The Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) has asked a journal to retract two papers after revealing a former employee manipulated data.
The report does not name the individual nor the journal, but notes that they work in a molecular field, and are currently employed by a university outside The Netherlands.
According to a news release about the report:
The scientist manipulated data sets in these two publications, thereby creating false results. The scientist left the LUMC some time ago, but currently works at a foreign university. The LUMC has informed this university.
The manipulation came to light after a PhD student reported the matter. The publications related to very specific molecular research and were not patient-related. This means that patient safety was never compromised.
We spoke with Pancras Hogendoorn, member of the Board of Directors and dean of the LUMC, who told us he was advised by the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI) not to release the name of the researcher nor the journal that was notified about the misconduct, and wouldn’t say where they are now based.
Personally, I don’t think it’s relevant to know the identity of the person. It’s not about naming and shaming.
However, Hogendoorn added that he suspected that people might be able to discern the scientist’s identity once the retractions appear:
I think the report is clear and rather well looked after, so I suspect [the journal] will retract in the coming days.
Hogendoorn noted that the scientist left the LUMC a few years ago, and was only there for a couple of years.
According to the report, the head of a department reported suspicions of misconduct in 2011, after a PhD student and technician came to him with concerns. An ad hoc committee investigated, and reported in 2013 that they had “found evidence of irregularities in two publications.” Apparently the accused admitted to manipulating data in one figure, but then retracted that statement. In the end, there wasn’t enough proof to pursue it, LUMC decided:
…the final conclusion, as reported by the Board to the defendant, was that there was no definitive proof of a breach of scientific integrity by the defendant, given the complexity of the research and the lack of evidence pinpointing who was responsible for the other irregularities. The ad hoc committee also considered it relevant that the senior co-authors of the publications expressed their continued belief in their scientific validity.
In 2014, the former PhD student filed an appeal with LOWI, presenting additional evidence of the misconduct. LOWI ruled that LUMC should launch a “more extensive investigation than by the ad hoc committee.”
The Committee investigated films of experiments, lab journals, and the hard drive of the accused’s personal computer, and interviewed colleagues. In 2015, it held a series of hearings.
In conclusion, it found multiple irregularities in figures of a 2006 paper, listing “duplications,” “possible duplications,” and “reuse” of part of an image. When presented with the findings, a senior co-author concluded the paper contained “serious and unacceptable manipulations.” And:
At least in one instance, a Supplementary Figure had been constructed by cutting and pasting of other results and it does not represent results of experiments that were performed.
During the hearing, the accused admitted to many manipulations, saying that they were either mistakes or “done on purpose to make a figure look better.” The scientist:
…maintained that in all instances the figures corresponded to the scientific truth, i.e. the results of other experiments.
The report makes a definitive ruling:
Given the large number of instances in which figures were manipulated, which took place in several publications over a period of several years, and which have grievously misled readers, the Committee concludes that this constitutes a serious breach of scientific integrity. The Committee concludes that several publications need to be retracted.
The Committee added that the manipulations were “most numerous” in the papers that originated from Leiden. In two other publications that originated from the UK, the manipulations are “less numerous;” still, the Committee recommended that the UK institutes primarily responsible take some action. For a fifth paper, the Committee suggested the responsible institution submit a correction.
This is the second public finding of misconduct out of the LUMC in the last few years. Hogendoorn told us:
The bad news is that it was two cases, and the good news is that you learn from every case…you don’t want to have this experience, but you learn from the experience.
He told us the university has been continuing to educate graduate and undergraduate students about proper conduct in the lab, and establishing electronic lab notebooks. As a pathology researcher who runs his own lab, Hogendoorn said that the two experiences with misconduct have reminded him of the importance of checking raw data whenever possible.
You’re confronted with the importance of doing that in these circumstances again.
This isn’t the first time an institution didn’t launch a full investigation after the first accusation of misconduct — for instance, Ohio State University only sanctioned a pharmacy professor after prompting from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. And in regards to now-infamous researchers Anil Potti and Paolo Macchiarini, Duke University and Karolinska Institute, respectively, both initially dismissed accusations of misconduct.
Hat tip: Vincent Bontrop
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