A bullshit excuse? My lab notebook “was blown into a manure pit”

CleanA researcher who studies how to turn dairy cattle manure into natural gas falsified and fabricated data in a journal article and failed to declare a commercial conflict of interest, a Washington State University investigation has found.

The study “Evaluation of Co-Digestion at a Commercial Dairy Anaerobic Digester” was published in 2011 in the journal CLEAN: Soil, Air, Water. First author Craig Frear was a Ph.D. student at WSU Pullman when the study was carried out and an assistant professor at the time of the investigation. The editor-in-chief of CLEAN, Prisca Henheik, told us that the retraction is a done deal even though it has not been posted online:

The paper will be retracted. I already informed WSU that I was contacted by our Legal Group today and the outcome is that there is no argu[ing] against the retraction of the paper by Dr. Frear.

Frear did not respond to an email and phone message at the anaerobic digester company, Regenis, where he now serves as the Director of Research and Technology.

The story begins in 2006 when Frear and his colleagues were studying an important question in the dairy world: What’s the most economical and environmental way to deal with all the manure produced by the 9 million dairy cows in the U.S.? The country is home to approximately 200 anaerobic digesters, equipment that uses bacteria to turn waste into methane for electricity generation. Frear’s paper investigated “co-digestion,” that is the dumping other types of waste, such as restaurant waste, into the digester at the Vander Haak Dairy in Lynden, Washington. That digester was manufactured by the market leader, DVO (formerly GHD). Frear’s paper concludes on an upbeat note:

Compared to the manure-only baseline, co-digestion resulted in a 110% increase in biogas production and a tripling of gross receipts with 2/3 of all the co-digestion receipts being directly due to the substrate supplementation. . . With such a positive outcome in performance and economics, the US dairy AD [anaerobic digester] industry will undoubtedly experience a continuing trend toward co-digestion and accordingly on-farm entry of industrial or municipal solid waste.

In other words: Bring your waste to dairy farms, where it can be turned into biogas.

About a year after the paper was published, one of Frear’s former lab mates, Simon Smith, was hired by the Washington State Department of Ecology to evaluate the quality of gas produced by digesters. He created a chemical model of gas production and asked Frear if he could use his digester data to test it. Smith told Retraction Watch:

When I looked through it, I realized there were some things that didn’t make sense. . . The digester seemed to be producing more minerals than were actually being put in. That’s an automatic red flag.

When Smith compared spreadsheets Frear had given him with data recorded on lab computers, he realized that the data had been tweaked by adding 10, 20, or 30 gram increments. The modifications, Smith said, made the digester appear that it was producing more methane than it actually was and that it was not accumulating grit and gunk at the bottom. According to Smith, that accumulation is a problem when DVO digesters are used outside of certain limits because they do not have a door that allows the crud to be cleaned out of the bottom. “Whether it fails in 5 years time or 10 years time, it’s going to fail,” he said. In the published paper, Frear downplayed this concern.

In July 2013, Smith alerted WSU to his concerns, triggering the investigation. Frear explained his unorthodox data management procedures. He told the committee that he had conducted a reanalysis of the samples after noticing that the “values were too low.” He couldn’t produce those data because, as the report puts it:

Dr. Frear stated that the data from re-testing has been lost. This includes his laboratory notebook which was blown into a manure pit at WSU’s Knott Dairy Farm during a windstorm in March 2008, the photocopied pages of the laboratory notebook which were lost at his sister’s house in Lewiston, Idaho, in February 2008, and the data file on his office computer. He stated that the data file on his computer was overwritten in subsequent analysis and data manipulations to such an extent that he lost track of the original data. But Dr. Frear did retain summary results which included means and standard deviations.

Subsequently, Frear said that using the original data as a starting point, he “recreated” the reanalysis data by “adding mostly integer multiples of 10 to recreate a data set with the same means and standard deviations that he had determined from his reanalysis.”

In addition to concluding that Frear had “knowingly and intentionally falsified experimental data,” the investigating committee reported that he failed to declare a conflict of interest in a paper. Frear had several patents, which could potentially be licensed by DVO, and he had signed a collaboration agreement with DVO and Andgar, the company that maintains the digester at the Vander Haak Dairy.

Frear is no longer listed as a faculty member at WSU. In September, he was hired by Regenis (an Andgar subsidiary) and sits on the board of directors of the American Biogas Council.

We hired Craig because good stewardship demands we not sit on our laurels as the largest builder of anaerobic digesters in the western United States,” Regenis vice president Bryan Van Loo told Geekwire. “We know there are more advancements to be made in creating a closed loop value chain of products from waste while cleaning our air from harmful pollutants and protecting our watersheds at a time when every last drop counts more than ever.

Van Loo, who was interviewed by the investigating committee, has also said that “there was no evidence of settling of solids in any of the digesters, except for one that was not properly operated and maintained.” DVO CEO Stephen Dvorak did not respond to a request for comment about the issue.

A spokesperson for WSU confirmed Frear had resigned:

Following a university investigation into allegation of research misconduct, the University determined that Dr. Craig Frear had violated the University’s policy against research misconduct. Subsequently the University requested retraction of the associated Journal article.

Dr. Frear has resigned from WSU. WSU cannot comment further on this personnel matter.

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9 thoughts on “A bullshit excuse? My lab notebook “was blown into a manure pit””

  1. I find this an intriguing post- especially as it concerns the conflict of interest. While it seems painfully obvious data were intentionally fudged, I wonder what if any culpability the university has regarding the conflict of interest. That is, it would seem reasonable that any number of colleagues would have been aware of the industry connection. I mention this because when the baby is thrown out with the bath water, often there exists some degree of hand wringing on the sidelines.

  2. Any decent PI would have dove into the pit to save his work. 🙂

    Don’t worry, both people and paper are biodegradable (mostly) and could become biogas too.

  3. oldnuke
    Any decent PI would have dove into the pit to save his work.
    Don’t worry, both people and paper are biodegradable (mostly) and could become biogas too.

    Well said. It was shit data anyway.

  4. Having grown up in America’s Dairyland, I can attest to the fact that manure pits are indeed deep & wide. You’d need a good pair of rubber boots to wade through one of those. But you’d have to have a wet suit to get through this guy’s line of reasoning.

  5. When I was in high school, I was doing a project on tertiary treatment of wastewater. I was taking a sample from the primary settling tank of a nearby sewage treatment plant one wintry day and fell into the tank.

    Fortunately my lab notebook was on the bench at school, where it belonged. I was thankful that it wasn’t the sludge digester that I fell into! 🙂

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