Sparks fly in Finland over misconduct investigation

JEMResearchers in Finland are criticizing an investigation by VTT Technical Research Centre into one of its scientists.

The investigation followed allegations about the VTT’s plasma and serum metabolomics (QBIX) group, previously led by Matej Orešič (who is now based at the Steno Diabetes Center in Gentofte, Denmark) and Tuulia Hyötyläinen. Kai Simons, who conducted an earlier investigation of the group, and the Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Helsinki, have criticized VTT, saying it cut corners in its investigation.

VTT found no evidence of data tampering or falsification in a 2008 paper co-authored by Orešič in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, but said the paper — which has not been corrected or retracted — included some “exaggerated conclusions.” In turn, Orešič and Hyötyläinen filed a complaint for “an alleged violation of good scientific practice” by Simons during the initial investigation.

The investigations concluded more than one year ago, but have just been brought to light in a recent news story by Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish).

There’s a long backstory here. On 11th November 2013, an evaluation committee — on behalf of the Finnish Institute of Molecular Medicine or FIMM (part of the University of Helsinki) — expressed concerns about the quality of research in the VTT’s plasma and serum metabolomics (QBIX) group, which was then led by Orešič and Hyötyläinen.

Helsinki was evaluating the QBIX group after the VTT proposed moving it to FIMM. According to Kai Simons, chair of FIMM’s international scientific advisory panel, there were questions about whether there was some internal discord within the team — for instance, the team’s bioinformaticians said they were not aware of how raw data turned into the group’s research papers. He interviewed several QBIX scientists, and found the general consensus to be that there were some difficulties within the group. The university’s board, therefore, decided that QBIX’s research quality was not of a high enough standard, and declined their move to FIMM at the University of Helsinki, said Simons.

Following this, the VTT carried out its own investigation. It focussed its attention on one paper, “Dysregulation of lipid and amino acid metabolism precedes islet autoimmunity in children who later progress to type 1 diabetes,” which was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) in 2008. Orešič is the first author of the paper; Hyötyläinen is not among the co-authors.

VTT’s report declared that there was no evidence of data tampering or falsification in the paper by Orešič and colleagues, but said it contained “exaggerated conclusions” concerning the metabolomics section of the paper.

We’ve obtained the statement released by the VTT on 7th May 2014 outlining their investigation (see it here).

Simons, emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, criticizes the VTT’s decision to have only two external advisors in their evaluation committee and not interview members of QBIX, as was done in the initial evaluation.

Orešič told us that he was not kept in the loop with the VTT investigation, and still doesn’t know which aspects of the paper were called into question:

When this paper was investigated, I [was] not presented with any claims. I have not even been officially informed that the paper was investigated. I have not been told which data was examined and why. Furthermore, I have not been interviewed by the external examiners.

He added, however, that JEM had in fact been informed about the situation at the time:

VTT informed the JEM journal about the conclusions of the investigation on May 8th, 2014… The VTT report was not considered as a reason for retraction, and I do not believe there is any more reason today.

(Just before we posted this story, the VTT released a more detailed report into its investigation of the JEM paper, and we’ve asked Orešič for comment.)

Kari Raivio, Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Helsinki, also criticized the VTT investigation:

They did not follow their guidelines for ethical investigations that the VTT itself had approved when these were presented by the National Board of Research Ethics.

Raivio explained to us that the VTT should have set up a “real” panel of experts, and stressed the need for more outsiders. He also recommended that there should be some legal expertise within such a panel and asserted that all parties involved — including Orešič — should have been informed of the centre’s procedures.

Raivio added:

They tried to play down the importance of the whole matter and put it under the carpet… there has to be transparency in these kinds of procedures otherwise science will lose its credibility.

Orešič, in turn, argued that the VTT investigation shouldn’t have happened at all:

The Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK) issued a statement on October 7th, 2014, stating that the investigation of this paper should not have been initiated as the preliminary investigation found on evidence of scientific misconduct, and no grounds for the investigation of JEM paper were presented.

Susan King, executive director of Rockefeller University Press in New York, which publishes JEM, told us:

JEM will investigate further and will take any necessary steps to correct the published literature, as needed.

Orešič and Hyötyläinen have fired back, filing a complaint for “an alleged violation of good scientific practice” by Simons during the original evaluation process to the Chancellor of the University of Helsinki.

Their main allegations are summarised as the following, included in a 2015 report from the University of Helsinki:

1) Prof. Orešič and Dr. Hyötyläinen claim that Prof. Simons has not been an impartial evaluator during the evaluation process.

2) Prof. Orešič and Dr. Hyötyläinen claim that the ethical guidelines have not been followed during the evaluation process.

3) Prof. Orešič and Dr. Hyötyläinen claim that the attitude of Prof. Simons toward the group has negatively affected the opinions of the other evaluators and thus jeopardized the objectivity of the evaluation process.

The report presents more details as to the researchers’ claims:

The first claim relates to a discussion at FIMM cafeteria in Spring 2013. Prof. Orešič and Dr. Hyötyläinen claim that Prof. Simons publicly made hostile statements on Prof. Orešič in a discussion between Prof. Simons and Professor Elina Ikonen and docent Vesa Olkkonen. The second claim made by Prof. Orešič and Dr. Hyötyläinen is based on several claims that express Orešič’s and Hyötyläinen’s dissatisfaction with the evaluation. The third claim is based on the assumption that Prof. Simons has negatively affected the opinions of the other evaluators and thus jeopardized the objectivity of the evaluation process.

Raivio was instructed to carry out the investigation, and concluded that there is no evidence of partiality on the part of Simons.

We’ve reached out to the VTT and will update the article with a response if we hear back.

Update 2/11/16 9:25 a.m. eastern: We’ve heard back from Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, executive vice president at VTT, who said VTT is going to reopen its investigation:

According to the current knowledge VTT is not suggesting the retraction. However, due to the article published in HS (Helsingin Sanomat) 7.2.2016 the investigation will be reopened and an independent analysis and review conducted again by an external investigators (to be nominated).

Hat tip: Tuomas Aivelo

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One thought on “Sparks fly in Finland over misconduct investigation”

  1. A recent investigative piece told mainly from Orešic’s side paints a very different picture (in Finnish):

    The Council for Mass Media recently issued a report in which they found fault with the newspaper that broke the story for conflating possible flaws in Orešic’s research with outright fraud, despite the fact that no evidence of fraud was found in the official investigation (in Finnish):

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