University of Utah investigation fingers chem engineering grad student for misconduct

acs nanoA second retraction has been issued in a case of research misconduct at the chemistry department of chemical engineering at the University of Utah.

The first retraction, in August of 2013, got a lot of attention for how poorly faked the figures were. At the time, an expression of concern was issued on the paper that has just been retracted.

Today, we exchanged emails with Jeffery Botkin, the research integrity officer at the University of Utah, who ran the investigation into the misconduct. He summarized the report for us below.

Ultimately, the school pinned the blame on graduate student Rajasekhar Anumolu and exonerated principal investigator Leonard F. Pease. Botkin also told us the investigation found that no federal money had been used in the experiments, despite notes on the two papers indicating otherwise.

Here’s the notice for the perhaps unintentionally ironically titled “Fabrication of Highly Uniform Nanoparticles from Recombinant Silk-Elastin-like Protein Polymers for Therapeutic Agent Delivery”:

This paper has been retracted due to manipulation in Figure 52C.

On August 27. 2013, an Expression of Concern was posted on this article alerting readers to an investigation by the University of Utah, now completed. Authors J. Cappello, H. Ghandehari, J.A. Hustafson, J.J. Magda, and L.F. Pease all have been adjudicated non guilty of research misconduct by the University of Utah. The expression of concern has been removed upon retraction of this article.

The original article was published on June 22, 2011, and retracted on November 3, 2014.

The paper has been cited 19 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s a summary of the investigation from Botkin:

My office was informed in June, 2013 about concerns over the online publication:

Anumolu R, Robinson BJ, Pease LF. Chopstick nanorods: tuning the angle between pairs with high yield.  Nano Letters (

Readers identified what appeared to be ³cut and paste² artifacts in several images.  A second paper was subsequently identified by journal readers that appeared to have an image alternation in a supplemental figure S2c. This publication:

Rajasekhar Anumolu, Joshua A. Gustafson, Jules J. Magda, Joseph Cappello, Hamidreza Ghandehari, and Leonard F. Pease. Fabrication of Highly Uniform Nanoparticles from Recombinant Silk-Elastin-like Protein Polymers for Therapeutic Agent Delivery.  ACSNano 2011, 5(7), 53745382 []

The University conducted an inquiry  followed by a full investigation. The Investigation Committee was comprised of three faculty members at the University of Utah, all of whom are full professors in relevant disciplines.  The Investigation Committee submitted its final report on June 2, 2014. The Vice President for Research accepted the report.

The investigation determined that all of the images in the Nano Letters paper were fabricated and, therefore, none of the data were valid.

The supplemental figure S2c in the ACSNano paper was the only manipulated image identified in that paper.  The manipulation consisted of a cut and past ³patch² over two relatively small areas of the image. These manipulations represent data falsification.  For the ACSNano publication, the Investigation Committee could not determine a rationale for the image manipulation as the ³patches² did not appear to cover significant data elements in the image.

Mr. Anumolu, a graduate student in Chemical Engineering, was, by all accounts, primarily responsible for data acquisition and manuscript preparation for the Nano Letters publication and for Figure S2c in the ACSNano publication.  The Investigation Committee determined that Mr. Anumolu was responsible for the image manipulations and was guilty of research misconduct.  The other authors were found not guilty of research misconduct.  Mr Anumolu was not awarded his degree and is no longer affiliated with the University of Utah.  Both papers have been retracted.

The ACSNano paper says that the research was funded by an NIH grant, so we asked Botkin to clarify how the federal funds were used:

The funding question is a little complicated.  The authors acknowledged NSF and NIH funding for the Nano Letters paper and NIH funding for the ACSNano paper.  However, the authors subsequently determined that federal funds were not used for the work reported in the NanoLetters paper and were not used for the work under question in the ACSNano paper.

An internal investigation confirmed that federal dollars were not used and the annual progress reports to NSF and NIH for the relevant grants do not refer to the work in question.  University of Utah funds were used to support the research.  Therefore the acknowledgements in the Nano Letters paper were inappropriate.

NSF and NIH were notified about the investigation when it began and both agencies (actually ORI and OIG) were provided the final reports of the investigation and our information regarding use of federal funds.  I do not know the status of any discussion of the case at either ORI or OIG.

We’ve asked Anumolu and Pease for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

27 thoughts on “University of Utah investigation fingers chem engineering grad student for misconduct”

  1. “Mr. Anumolu, a graduate student in Chemical Engineering, was, by all accounts, primarily responsible for data acquisition and manuscript preparation […]”

    This seems peculiar to me. Unless the graduate student was hired as an research assistant (in which case he should be indicated as such), I don’t see how a master’s student could have any responsibility at all, seeing as he was a… student.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with using students for your research, but obviously the PhD candidates and postdocs running the study, and the PI who oversees them, should bear all the responsibility. And if I may be so bold, I would say that in this case they should have been given all the blame for putting their names on a student’s work without checking it.

    1. This doesn’t seem unusual at all to me. My master’s thesis committee chair is listed as coauthor on a paper almost entirely authored by myself while I was a master’s student. Or am I misunderstanding your comment?

  2. Sounds to me like the above commenter follows a rather typical opinion among RW-commenters:

    “If the work is good, give all praise to the student – the lazy PI should be happy for even putting his name on it – but if the work turns out to be fabricated, let us put all blame on the PI, he is responsible by definition, the poor student didn’t know any better since he thought it was o.k. to fabricate data.”

    Has the “do-not-put-your-cat-into-the-microwave” philosophy been fully absorbed also among scientists?

  3. @lhac:
    Of course the principal investigator is responsible! When things go right, or wrong. That is why (s)he is *principal* investigator.
    IMHO, tasks can be delegated, responsibilities cannot. Certainly where it concerns students.

    Aside: what happened to the threaded RW comments, allowing nested replies to comments? Or perhaps the thumbs up/down (although I am slightly less sorry to see those go)?

    1. Re: threaded comments and replies, we seem to have lost those when we migrated to a new host earlier this week. We’re working on a fix, though.

  4. I do feel that Pease should be held accountable for research misconduct for fakery that was this blatant.

    However, one thing is clear – if these papers reflect his standards of “quality control” for his lab, he is a shoddy scientist and has no business leading a laboratory, training students, and winning research grants. Healthy skepticism is part of the job, as is actually examining and thinking about the data.

  5. In total agreement with those who are critical of the PI. The PI’s main responsibility is to guide and oversee the activities of their students. He is paid a salary for this function. PIs are not randomly referred to as supervisors. Perhaps what the student had perceived as being “normal” was later discovered to be dishonest. But, ultimately, it is the person who leads the group that should take responsibility when trouble arises, to guide his student and to show what is right, and what is not. It is evident that the three professors who formed this committee were clearly looking at the flip side of the coin. If they had held the PI responsible for this case, and had some misconduct one day take place in their own laboratories in the future, then they, too, would be held responsible. By creating this exceptional precedent, a guilty party is found, and academically executed, saving the image of the PI and the university, in general. Thus, indirectly, the three professors of this committee have actually also saved their hides, too, for the future. I’ll admit, it’s a smart strategy, but not an honest one. Moreover, given how obvious the copy-pastes actually were, it is astonishing that no authors detected this. That indicates, that at minimum, they were sloppy about how they revised the paper prior to submission. They cannot claim to not have knowledge of the submission, since ACS Nano Journal requires that the e-mail of all co-authors be submitted. Finally, this “oh, I didn’t know and how could this have been written” attitude by the PI and the co-authors regarding the acknowledgment of funding is totally absurd. If they knew that NSF and NIH funding was NOT used for the research in those papers, then why did all the co-authors approve the submission of a false funding declaration. This is, in my opinion, the classical case of an academic cover-up where the lowest stratum level individual in the team is sacrificed to save the integrity of the remaining authors. It stinks. Incidentally, what does the ORI think, or has the ORI stopped thinking?

  6. Of course the PI will be blamed for this by the community at large. You can bet that I’ll remember that name, and it won’t be for a good reason. I’ll remember Pease=Chopsticks and you can bet when a Pease paper comes across my desk, I’ll pull out my magnifying lens. What a nightmare. If the student originated the fraud, and admitted as much, then I don’t see any reason to bust out the pitchforks and burn anybody else at the stake.

    No degree and kicked-out-of-the-university for high profile fraud sure puts a dent in Mr Anumolu’s future in science.

    I applaud the editors and the university for conducting an investigation. I am not priivy to all the details of the investigation, or the interviews that were held, so I will withold further analysis.

    Let this be a lesson to the other scientists out there that you need to carefully examine the figures in articles.

  7. @Ihac
    The PI (Dr. Pease) does bear responsibility, because such things do happen due to certain decisions by the PI.
    Maybe the graduate student was deemed as genius and given free hand. Proved a big mistake after all, but the PI who made this decision is still responsible. But in most labs, graduate students are rather dependent and mostly perform experiments as they are told. Again, it may be that Dr. Pease trusted Anumolu descriptions of data without looking, but again, it was a wrong PI decision.

  8. Probably an unpopular thing to say, but any halfway competant student/postdoc should easily be able to fake data and get it past the PI, in basically any lab. Do I give my PI ~terabyte of simulation data so he can check the plots and analysis are right? Is he going to spend 1e5 or 1e6 CPU-hours re-running the simulations in case I faked the data? Not so much.

    But, looking at these figures, it’s not halfway competant fakery. So, perhaps here, “I didn’t notice” shouldn’t fly so well.

  9. Responsibility here is a tough call. You can’t throw all blame on the PI. In reality, you have to trust people (to a certain point anyway). It’s unrealistic to expect a PI to meet all of his/her other expectations at work and take time to review all raw data from every project in his/her lab. When your daily schedule includes teaching, open office hours, attending meetings, writing grants, reviewing manuscripts for journals, advising students in your lab and sometimes also giving or attending a scientific talk, there isn’t much time for anything else (especially if a family is waiting for you at home). Plus, the student knows right from wrong. I could see a student thinking that dropping an “outlier” here and there is OK, but blatant image manipulation is clearly wrong and I’m sure that the PI is trusting his students not to do anything that is clearly wrong.
    On the other hand, some PIs create a culture of fear in their labs that motivates the weaker-willed to take extreme measures to avoid problems with their “mentor” (those types are not really mentors). I know some folks who had “mentors” who threatened to write bad rec letters and that sort of thing in (mostly failed) attempts to coerce them into things.

  10. The PI has been negligent, clearly, in letting such a ridiculous deception get published with his name on it.

    I don’t think he deserves formal punishment though. The reputational damage is enough of a deterrent against this kind of thing.

  11. It is not the question of placing the exclusive blame, unless we deal with a particularly otherworldly and naive cartoon-scientist as PI on one hand and on the other a exceptionally treacherous and malicious subordinate of a Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type, who succeeded to fool everyone else. The reality however is rarely so black and white, but remarkably most internal investigations (like here) come to this conclusion.

  12. Here we have the fox guarding the hen house. Dr. Botkin has made sure that there will be no federal oversight by claiming that the work did not receive federal funding. Why else would he go out of his way to state publicly that the PI falsely stated that he had received federal funding in the first place? What a travesty. All of may speculate about who knew what and when, but we will never know the truth because the University is conveniently sweeping it all under rug, as universities do in all cases I am aware of.

  13. A student.
    The student’s mentor.
    Data fabrication, which is easy to spot.
    The student’s mentor cannot be bothered to carry out the most basic task associated with teaching, which is to meet the student and discuss data.
    Two nice papers from a Masters student. Hot stuff, I’ll take the credit.
    Ooops, gone a bit wrong, lots of noise on blogs and twitter.
    Institutional investigation.
    Shoot student.
    Student disappears (happily student has a foreign sounding name, likely some sort of unsavoury immigrant).

    This is quite disgusting.

  14. The quoted text in the blog post should read “Figure S2C”, not “52C”. I find it noteworthy that the entire paper was retracted on the basis of a panel in a supplemental figure.

  15. Actually, Stephan, rather than the University’s Research Integrity Officer (RIO) “ensuring that there will be no federal oversight by claiming the work did not involve federal funding,’ the comments from the RIO make it clear that he in fact told the federal agencies (NSF and NIH/ORI) about the case, ensuring that the NSF OIG and HHS ORI would look at the issue of possible federal funding – AND even for applications for federal funding of the work in the papers (which acknowledged federal funds – even if they were not actually used).

    It is also remarkable the the RIO would make such public statements about NSF OIG and HHS ORI review going on – these are normally kept confidential, until there is a federal finding of research misconduct). Perhaps there is a very open Sunshine Law in Utah?

  16. I read this differently, Alan. Of course, the RIO must (by statute) inform the agencies if it says that there is federal funding in the journal article. However, the RIO informed the federal agencies that Utah had determined that there had been no federal funding, which means that the agencies were informed that they had no jurisdiction. In my experience, if the university says that they ORI or OIG do not have jurisdiction then the agents assigned to the case will simply file the report and pay attention to the 70 or so other cases on their desk. The reason for my comment is that the universities have a conflict of interest. They want to limit the damage. In this case the PI suddenly discovered a mistake in the funding acknowledgement only when an allegation of research misconduct surfaced. It is sure a lot better for the PI to have the institution protecting you than have an open case in Washington. Apparently Univ. of Utah agrees. If their PI had been found to be more deeply involved it would have cost them a lot more time and money. How did the institution ascertained that NO federal money was used? That is unusual to say the least. Ultimately, the strategy of blaming the student works much better when mentoring is not subject to scrutiny. This is all very convenient for the people who want it all just to go away. That would be everyone involved except for the student, who may wish that he had someone who represented his interests in this process. He does not have any representation since that is the way that the statute was written. It permits the university to act in the best interest of the student in the quest to “maintain the integrity of research”. Great system we have here.

    1. Stefan [sorry for the typo earlier], I do not know, of course, what cases you are referring to for your viewpoint that the ORI investigator would just accept the RIO’s statement that no federal (NIH) funds were involved — and perhaps that the RIO was just accepting what the PI told him. When I was the chief investigator for ORI (for the decade before 2006), I always worked with my ORI staff and the NIH program and grants management staff to investigate such a claim – to look for expenditures for the research or the questioned publication, or applications for funds that cited and seemed to depend upon that questioned publication. ORI (and NSF OIG) have the authority to investigate such questions themselves, as well as to ask the RIO or institutional grants-management officers for any evidence that might being into question the claim that no federal (NIH) funding or NIH application was relevant. The senior ORI people with whom I worked and those whom I trained, still at ORI, do have the authority and knowledge to pursue such questions, and suspect that they use it.

    2. That is interesting to hear. That is not what I have seen when dealing with the ORI. I witnessed deference to the claim of a university and refusal to even examine the evidence. I was told that the ORI did not have the resources to check into claims by universities and they were always trusted since by statute they have the primary responsibility to maintain integrity. That is a failing of the current research misconduct system as I have witnessed it. The case is found in the pages of Retraction Watch with the title “Science hasn’t retracted paper that university, NSF investigators wanted withdrawn”. There is not any mention of ORI on those pages since ORI declined to investigate the facts surrounding the case (despite having initially accepted that it was within its jurisdiction to do so). In essence, they deferred to the word of the University of Colorado without checking into the facts.

      1. It has been for decades normal practice among federal agencies, which are both involved in reviewing a research misconduct case, to let one agency at as the “lead” to pursue the case. Having an NSF OIG investigation that leads to OIG recommendations, accepted by NSF leadership, to require a retraction and to impose NSF sanctions, may be considered sufficient by the other agency. [In some cases, NSF has imposed the federal-wide sanction of debarment.] This “lead agency” approach avoids a waste of time and taxpayer dollars that may occur from both agencies pursuing the case [even though a complainant might want more to be done and to be made more public]. It depends on the case, obviously.

  17. Please tell me how it humanly possible to follow around 4-10 people simultaneously at all hours of the day? In addition to watching every move of 6 people in different rooms simultaneously, keep in mind that you should be teaching, serving on committees, writing grants, reviewing grants, writing papers, editing papers, advising students, writing grant summaries, preparing budgets, attending seminars, reading new literature, traveling to give invited talks and serve on study sections, and responding to at least 100 emails a day. Please people, spend one day in the life of a PI, and you’ll think differently about the ability to catch an electronic fabrication. Students and postdocs are ADULTS, not children. They are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable. It is impossible to oversee all of their actions. Trust is put upon them and when they break that trust, they should be held accountable.

    1. You don’t need to follow around 4-10 people all day. You have a weekly or biweekly meeting with each of your students to check up on research progress. You read papers before they go out, and if the papers’ results are centered on crucial images, you look at the images, in detail. Is that really too much to ask?

      If you don’t supervise your students or the research going on in your group at even a basic level, why do you get credit for their papers? It’s a convenient double standard, isn’t it–when a paper goes to some big name journal, the PI claims the senior authorship; when the paper turns out to be fake then suddenly the PI doesn’t actually know anything about it.

      The foreign graduate student gets the blame and does not receive his PhD. The PI is “exonerated” and faces no consequences at all. Oh and whoops…the paper’s funding acknowledgements were wrong too. The authors didn’t actually use federal funding for this research, although they said in the paper they did. How convenient. Now NIH won’t investigate.

      The following is publicly available information: Leonard Pease receives a salary of over $133,000, in Utah of all places–and that’s probably just his nine month salary. He is paid this amount because he is responsible for the research output of his lab. With power, money, and a tenure-track position come responsibility. That is the point of being in a supervisory or managerial position; in exchange for that power, the buck stops with you.

      Outside of academia, Pease would probably be fired. Personally even inside academia, I would fire him. That his lab is producing obviously dishonest science with his name attached; that is enough for me–he is damaging the reputation of the University, and he hasn’t even reached tenure yet.

      Anyway, despite the university’s “exoneration” of Pease, which seems to be remarkably convenient for their PR, I hope that people do not forget this incident.

    2. PS–and yes, as far as suggesting that we commenters spend one day as a PI, I spent years as a PI on the tenure-track. I myself had the sort of PhD advisor you describe, one who was too busy minding his R1 empire to pay any actual attention to his students or the work coming out of his lab. There was all sorts of unethical behavior in the group; with no supervision it was anarchy and a horrid place to work, and yes I think it was mostly my advisor’s fault.

      As a PI, I felt responsible for the work coming out of my group. If I could not mentor my students closely I delegated a postdoc to do so. I considered this my minimal responsibility to science and my students, far more important than answering 100 e-mails, giving lectures abroad, and generally making myself famous.

  18. T. Oliver, you add cameras to every single room in which research is taking place, as has now taken place with Obokata (poor her!). I predict that a certain tranche of research budgets are going to (perhaps in the not too distant future) be used to purchase cameras, and other technologies to monitor scientists in their work place. The increasing cases of misconduct and the lack of appropriate ways to detect and monitor relevant parties, with the objective of differentiating the wheat from the chaff, and the weak policies in place at ORI and by government (which from the discussion thread above suggests that the decision was political and the consequence was a cover-up), is going to set the blue-print for the militarization of science, and the eventual indoctrination, and forced acceptance, of Big Brother in the laboratory.

  19. It takes a genius to come up with the chopstick idea, and the PI and 3 reviewers and 1- 2 editors believed it, luckily, we have non-professor little guys with common sense doubted it and put it under the sun.

  20. So it has been several years since the retraction of this paper. Leonard F. Pease III, though he does not seem to have received tenure at Utah, still holds two adjunct positions there (including one in Asian Studies, for whatever reason). At present, he appears to be employed as a scientist at PNNL. Googling him barely turns up chopstick nanorods on Page 2, because nobody has discussed this controversy in years.

    So it all blew over, I think. He still seems to have a career in scientific research, which is more than even many PhD’s who have never co-authored blatantly fraudulent research can aspire to.

    I don’t know what happened to the grad student.

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