Stefan Franzen doesn’t give up. Ten years ago, he began to suspect the data behind his colleagues’ research about using RNA to make palladium nanoparticles, a potentially valuable tool that ended up as a Science paper. Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to cut off funding for Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldheim — currently at the University of Colorado at Boulder — and last week, Science retracted the paper. We talked to Franzen, based at North Carolina State University (NCSU), about his decade-long efforts, and how it feels to be finally vindicated.
Retraction Watch: How did you first begin to suspect the findings by Eaton and Feldheim?
Stefan Franzen: Starting in early 2005, I was collaborating with Drs. Eaton and Feldheim at NCSU, thanks to two joint grants from the W.M. Keck Foundation and NSF. During a group meeting in December of 2005, a graduate student showed electron microscopy data that were inconsistent with the assignment of the particles as palladium. Over time, we kept producing more data that called their findings into question; in April 2006, a postdoc showed that the hexagonal particles could be obtained without RNA. By then, I could see that there was a significant discrepancy between what was written in the articles and what was done and observed in the laboratory.
RW: How did you report your concerns?
SF: At first, I told Dr. Feldheim privately. Then in June, 2006 I wrote a formal letter to my colleagues in which I showed them the extensive evidence that the reported result in Science was completely wrong. I also asked the graduate student and first author on the Science paper, Lina Gugliotti, to change the title of her PhD dissertation to exclude the words “metal-metal bonding,” among other changes.
RW: Did your speaking out cause any personal issues with you with other colleagues?
SF: The department became divided. Rumors were circulated. Because of the rumors some people believed that I was acting in bad faith. Emails were sent accusing me of acting out of petty motives. As time progressed there was a great deal of tension within the research groups that ultimately led to the exclusion of me and all of my students from the former Eaton laboratory in the main Chemistry building.
RW: What reactions and responses did you get from officials about your concerns with the research?
SF: In October, 2006 I met with my Department Chair, Research Dean and Dr. Feldheim. In that meeting I presented the Chair, Dean and Feldheim with a short Technical Comment written for publication in Science. It briefly stated what we knew to be true (that the hexagons were not composed of palladium and that RNA was not essential for the synthesis of the hexagons). I did not ask for a retraction. I explained that by jointly submitting this correction I would feel that we could all move on and leave this matter. I had spent about a year of my time at 20% effort on the project and a student and postdoc had spent a year at 100% effort.
However, Dr. Feldheim alleged that I had used the samples (of hexagonal particles) without permission and that they belonged to a company that had employed Dr. Eaton and supported Eaton and Feldheim’s research (but never supported me or my research). He went on to claim that if we published any of our findings that the company would sue NC State for patent infringement. My Research Dean promptly forbid me from submitting any publications. I had to spend two months making the case to legal counsel and the research integrity officer to establish that I had the right to publish. (The letter eventually appeared in JACS.) It was during that time that I was asked to write what I had seen in the laboratory, which ultimately led to allegations of research misconduct.
RW: Eaton and Feldheim said they felt bullied by you during this process. How do you respond?
SF: Who bullied whom? My reputation was destroyed within the institution. I have been investigated by the NSF for grant fraud based on a trumped up charge over a memo that contained a clerical error. The charges were dismissed the same day federal agents came to NCSU to investigate, but I still had to endure the interrogation by two persistent agents who were trying to get a confession. I was investigated in secret at NCSU for supposedly taping meetings without permission; I did not do this, but I could not defend myself since the allegation was kept secret. Five years ago, a senior colleague in my department told me that it was common knowledge that NCSU administrators had spent so much time discussing the allegations against me that they estimated it had cost the university over $1,000,000. Because of this expense, my colleague’s exact words to me were: “Your net contribution to this university is zero.”
RW: The debate over these findings has lasted for 10 years. Why didn’t you just shrug and move on, knowing you’d said your piece? (In other words, why didn’t you give up?)
SF: At every step I faced (false) allegations of wrongdoing or vindictive behavior. Ironically, much of the trouble I faced resulting from publishing papers. Journal editors constantly challenged me to prove that I did not steal samples or violate intellectual property. When people tell me that falsification should be sorted out in the journals and question whether “blowing the whistle” is a proper thing to do as a scientist, I wonder if they could imagine receiving legal threats and allegations of misconduct simply for publishing to correct the record!
From 2006 to the present, I have had to both defend myself against false allegations and try to show by scientific experiments that what I had said was correct. In such a situation, when do you give up and walk away? At what point do you accept that people think of you as petty vindictive person? I could not accept that the misrepresentations had triumphed over the truth. So I spent about 15% of my time and effort writing papers and a book about my experience (to be titled “The Science Bubble”), as well as letters to those who had oversight responsibilities in Washington, D.C., to members of Congress, and watchdog groups. Then I finally accepted that this was all part of a learning experience and I came to see it as an interesting (if somewhat depressing) aspect of science that needs to be better understood.
RW: Since you’ve gone through the whistleblower process, how do you think it should be improved?
SF: The current regulation stipulates that universities are responsible for policing their own faculty. This is a flawed policy. For an administration to find that one of its own faculty has committed an ethics violation would open up the university to the possibility of major financial losses. Students and postdocs have never been treated fairly in such matters and they also are most often the scapegoats when falsified figures or statements are detected in articles. This is a deplorable situation and it should trouble any scientist who is concerned about where we are headed as a community.
Science needs an independent scientific body that is capable of judging when scientists have gone too far. Lawyers do not belong in a scientific misconduct discussion. It should be about the science. We need to institute a policy that put scientists in charge of adjudicating the scientific issues in potentially falsified or fabricated publications.
Clearly, we need a new body that has funding (say from a 1% tax on all grant revenue) and can support faculty to rotate in and be compensated for their time. It is absurd for universities to ask faculty members to volunteer to serve on such investigations. This is a major commitment of time that would be a big distraction for anyone if they were to do a proper job.
RW: Nearly 10 years after you voiced your concerns about the findings, authorities have finally taken action — the NSF has barred the researchers, and Science said it would retract the paper. How did that feel when you learned the news?
SF: It took much too long for this to happen. This is a just outcome, but nine years is an unacceptable time frame. However, there is an injustice in this conclusion. The graduate student Lina Gugliotti was treated unfairly by this process. I told my university that she was a witness, not a respondent. She was not responsible for the submission to Science or how the results were misrepresented. Her laboratory notebook shows that she was a careful researcher who did what she thought she was supposed to do.
RW: Do you have any advice for people who suspect similar issues are occurring in their colleagues’ research?
SF: My experience may not be typical, but sadly I know too many whistleblowers who have paid a high price for coming forward. Most scientists simply do not want to believe that it is possible that a fellow scientists would do something that violates our profession in that way. A would-be whistleblower needs to be prepared for denial not only on the part of people who are engaged in fraud, but also of everyone around them. Proceed very slowly and document everything. The best thing to do is to make a scientific demonstration before saying anything to anyone about your suspicion. Until we have a better system in place, it will be very difficult and dangerous to expose academic fraud.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our new daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy.