Einstein grad student admits cooking data, settles with Office of Research Integrity

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 1.05.49 PMOne Friday in January, graduate student Meredyth Forbes was reviewing material for her dissertation with her mentor when she decided to make a confession.

She “burst out with a statement that some of the data was fabricated,” said Edward Burns, research integrity officer at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Forbes worked. It was, Burns told Retraction Watch:

a spontaneous, unsolicited, admission to fabrication.

Forbes left her post at Einstein shortly thereafter. Cooking primary data for her research on cells in zebrafish cost her and principal investigator Florence Marlow one paper — the retraction notice was published yesterday — and earned them an expression of concern in another. A correction is forthcoming on a third paper, according to Burns.

Because the U.S. National Institutes of Health supported the work, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) was alerted to the fabrication, Burns said:

ORI has reached out to the former graduate student, and they have agreed on a way forward….ORI wanted Ms. Forbes to sign an agreement related to future research, and Ms. Forbes signed the agreement.

Marlow told us:

We have been working hard to repeat the experiments in question. We have been in communication with our Research Integrity Office, all coauthors, and the Editors of Development and Cell Reports, and working with them to find the most appropriate resolution and to ensure that the integrity of the literature is maintained.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Maternal dazap2 Regulates Germ Granules by Counteracting Dynein in Zebrafish Primordial Germ Cells” published in Cell Reports:

The first author, a graduate student, has admitted orally and in writing to fabrication of data that she contributed to this article in which we reported a maternal requirement for the scaffold protein Dazap2 (Mdazap2) in germ granule maintenance by a mechanism that is epistatic to Tdrd7 and that counteracts Dynein activity. Furthermore, we reported that Dazap2 binds to Bucky ball, an essential regulator of oocyte polarity and germ plasm assembly, and colocalizes with the germ plasm in oocytes and in primordial germ cells. Although the protein interactions, expression, and localization results are valid, the first author has admitted orally and in writing to fabrication of all “mutant data” in Figures 1H and 1J, Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4, and Figures S2 and S3. Because the data presented in those figures do not reflect the standards of quality that are expected in science, and in order to protect the integrity of science, our laboratories, and institutes, we are retracting the paper. All authors agree with retraction of the paper.

The paper, published last July, has been cited once, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Another paper, “The polarity factor Bucky ball associates with the centrosome and promotes microtubule rearrangements to establish the oocyte axis in zebrafish,” published in Development in December, was flagged with an expression of concern in January:

The corresponding author of this article, currently posted online as an Advance Article, contacted us regarding potential issues with some of the data contained in this manuscript. The authors are currently investigating the matter, in consultation with their Research Integrity Office.

Development is publishing this Expression of Concern to alert readers to the situation while the investigation takes place, and it is not a statement as to the validity of the data. The article will remain posted on the Advance Articles Page until the matter is resolved.

This course of action follows the advice set out by COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics), of which Development is a member.

The paper has not yet been indexed in Web of Science. Marlow told us that its status may change:

At this point it seems there will be a correction, but we are still completing experiments. Because we are still conducting experiments I do not know when this will be published.

Marlow also said she had asked Development to correct a third paper, “Dachsous1b cadherin regulates actin and microtubule cytoskeleton during early zebrafish embryogenesis,” published last August. The correction has not yet appeared online.

In cases where students fake data, it’s easy to wonder whether the supervisor should have been more involved. The school asked that very question, said Burns, and found that a lack of oversight wasn’t the issue:

The mentor and the student met weekly. All the data was reviewed. The data was cooked…[Forbes] admitted that she hoodwinked her PI by showing her primary data that was corrupted.

Burns added that the situation has taken an emotional toll:

It was very sad, within the department, within the school…[there was] outrage at the act, but coupled with sincere feelings of pity… it’s just terrible.

We have reached out to Forbes on Facebook, and will update this post with anything else we learn.

Update, Thursday April 28th 11:10 am EST:

The correction for “Dachsous1b cadherin regulates actin and microtubule cytoskeleton during early zebrafish embryogenesis” has now appeared online. It explains that the authors repeated the experiment for which Forbes faked data, and that their results support the original conclusion of the paper:

In Development 142, 2704-2718, the data presented in Figure 2F indicated that there was a significant reduction in acetylated microtubules in stage Ia and Ib dachsous1b oocytes compared with wild-type oocytes, but that dachsous1b and wild-type oocytes were comparable by stage II of oogenesis. Based on these data and other oocyte analyses reported in the paper, we concluded that dachsous1boogenesis is largely unaffected. The second author (M.M.F.) admitted that, without the knowledge of the other authors, she manipulated the stage Ia and stage Ib mutant data shown in the original Figure 2F. Therefore, we repeated this experiment and examined five wild-type and five dachsous mutant ovaries (>20 oocytes per genotype per stage), and found no significant differences in acetylated microtubules between wild-type and dachsous mutant oocytes at any of the stages examined. These new data, which are presented in the corrected figure (below), further support the overall conclusion reported in the original paper that oogenesis is intact in dachsous1b mutants. As the major conclusions of the paper are not affected, the journal editors – following consultation with all authors and the Academic Affairs Committee at Albert Einstein College of Medicine – have agreed that a Correction should be provided, with an explanation of the circumstances. This course of action complies with the journal’s policy on correction of issues in the scientific record, which states: ‘Should an error appear in a published article that affects scientific meaning or author credibility but does not affect the overall results and conclusions of the paper, our policy is to publish a Correction’. We regret any confusion this may have caused.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 11.07.41 AM

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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15 thoughts on “Einstein grad student admits cooking data, settles with Office of Research Integrity”

  1. On the one hand, this seems terrible. Yet, there is a good thing here: This person’s moral sense did come through, at a great cost to herself. She was able to lie for a time, but not forever. I find that hopeful.

    1. My exact thoughts.

      As weird as it seems, I think that people who are able to spontaneously admit their own misdeeds should get some kind of medal. I would much rather have this person, chastened and insecure, continue in science than the (many?) people who skate by, perhaps even blissfully unaware that what they are doing is unacceptable.

      1. Absolutely agreed. After all shouldn’t any form of Justice be aimed at rehabilitation (at least the first time)? Making her take some kind of ethics classes and perhaps extra supervision, but by all means I truly believe first-time offenders who come clean should have another shot.

        1. But only if they come clean on their own initiative. People who come clean only after getting blasted on PubPeer should not get off so easily – although such people are still better than the die-hards who never admit their offences even after the truth is obvious.

      2. I find it very hard to praise her honesty. She did fabricate data for two or possibly three papers, so it wasn’t just a single case.

    2. I absolutely agree too. I remember back to my PhD and a period during my postdoc where I was under enormous pressure to produce results, my experiments weren’t going well and in both instances my PIs were not providing constructive advice but rather tutting impatiently and making comments about how long it was all taking – often in those weekly meetings mentioned in the story.
      I’ll be completely honest and say I used to lie awake and night and wonder if there was some other way to come up with data, just to get them off my back. I was lucky that I had great colleagues who were able to provide advice and encouragment which ultimately removed temptation. Early career researchers need support and PIs have a responsibility to make sure that those in their labs are not isolated or under undue pressure.

  2. She sounds like a good person to me. She made a transgression (probably in a time of weakness or immense pressure to publish), it weighed on her conscience, she admitted it, and now we move on.

  3. Perhaps sadly, this is one of the more positive science stories I’ve heard recently. I agree with max. The student eventually told the truth, and the PI didn’t sweep it under the rug. Too many PIs would shut down the admission, worrying about their millions in grants on the line, then lawyer up and attack anyone who found out about it. Huge thumbs up to both Marlow and Forbes.

    1. Totally agree. Nowadays there are too many similar cases that are very far away of being discovered

  4. On a side note, I don’t like the way the retraction is marked on the Cell Reports .pdf.
    The red “RETRACTED” across the paper is large, thick and nontranslucent. It makes it difficult to read the text and covers parts of the figures.

    IMHO a retraction is not supposed to eliminate a paper. It marks the paper as not reliable due to reasons hopefully described in the retraction note. The paper should remain fully readable.

  5. “has admitted orally and in writing to fabrication of all “mutant data” ”
    I wonder why she did this though. If the mutant data showed no difference to the wild type this was a result in itself…. I do feel sad for her though. I’ve had PI’s who have said “get me this data in 3 days!” when the experiment itself was 7 days long.

  6. “In cases where students fake data, it’s easy to wonder whether the supervisor should have been more involved.”

    Yes, that is the philosophy here and the new way of trying to blame everybody else instead of taking responsibility yourself.

    The same philosophy has led to the “don’t put your cat into the microwave oven” or “drink this hot coffee carefully because you could burn your mouth” warnings or the “parental advisory” stickers.

    This kind of incapacitating people is particularly hurtful in science since good science only evolves if individual scientists take full responsibility of their actions and constantly question themselves rather than if they work sloppily and rely on others (superiors) to correct their faults.

    1. While essentially true, this cannot be a one way street: The PI very usually likes to take credit for any great works done by students or postdocs, and of course mostly justifiably so, so I’d say at least a partial responsibility for the bad things would be in order. This “take all the praise but none of the blame” approach could lead to PIs becoming careless or even assenting accepting issues of misconduct, as long as the outcome is good or at least not negative. If some fishy things show up, just throw the student under the bus and get on with it.
      Furthermore I would say that the PIs job is not only to educate students (not so much PostDocs) scientifically, but also ethically. If things like this happen, there _is_ some blame to be assigned to the PI as (s)he apparently failed in the latter. At least for repeat offenders there should be some consequences.

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