Science is considering adding an expression of concern (EOC) to a June paper that caught the media’s attention for showing how human pollution may be harming fish, following allegations of research misconduct.
A group of researchers allege the paper — which suggested fish larvae are eating small particles of plastic rather than their natural prey — contains missing data and used a problematic methodology. After the researchers submitted a formal letter (available here), Uppsala University in Sweden is now conducting an inquiry, the first step in determining whether to launch a formal investigation.
A spokesperson from Science told Retraction Watch that once the journal independently verifies that an investigation is underway, it will issue an EOC for the paper:
We were notified by the complainant that the paper was under investigation and we are contacting Uppsala University and the Swedish Ethical Review Board to confirm that an investigation is indeed under way at either or both institutions. We will also reach out to the authors.
Once we have received confirmation, we will alert our readers through the publication of an Editorial Expression of Concern, to let them know that concerns have been raised about the validity of the data and an investigation has been undertaken by one or more institutions. Once we have sufficient information from the investigating entities, we can determine the most appropriate next steps.
A spokesperson from Uppsala told us:
Uppsala University has received allegations of misconduct in research from a research group regarding the study you refer to (Lönnstedt OM and Eklöv P (2016) Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. Science). The University has, in accordance with our routines, assembled a group of external researchers to review the allegations. The University has also passed on the matter to Centrala etikprövningsnämnden (Central Ethical Review Board) http://www.epn.se/centrala-
The allegations concern the method used in the study and data that is claimed to be missing.
Andrew Sugden, a deputy editor at Science, said the nature of the inquiry would determine whether Science issued an EOC.
An inquiry appears to be standard procedure when Uppsala receives allegations of misconduct, according to their regulations:
The Dean of the faculty shall be immediately informed in writing upon suspicion of scientific misconduct. This report initiates an inquiry which shall be conducted by an ad hoc group of suitable composition for the case. The group shall consist of experts, of which at least one member shall be affiliated to another seat of learning.
This is apparently only a first step in the process, the rules note:
The intention of the inquiry is to determine if an investigation of the case is warranted.
The paper caught some media attention, such as from The Independent, Washington Post, and BBC News (headline: “Fish eat plastic like teens eat fast food, researchers say”), expressing concern about how human pollution may be hurting the environment.
Sweden is currently in the midst of reevaluating its policy for investigating misconduct, following a high-profile debacle over the Karolinska Institutet’s (KI) investigation of surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.
Corresponding author Oona M. Lönnstedt, a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala, told us she couldn’t comment during the inquiry.
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