Retraction appears for psychiatrist sought for arrest in alleged fraud scheme

Alain Malafosse, via University of Geneva

Want bogus data, million-dollar fraud allegations and a scientist on the lam? We give you Alain Malafosse.

The British Journal of Psychiatry has retracted a June 2013 paper by Malafosse and his colleagues on the genetics of bipolar disorder in children because Malafosse allegedly fabricated key data in the study.

The article, “Childhood maltreatment and methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1 in bipolar disorder,” purported to find that people with bipolar disorder who had experienced more, and more severe, abuse early in life were more likely to show epigenetic changes. According to the abstract:

Early-life adversities have a sustained effect on the HPA axis through epigenetic processes and this effect may be measured in peripheral blood. This enduring biological impact of early trauma may alter the development of the brain and lead to adult psychopathological disorder.

Not so, the journal now says. The BJPsych has issued a retraction notice (paywalled, unfortunately) stating:

An investigation carried out at the request of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva has concluded that one of the authors (Alain Malafosse) fabricated methylation data. A reanalysis of the DNA reveals no significant correlation between childhood trauma and methylation of the NR3C1 gene. The original conclusions therefore no longer hold true and we wish to retract the paper.

The journal also has retracted an editorial linked to the tainted paper, “Epigenetic traces of childhood maltreatment in peripheral blood: a new strategy to explore gene–environment interactions:”

We wish to retract this editorial as it was partly based on an article that has been retracted (Childhood maltreatment and methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1 in bipolar disorder. BJP, 204, 30–35).

The study, which was cited four times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, was conducted with a variety of both government and foundation grants. The BJPsych also published an editorial that touches on the fraudulent study. Titled “Fine ethical judgements on the reporting of research findings,” the author, Kamaldeep Bhui, writes that:

Public education and public health rely on accurate reporting and scientific integrity. It is regrettable that in this month’s Journal, we must draw attention to a retraction (p. 164). The methylation data from this study were fabricated. I thank the University of Geneva for acting so swiftly. Maintaining high standards of conduct are essential if we are to maintain public trust and confidence, and avoid confusion, alarm, suspicion of and fears about scientific advances.

But wait, there’s more. As The Local — a Swiss English-language site — reported in April, Swiss authorities believe Malafosse was behind a $1.9 million fraud scheme to divert government research funding for personal gain. According to the outlet:

The allegations are linked to bills sent to an “external laboratory”, a non-profit foundation based in Montpellier that has the same address as a close relative of Malafosse.

A French citizen originally from Algeria who spent 18 years in Switzerland, he fled from his home in the upscale Geneva neighbourhood of Champel to the south of France, where he apparently has another home, the report from Le Temps indicated.

Malafosse was elected to municipal office in the French town of Saint Brès shortly before the Swiss issued the arrest warrant. France reportedly does not extradite its citizens, so Malafosse may be free to serve his term on the council.

8 thoughts on “Retraction appears for psychiatrist sought for arrest in alleged fraud scheme”

  1. Definitely a spicy one here and looking forwards to updates!

    I would note that France does allow extradition, but as ever this depends on the specifics of the treaty and concordance of the respective national laws. In addition, I suspect extradition to Switzerland is weak, because there is likely to be a lack of reciprocity, due to the protection of banking secrecy in Switzerland.

    1. The abstract of a 14 years old paper on research ethics in France began with this bold opening: “Institutions in France are not yet well prepared to respond to allegations of scientific misconduct”. Let see what happens 14 years later.

    2. In summary: Alleged fraud and corruption. The BJPsych also appears to boast quite a few errata: 216 hits on the search function.

        1. A scientist’s name is not a banal thing. BM King and EM KIng are completely different individuals. In 50 year’s time, BM KIng would have been remembered as EM King had that erratum not been published. Kudos to the BJPsych for correcting that tiny, but ever so important issue. Imagine that Neuroskeptic were to be remembered as Neurskeletic, for example. And this is just your blog handle. Try to extrapolate to your real name on a scientific paper.

          1. See how easy it is to make simple mistakes and errors; perhaps this can be chalked up to human error when typing. It’s very hard at times to notice mistakes on one’s own work. Like I always say let someone else proofread. Someone with a fresh set of eyes; for a lack of better words
            will notice mistakes made by others on their work. For example JATds, notice the capital “I’s” in the name King in your above response. Just saying!

  2. Malafosse resigned as councillor for Saint-Brès in July. In June, he was questioned in Montpellier by a visiting Swiss prosecutor. His case has been covered in French and Swiss papers. He’s said he plans to return to Switzerland to face all questions, but seems to be taking his time about it.
    France has a strong judicial cooperation agreement with Switzerland, but I don’t know if it extends to extradition. French authorities in fact say they have not yet received the actual arrest warrant for Malafosse, only a request for judicial cooperation in investigating.
    As you say, France doesn’t normally extradite its citizens, claiming French law forbids it. There have been exceptions. A French Basque ETA sympathiser was extradited to Spain not long ago after they accused her of attending the meeting of a banned organisation in Madrid. But it caused an uproar.

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