“[W]e can learn from these bad actors:” Trail of retractions follows former Vanderbilt researcher’s fraud

JPhysiol_ak15Authors have retracted three papers from the Journal of Physiology because they contained “falsified or fabricated data.”

The papers, which address calcium signaling in heart muscle cells, are among the six pegged for retraction after an Office of Research Integrity (ORI) investigation into one of the authors, Igor Dzhura, formerly of Vanderbilt University. The ORI found that Dzhura had committed an enormous amount of fraud, involving dozens of faked images and more.

Dzhura was fired from a job at Novartis in November after the company discovered that his application had included the fraudulent work.

The three retracted Journal of Physiology papers and their citation figures, courtesy of Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, are:

All three notices contain the same sentence, referencing the ORI report about Dzhura:

The retraction has been agreed because the article has been found to include falsified or fabricated data – see https://ori.hhs.gov/content/case-summary-dzhura-igor

All of the authors of each paper except Dzhura agreed to the retractions.

Two other papers on the list have also been retracted; the journal publishing the sixth paper issued an expression of concern but decided to let the publication stand.

The corresponding author and principal investigator of all the papers, Mark Anderson, was the principal investigator in the Vanderbilt lab where Dzhura was doing a postdoc. Anderson has since moved on to Johns Hopkins, where he is the director of the department of medicine.  He is a highly cited researcher in the field of cardiovascular disease; 66 of his publications have been cited at least 100 times.

Anderson told us via the Hopkins media office that his experience with Dzhura motivated some changes in data storage practices in his lab:

Integrity is essential to all aspects of our professional and personal lives. A member of our Vanderbilt research team violated scientific norms and challenged the fundamental trust involved in publicly funded research, where taxpayers invest in scientific programs, in part, based on the potential of these studies to improve human lives by reducing suffering and healing disease.

Since these manuscripts were published, most of the core findings of these papers have been replicated or supported by subsequent findings.

Unfortunately, despite best efforts to maintain the highest standards of data integrity, I do not believe it is possible to stop an individual bent on deception. But we can learn from these bad actors.

This experience motivated our laboratory to develop an improved method of data curation and storage so that experimental data could be retrieved and analyzed with greater ease. Creating durable, accessible and comprehensive data storage policies is increasingly important in this era of team science. I look forward to continuing this important work with my new colleagues at Johns Hopkins.

We also reached out to the editor of the Journal of Physiology  and will update if we hear back.

Hat tip: Commenter “chris”

9 thoughts on ““[W]e can learn from these bad actors:” Trail of retractions follows former Vanderbilt researcher’s fraud”

  1. Since these manuscripts were published, most of the core findings of these papers have been replicated or supported by subsequent findings.

    Is it “replication” if the original report was based on lucky guessing and made-up data?

    1. Yes that is a good point – another question is: if the previous (faked) findings had been replicated later – why did the original scientist not get these results or thought he had to fake them? I can’t believe laziness would be the driver…..

  2. Please note that many Dutch universities endorse “The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Academic Practice” of VSNU (Association of Dutch universities), see http://www.vsnu.nl/wetenschappelijke_integriteit.html
    .
    “3. Verifiability. Presented information is verifiable. (..) 3.3. Raw research data are stored for at least ten years. These data are made available to other academic practitioners upon request (..)”
    .
    For example PhD candidates at the University of Groningen can only get their degree when they declare in public, during the promotion, that they will always work according to this Code. Erasmus University Rotterdam even offers a online course on data management, see http://www.eur.nl/researchmatters/research_data/data_management/
    .
    See http://www.dfg.de/en/research_funding/principles_dfg_funding/good_scientific_practice/index.html for rules and regulations in Germany.
    .
    “Recommendation 7: Safeguarding and Storing of Primary Data. Primary data as the basis for publications shall be securely stored for ten years in a durable form in the institution of their origin.” (page 74).
    .
    Please note that psychologist Jens Förster got huge problems because all raw research data, huge piles of paper questionnaires as well as primary data directly entered into a computer, were unavailable.

  3. There is at least one paper from the Anderson lab that does not involve Dzhura that has been challenged on purely scientific grounds as being not reproducible:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7519/full/nature13626.html

    Whats interesting to me is that whoever investigated the Anderson lab case at Vanderbilt concluded that a single individual was responsible for everything so Anderson emerges unscathed.

    On the other hand, in the Anversa case which has also been discussed extensively here its clear from the lawsuit disclosures that Dr Anversa would like to similarly place all of the blame on one bad actor. However, it appears as though Harvard are not buying that possibly because of the same kinds of “stressful work environment” issues that are now emerging in the Kumar case, also discussed elsewhere on RW.

  4. Another example of how inattentive and/or cynical PIs are allowed to reap the rewards of fraud while remaining insulating from any fallout. Dr. Anderson’s current, prestigious position is likely (in part) the result of Dzhura’s deception yet there seems to be little doubt cast upon his own credibility as a scientist. Science is unduly tolerant of ineptitude.

  5. Yes, the Osler chair of medicine at JHU is certainly very prestigious. I can’t imagine that this unfortunate episode will have escaped the attention of other ambitious individuals in the highly competitive world of academic medicine (for example other people who were also candidates for the position).

  6. This experience motivated our laboratory to develop an improved method of data curation and storage so that experimental data could be retrieved and analyzed with greater ease. Creating durable, accessible and comprehensive data storage policies is increasingly important in this era of team science.

    It would be nice if the “improved method of data curation and storage” also made it harder to fake data, but this does not seem to be one of the lessons “learned from the bad actor”.

  7. Digital lab notebooks (ELNs) might be an option. This cannot prevent intentional fraud but they ensure that all versions of files are stored permanently and most importantly they facilitate oversight & greater transparency (thus accountability?)… a likely reason why institutions such as Cornell, Caltech, Yale, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Univ of Sydney, etc. now have enterprise-wide licenses for labs looking to transition from traditional paper lab notebooks.

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