In a rare development, neuroscientist Milena Penkowa has been sentenced by a Danish court for faking data.
The ruling, from the Copenhagen City Court, resulted from Penkowa’s publication of her 2003 thesis describing experiments that she never carried out. The court “placed weight” on the fact that she didn’t just commit fraud, but “systematically supplied false information” to avoid being caught, according to the court’s notice.
The sentence is nine months of “conditional imprisonment,” according to our translation; The University Post, a newspaper affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, calls it a “nine month suspended sentence with a two years probation.”
Here’s the full summary of the new ruling, from the Copenhagen City Court (translated from Danish by One Hour Translation):
The charges in brief
The accused has been charged with having used fake documents to hide malpractice committed in the gathering of research results, which led to a doctorate and professor post at the University of Copenhagen.
The accused has pled not guilty.*
The court’s findings
In its decision, the court placed weight on the fact that the accused herself produced four documents in order to cover the fact that animal experiments, which formed the basis of a table on one article, which the accused had submitted with her first thesis and which was published in a recognized periodical, had not in fact ever taken place.
The court found the fraud to be of a particularly gross and aggravated nature because the accused had systematically supplied false information to the research community, and that, as she was about to be exposed, produced more forged documents in order to avoid being brought before the UVVU (Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty) and in order to be given the opportunity to resubmit her thesis, which succeeded in that she later had her thesis approved, became a professor and continued to carry out her research.
The sentence was set at 9 months’ conditional imprisonment, as a supplementary provision pursuant to § 172, section. 2, cf. § 171, cf. § 89 of the Danish Criminal Code. In its sentencing, the court placed weight on the aggravated nature of the misconduct, in that the accused had forged multiple documents as well as that the accused also had a previous criminal record for crimes of a similar nature.
The punishment was made conditional in recognition of the fact that the misconduct was committed back in autumn 2003.
The sentence is just the latest consequence for Penkowa: In addition to losing her professorship, she has six retractions (out of dozens of papers). She and her co-author Bente Klarlund Pedersen have earned an official stamp of scientific dishonesty from the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD, or UVVU in Danish). Klarlund Pedersen had some of those findings reversed by the UVVU, and cleared of them by a Danish court earlier this year. In 2010, Penkowa received a three month suspended sentence for embezzlement, according to the University Post.
We spoke to the Director of Communications at the University of Copenhagen, Jasper Steen Winkel.
Here’s the University’s statement — it’s in Danish, but Winkel summarized for it:
We are very happy with the verdict. It’s a very clear court ruling, giving her a maximum sentence of nine months in prison. But she’s not going to prison — it’s giving her nine months in principle, but only if she commits another crime. It not honorary — its dis-honorary.
The thesis with the faked data was published — and to his knowledge, remains so:
It was not retracted yet. I know that some of the coauthors have contacted them.
We are trying to track down her thesis.
This is part of the end game around Penkowa. We’ve had an international panel with scientists from all over the world. We’ve very carefully gone through all of her publications.
That panel found a total of 15 of her publications to be suspect. We’ve asked for more information about this, as well.
Penkowa posted a note on her Facebook page with her thoughts on the ruling; the University Post also reported a translated version:
It did not go my way in court. Considering that since it all started with a long charge and a threat of jail, it is a victory for me to confirm that the charge was partially withdrawn, and that I am not to be sent to prison.
Apart from this, I am, as you know, a scientist above all, and the most important thing for me, is that I this year was found completely innocent by the professional expert committee UVVU [DCSD]. Everything else was just legalities in the city court.
It’s not clear what “found completely innocent” refers to.
Criminal charges for scientific fraudsters are rare, but not totally unheard of. This summer, an AIDS vaccine researcher who spiked rabbit blood samples with human proteins to make his experimental results look better was sentenced to nearly five years of jail time, and a $7 million fine, for his trouble. In 2006, obesity and aging researcher Eric Poehlman went to prison after falsifying a grant application; in 2010, anesthesiologist Scott Reuben served six months for faking data. Two years ago, a UK scientist was sentenced to three months in jail for cooking his experiments.
We’ve reached out to Penkowa on Facebook, and emailed Bjørnholm. We will update this post if we hear back.
*Update 10/1/2015 at 2:37 pm: Our translation from One Hour Translation included the sentence that the accused had pled guilty to the charges. However, after a review by a Danish reporter, we have corrected the translation to note that she pled not guilty.
Hat tip: Commenter Marco
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