Researcher denied PhD after “recklessly” committing misconduct

Molecular PharmacologyA doctoral student at the University of Houston in Texas will not receive his PhD, following an institutional investigation into his work.

Mousa Abkhezr, the researcher in question, is no longer enrolled at the University of Houston, his former supervisor told us.

In June, the probe into papers co-authored by Abkhezr resulted in the retraction of a study in the American Journal of Physiology – Renal Physiology (AJP). Now, his ex-supervisor, Stuart Dryer, has pulled two more papers co-authored by the pair in Molecular Pharmacology.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Angiotensin II and Canonical Transient Receptor Potential-6 Activation Stimulate Release of a Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription 3–Activating Factor from Mouse Podocytes:”

At the request of Dr. S. E. Dryer, Molecular Pharmacology has retracted this article. A research misconduct investigation at the University of Houston initiated by Dr. Dryer found author misconduct in two other articles by the same authors [Abkhezr M and Dryer SE (2015) STAT3 Regulates Steady-State Expression of Synaptopodin in Cultured Mouse Podocytes Mol Pharmacol February 2015 87:231–239; doi:10.1124/mol.114.094508 and Abkhezr M, Kim EY, Roshanravan H, Nikolos F, Thomas C, Hagmann H, Benzing T, Dryer SE (2015) Pleiotropic signaling evoked by tumor necrosis factor in podocytes Am J Physiol Renal Physiol 309:F98–F108; doi:10.1152/ajprenal.00146.2015]. Because of the results of the investigation, Dr. Dryer has expressed concern over the validity of the work published in the above Molecular Pharmacology article and requested its retraction.

The 2014 paper has been cited five times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Regarding this retraction, Dryer told us:

While I have not as yet found anything obviously fabricated in that paper, I simply cannot exclude that this student may have fabricated results or cut corners in ways that would escape detection. The journal agreed with my assessment…

Next, here’s the retraction notice for STAT3 Regulates Steady-State Expression of Synaptopodin in Cultured Mouse Podocytes,” which has been cited three times:

A research misconduct investigation at the University of Houston initiated by Dr. S. E. Dryer has found that figures in this article were inappropriately manipulated and falsified. Portions of the same actin blots were improperly used to represent results from different experiments in Figures 2A and 4A.

Molecular Pharmacology in agreement with Dr. Dryer has retracted this article.

According to Dryer, the newly retracted studies are the last of Abkhezr’s papers from his lab; he noted that Abkhezr has co-authored papers with researchers elsewhere.

Dryer added that Abkhezr was not awarded his PhD:

Mousa Abkhezr is not currently enrolled at the University of Houston, he has not been awarded any degree from our university, and he certainly is no longer a “Research Assistant” in my laboratory or any other at the University of Houston.

He went further to point out that the department has taken steps to ensure that Abkhezr’s dissertation is not publicly accessible, as

it contained the same fabrications that were in the papers and it is no longer approved.

When we reported on the case in June, Dryer shared the research integrity officer’s investigation report with us, which concluded:

The committee carefully considered Dr Abkhezr’s statements that using these control bands was an honest error and has no strong evidence to support the falsification as intentional, however when combined with the fact that similar errors occurred in nine separate figures within the manuscript, the committee believes that the misconduct rises to the level of having been committed recklessly.

In the report, Abkhezr claims that the duplication of images from the now-retracted Molecular Pharmacology paper was a “mistake,” alleging that he “lost track of all the bands.”

Dryer also took some of the blame, previously telling us:

The fact that this happened and I didn’t catch it proves that I was not vigilant enough. I had no suspicions that this student could do something like this. I should have. In retrospect, there were several red flags, including his developing tendency to work mainly at night. It has changed my management style.

Some of the changes in Dryer’s lab include digital laboratory archiving and new standards on how to maintain original x-ray films and annotations in hard-bound lab notebooks.

We were unable to find the contact details for Abkhezr.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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5 thoughts on “Researcher denied PhD after “recklessly” committing misconduct”

  1. Even with the big red “Retracted” plastered across the pages, there are a couple of potential issues in the Mol Pharmacol paper for which the senior author claims to have not found anything as yet:

    The total Stat3 blot in Figure 1A would appear to be a darker exposure of the total Stat3 blot in Figure 3A. The loopy thing in between the bands in lanes 5 and 6 is the tell.

    Bands in lanes 1 and 2 in the total Stat3 blot in Figure 6A bear an uncanny resemblance to bands 2 and 3 of the total Stat3 blot in Figure 4A.

    1. The retraction notice mentions “falsified” but Dr. Dryer speaks to the absence of “fabricated” data. They’re distinct terms with related meanings. Perhaps it’s simply a semantic error.

  2. I infer from the RIO’s investigation report that the University of Houston believes that normal, typical misconduct is fine, and that misconduct only crosses the line when it is committed recklessly??

    1. From my understanding, reckless is used to describe accidental breaches of ethics that qualify as misconduct because they are so severe. It’s usually used to counter arguments of “honest error” when ill-intent cannot be proven.

  3. My graduate student is certainly not compiling figures without me looking, and analysing, all of the raw data myself.

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