Third retraction for GWU biologist as university seeks to dismiss his $8 million lawsuit

Rakesh Kumar, via George Washington University
Rakesh Kumar, via George Washington University

Cancer biologist Rakesh Kumar has chalked up another retraction, this time for “identical,” “duplicated,” and “replicated” figures and images.

It comes on the heels of a flurry of motions in Kumar’s $8 million lawsuit against his employer, George Washington University, for breach of contract and emotional distress because it removed him as department chair last year and placed his research on hold. Kumar remains employed by the university.

The retracted paper, published in Development in 2004, “Metastasis-associated protein 1 deregulation causes inappropriate mammary gland development and tumorigenesis,” analyzed the role of a protein, MTA1, in mammary gland development and cancer. It was published while Kumar was at M.D. Anderson in Houston, and has been cited 81 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

By our count, Kumar now has three retractions and five corrections. Numerous anonymous comments on Kumar’s papers have been posted on PubPeer, many of them critiquing images. Here’s the complete notice from Development:

The authors contacted the journal when they became aware of a number of errors involving the re-use of lanes and panels in multiple figures of the paper. Specifically, the vinculin lanes in Fig. 6H and Fig. 1E are identical, and two of these lanes are also duplicated in Fig. 7D. In addition, the vinculin lanes 1-3 in Fig. 7C are duplicated in lanes 4-6, and in Fig. 9 the Bcl-XLbands in lanes 2 and 3 are identical. Finally, Fig. 3B is replicated (with aspect changes) from a previous paper (Fig. 2C of J. Biol. Chem. 278, 17421-17429).

It has not been possible to fully resolve these anomalies, and therefore the authors and the editors of the journal believe that the most appropriate course of action is to retract the article. The authors apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused. This complies with the policies and practices of the journal.

Katherine Brown, executive editor of Development, tells us that all five authors, including Kumar, agreed to retract the paper:

As the retraction statement says, the authors contacted us some time ago regarding the errors in the paper. Having followed our standard procedures in cases such as this, and according to COPE guidelines, we came to the conclusion that a retraction was the most appropriate course of action. All authors did agree to retract the paper.

The retraction is another development in the ongoing drama involving Kumar and GWU. Kumar was hired as a professor and chair of GW Medical Center’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in October 2008, with a base salary of $300,000 plus $1.25 million in start-up funds for his laboratory and $2.5 million for the department, according to an appointment letter included as an exhibit in the university’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

But following an internal investigation by committee from 2013-2014, GWU found that Kumar “committed research misconduct with respect to ten” of fourteen allegations brought forward by the university’s Research Integrity Officer. Kumar subsequently sued the university.

On April 2nd, GWU filed a motion to dismiss the suit, stating that Kumar “does not set forth facts sufficient to state a claim,” according to the motion for dismissal, which you can read in its entirety here.

Retraction Watch makes an appearance in the motion to dismiss: In the original lawsuit, Kumar alleges

an anonymous source privy to confidential information about the GWU inquiry released the confidential information to the online blog

In the motion to dismiss, GWU claims Kumar “offers no factual basis” that the information posted on Retraction Watch came from the university, pointing out that the anonymous source posted the same information on in December 2012, before the GWU inquiry began.

On Monday, May 11th, Kumar’s lawyers filed a brief in opposition of the dismissal along with an amended complaint. In the brief, they state that the motion for dismissal is flawed because GWU failed to show that Kumar’s allegations against the university—which include that he was removed as department chair in breach of contract—are not “adequately plead.”

The brief goes onto assert that Kumar does have sufficient claim to breach of contract, in part because GWU failed to

perform a timely annual evaluation of Dr. Kumar’s performance in 2013 and 2014 as promised.

And although both sides appear to agree that Kumar’s service as department chair was “at the pleasure of” the university, the motion states that

Dr. Kumar is protected by the University Faculty Code, which protects him against arbitrary and capricious university decisions without a formal annual evaluation.

Kumar’s brief also gives us a unique window into the internal investigation at GWU. Kumar’s brief alleges that the investigation was “improper” and “unfair”:

As part of its investigation, the Investigation Committee interviewed: 14 current and former members of Dr. Kumar’s laboratory; Dr. Kumar; three members of Dr. Kumar’s office staff; and five additional witnesses.

On April 23, 2014, GW provided Dr. Kumar with 31 interview transcripts. A review of the transcripts makes clear that many of the interviews with additional witnesses and office staff focused on Dr. Kumar’s Chairmanship and character, inquiring, for example, whether the witness thought Dr. Kumar should be Chair, whether the witness knew the term of Dr. Kumar’s appointment, what discussions the witness had had with the dean’s office, and whether the witness knew Dr. Kumar’s wife’s name. The questions asked had little, if anything, to do with the misconduct allegations.

The members of the Investigation Committee engaged in improper and unfair leading questioning that was designed to elicit the response that the questioner desired instead of a search for the truth.

…Ignoring extensive witness testimony that Dr. Kumar was not responsible for the research and figures in question and that there was nothing wrong or disconcerting about the working environment in the laboratory, the Investigation Committee concluded that Dr. Kumar committed misconduct in ten of the allegations.

The brief is surprisingly engaging reading; you can read the whole thing here.

Our numerous requests for a comment from Kumar have not been answered, and his lawyers declined to comment on pending litigation. We’ll update if we learn anything more.

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14 thoughts on “Third retraction for GWU biologist as university seeks to dismiss his $8 million lawsuit”

  1. On April 23, 2014, the Investigation Committee issued the Committee’s Draft
    Investigation Report. Ignoring extensive witness testimony that Dr. Kumar was not
    responsible for the research and figures in question and that there was nothing wrong or
    disconcerting about the working environment in the laboratory, the Investigation
    Committee concluded that Dr. Kumar committed misconduct in ten of the allegations.

    Sounds to me that the issue is that GW didn’t buy the “plausible deniability” defense in which Dr Kumar claimed that even though he is corresponding author of the publications he was not responsible for either the research or the figures that were questioned (and in some cases have led to retracted publications).

    Its very interesting to contrast this with other cases in which a lab minion is conveniently scapegoated and the PI becomes a victim.

    I assume the “supervision of junior scientists” and “stressful laboratory environment” references hint at why GW think Dr Kumar was responsible.

    If GW file another brief I expect we will find out more about these issues.

  2. RW: “By our count, Kumar now has three retractions and five corrections.”

    Does your count include the recent correction as of May 6th?

    Issues with some figures were posted on PubPeer in December 2013

    So there has been plenty of time to review the original data and/or repeat the experiments. Curiously, though, the correction is not entirely consistent with what Peer 1 had reported on PubPeer. The three “swimming hippos” in Fig. 1E have not been corrected while some (unreported on PubPeer) cross-paper duplication has. How very confusing!

  3. Scotus: “Its very interesting to contrast this with other cases in which a lab minion is conveniently scapegoated and the PI becomes a victim.”
    Are there any other co-authors involved in all of the confabulated papers to whom blame could plausibly be shifted?

    1. I’m afraid not. The publications in question appeared over a period of ~10 years and came from both MD Anderson and George Washington University. Click on the pubpeer link in the article above for more details.

    2. Several of the papers questioned originally were co-authored with Ratna Vadlamudi of MD Anderson. Although the original threat to sue me came from Dr. Kumar, the letter named both scientists as plaintiffs.

      The overall paper count is as follows (PMIDs)…
      3 Retracted: 22203674, 15226262, 17505058

      7 Corrected: 22184113, 11208715, 12611881, 15193260, 15983119, 15831477, 16617102

      10 No Action: 22700976, 20519513, 11146623, 12167865, 12198493, 12151336, 12912973, 15173068, 17671180, 17671172

        1. Agree that the possible duplication of parts of the figure is concerning.

          Since so much of this alleged Kumar misconduct happened at MD Anderson shouldn’t that institution also be conducting an investigation? As far as I can determine, the GW investigation also concerns papers that were published before Kumar moved to their institution.

          1. Scotus: “Since so much of this alleged Kumar misconduct happened at MD Anderson shouldn’t that institution also be conducting an investigation?”

            The short answer is that, despite plentiful opportunities, e.g. as presented in early 2012 by 11jigen, for example


            we have not heard much about relevant investigations at MD Anderson.

            For the longer answer, let’s begin at the beginning of the internet reporting as I know it. According to my records, the Abnormal Science web site – dealing with the then recently ex-MD Anderson Gautam Sethi – showed this image in late 2011.


            Soon after, in an early 2012 Abnormal Science posting titled “Like Father Like Son”, several images were posted such as this one


            referring to this paper

            Bhardwaj A, Sethi G, Vadhan-Raj S, Bueso-Ramos C, Takada Y, Gaur U, Nair AS, Shishodia S, Aggarwal BB. Resveratrol inhibits proliferation, induces apoptosis, and overcomes chemoresistance through down-regulation of STAT3 and nuclear factor-kappaB-regulated antiapoptotic and cell survival gene products in human multiple myeloma cells.
            Blood. 2007 Mar 15;109(6):2293-302.

            Resveratrol —

            Observe also that 11jigen’s web site listing dozens of potential image problems has been up since early 2012.

            The internet never forgets. More than three years have elapsed since these allegations. That is plenty of time. So, if the MD Anderson had properly investigated the work of Aggarwal, Sethi, Kumar or Badlamudi, you would be able to find the case reports if they were out there. Dear Scotus, at times one needs the patience of Methuselah, but do let us know if you come across anything relevant at any point in the future.

          2. As far as I can determine there is only one published “finding of research misconduct” from MD Anderson.

            Does anyone know how the rate of research misconduct relates mathematically to the size of the research enterprise at a particular institution?

            Mind you, Baggerly and Coombes who outed the Potti misconduct discussed elsewhere on RW are at MD Anderson so while the institution may be dragging its feet on some investigations at least two of its faculty are committed to doing the right thing.

  4. The Dean’s appointment letter makes for very interesting reading. It clearly spells out what was expected of Dr Kumar, namely to incessantly churn out research results and rake in grant funding in return. According to publicly available databases Dr Kumar diligently fulfilled these contractual obligations to GWU. The appointment letter is further interesting as it goes into exquisite detail in some areas while completely ignoring others. For example, it is stipulated that Dr Kumar’s moving expenses claims need to be substantiated by no less than three estimates from moving companies, yet the same letter remains tellingly silent when it comes to substantiating any of Dr Kumar’s research related claims. What counts here is “productivity” no matter what. Call it ignorance or negligence, I believe this omission will weigh in against GWU in this lawsuit, and rightly so.

  5. So in other words, “Breach of contract,” you suggest that GW created a “stressful” work environment for Dr Kumar who then passed this onto the people working in his lab and that somehow justifies the alleged misconduct because everyone was under so much pressure to be “productive”. In order for Kumar to use that defense he would have to admit to responsibility for the alleged misconduct. But he does not appear to be pursuing that line of argument. In fact, the statements in the brief indicate that if there was misconduct Dr Kumar thinks he was not responsible for it because he didn’t do the experiments or prepare the figures himself (while conveniently not acknowledging that he was the PI of the grants, director of the laboratory and corresponding author of the papers).

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