Prominent researcher in Scotland resigns after misconduct finding upheld

Robert Ryan

A rising star in the field of infectious disease has resigned from the University of Dundee in Scotland after the university upheld the findings of an investigation concluding that he committed misconduct.

Earlier this year, Robert Ryan was suspended amidst the investigation, which focused on data doctoring in several publications. We’ve now been forwarded an internal email from Julian Blow, dean of the School of Life Sciences, which alerts staff that Ryan has resigned, and the institution has upheld its finding of misconduct, despite Ryan’s appeal.

In 2015, Ryan was selected to be an EMBO Young Investigator; yesterday, EMBO announced that it had withdrawn him from the program.

Blow’s email to staff, dated November 9, states:

The University has recently undertaken an investigation into an allegation of research misconduct. This investigation confirmed that Dr Ryan seriously breached normal scientific practice in several scientific publications before and after he joined the University, including misrepresentation of clinical data and the duplication and misrepresentation of images in 12 different publications. An appeal has been heard, which upheld a decision of serious research misconduct.

Dr Ryan has now resigned his position and is no longer employed by the University.

No other members of staff at the University were implicated in the allegations.

Ryan’s work focused on infections that can be deadly for patients with lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

In 2013, Ryan received the prestigious Society for General Microbiology’s Fleming Prize; in 2014, he was awarded the Lister Prize fellowship, totaling 200,000 pounds over five years. That same year, he received the RSE Patrick Neill Medal.

Six of Ryan’s papers have been cited at least 100 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

We’ve found two corrections for Ryan’s papers, and several others have been questioned on PubPeer, such as “Cyclic di-GMP signalling in the virulence and environmental adaptation of Xanthomonas campestris” published in Molecular Microbiology in 2006 and cited 91 times. Commenters have raised allegations about other papers, such as a 2012 PLOS ONE paper, and a 2010 paper in PNAS.

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5 thoughts on “Prominent researcher in Scotland resigns after misconduct finding upheld”

  1. I think the University of Dundee should be congratulated on their robust procedures. Many fancier universities are much worse at such investigations.

  2. I agree with the first commenter, but to be fair it seems that the publicity of this is owed to someone leaking the information to the press rather than the university owning up to it.

    If you check the Dundee School of Life Science news page, there is no reference to this happening (unless I overlooked something). I understand that this new section is more of a place for positive news but as these processes become more prevalent and are correctly followed up like this one, I would wish for more transparency as soon as the cases have been resolved.

    Also you don’t know how many more cases are under investigation and how these are handled. It is a good start, but certainly can still be done better.

  3. I agree again with other commentator – it seems like Dundee University did the right thing and they should be applauded for this by others. It is useful that this is released, though the University did not do this themselves. It would be helpful to see what the University found. For example, there are many questions on Pubpeer about papers related to this scientist. Have these journals been notified? Will the papers where problems were found be retracted? From Pubpeer, in many cases it is not just image manipulation, in at least one there appear to be reused bands. It would be good if they said something in the open.

  4. Many of the work particularly with cyclic DiGMP associated phenotypes and quorum sensing are not repeatable even in their model organism Xanthomonas campestris by Ryan and Max Dow his mentor. Surprisingly the Axa21 story which Dr. Ronald lab retracted due to strain problem was repeated by Dr Ryan and his mentor Max Dow and their collaborators in animal pathogenic bacteria and they repeated the same story. I think that their work need to be repeated as many of their findings have different reports from other groups with not so high profile as Dr Ryan and his mentor and long time collaborator Max Dow published work.

  5. Thank you for your comments on Dr Ryan and Dow’s work. I have worked with both on and off for several years. I would very much like to know what phenotypes you are referring to in your post. I can assure you that the phenotypes associated with DSF and the Rpf cell-cell signaling system are solid and reproducible. They have been reported by numerous groups and strains confirmed and used by other groups. With regards the phenotypes observed in cyclic-di-GMP knockouts strains in Xanthomonas I again can assure you these been seen by a number of labs and the strains confirmed. In particular, phenotypes associated with HD-GYP and PilZ domain knockouts have been seen in most Xanthomonads with various degrees of potency. Importantly, the phenotypes are generally associated with virulence in plants and not seen in vitro making them difficult to detect.

    Finally, the major reason for the retraction of these papers from the Ronald laboratory were the absence of a specific effect of Ax21 on plant defence induction in rice lines carrying the Xa21 gene. In addition, it was shown that Ax21 secretion involved type II secretion and not the type I system encoded by rax genes, as initially thought. This was reported in a correction to one of these papers (the peerJ paper). It was not questioned whether the extracellular perception of Ax21 (or derived peptides) had a role in alteration of gene expression in Xanthomonas, as distinct from plants. In the experiments on Stenotrophomonas by the Ryan and Dow, there were no experiments on effects of peptides/proteins on plants and the mutation of a homolog of a gene encoding the type I secretion protein had only a slight effect on the Ax21 level. Importantly, these effects were measured indirectly as the effects of supernatants on the ax21 mutant in S. maltophilia. This point was raised in the peerJ paper, although without mentioning that the mutation still had significant signaling activity in the supernatant. Thus the conclusions seem to remain valid. This was discussed in detail at the last XGC meeting two years ago. I do think that if there are errors in the Stenotrophomonas article it will retracted.

    Why not contact the authors and ask for input? Or contact the Journal and ask to write a common?

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