent (!) is very difficult to prove in court. I think it is best to leave it to universities and institutes (like RIKEN) to decide, how they are to proceed with their employees who caused them to pay back tremendous sums in grant funding 😉
            Again, I think claiming back grant money which was acquired on the base of retracted article (or even one with expression of concern) should be easily justifiable.

          2. Among grass-roots scientists, justice is so easy to achieve. Because we see things in black and white. The law is the problem, because it introduces shades and nuances, and also because there are few precedents or clear-cut case studies (maybe because they are not profitable enough to merit court cases?). I agree with your position regarding retracted papers, and where funds were wasted. But I am not so sure about expressions of concern. After all, there are plenty of expressions of concern about the editorial competence of several publishers, their editors and their journals, but I don’t see anyone suing the publishers for malpractice, negligence or fraud (in the case where incorrect science is being sold for a profit).

          3. thanks, good point. Of course one would have to evaluate from case to case. Some expressions of concern may have nothing to do with misconduct, while some Corrigenda may be just a brazen move to cover up falsified data. I wonder if funding agencies would have their approved grant proposals re-evaluated in suspicious cases, if they had a solid chance to claim their money back.

  4. A question that should be raised is whether it was appropriate for an academic staff member with one first-author publication in a not very highly rated journal (there are some others as second and third, not many and I dont believe he supervised the research) to supervise a postgraduate student. The attitude at a lot of Australian universities seems to be that the government gives them money for scholarships and supervision, so they will fill very possible student position whether the supervision or students are good enough. If it works out they get some publications which improves the research ranking, otherwise tough luck.

  5. IIn 2012, the RW blog readers mentioned Fig. 2A image in a BJC paper that published in 2005 and 1st author of the paper is Dr. K J Manton (British Journal of Cancer 2005; 92, 760 – 769);

    That BJC paper has not been retracted.

    I reanalysed the Fig 2A (see below). I think the problems that resulted in Fig. 2A is not inadvertent and the CREDIBILITY of this paper has been gone.

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