Former postdoc admitted to fraud in cell bio paper, lead author says

A researcher in Switzerland has retracted her 2015 paper in the Journal of Cell Biology, saying the first author — her former postdoc — admitted to fabricating multiple aspects of the paper.

After Sophie Martin of the University of Lausanne couldn’t reproduce the data from another manuscript she was preparing to submit, she contacted her former student, Pranav Ullal, who admitted he had fabricated the data, along with two figures in the JCB paper.

A spokesperson for the University of Lausanne told us that Ullal left Switzerland after his contract was over, and is now in India.

Martin told us the whole experience has been upsetting:

As you will appreciate, I have been extremely shocked and distressed by this discovery. Although the data presented in the JCB paper involved several other authors, whose work is not put in doubt, the only possible course of action was to retract the paper.

Here’s the full notice:

The editors of The Journal of Cell Biology have been notified by Dr. Sophie Martin that she and the other authors of the paper referenced above retract the paper because of data fabrication by the first author.

The authors provided the following statement:

After members of the Martin lab failed to reproduce the formation of septa from the poles in mid1∆cdc1519A as reported in Fig. 3, C (bottom right) and D (far right), the first author of this publication admitted to fabricating these data, as well as that in Fig. 6, E and F.

The integrity of the data produced by all other authors is not put in question and investigation of the validity of other results from the first author is ongoing. Although the central conclusions of the paper may be correct, given these circumstances we feel that a retraction is the only course of action.

We deeply apologize to the community for not having detected this fabrication prior to publication.

The DYRK-family kinase Pom1 phosphorylates the F-BAR Cdc15 to prevent division at cell poles” has been cited five times since it was published in 2015, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

Martin gave us some more backstory:

After the first author Pranav Ullal left my lab at the end of October 2016, I failed to reproduce data from another manuscript we were about to submit and for which a couple of experiments were left to be finalized. This led me to investigate the data published in the JCB article and find that the formation of septa from the cell poles in mid1∆ cdc15-19A (as reported in Figure 3C, bottom right and 3D, far right) could not be reproduced. Pranav Ullal finally admitted at the end of December 2016 to fabricating the pieces of data we could not reproduce, as well as figures 6E and 6F of the published paper. Upon his admission, I immediately contacted the JCB Editors.

The Journal of Cell Biology is notoriously careful about checking images for signs of manipulation, but their screening wouldn’t have identified the problems, Martin told us:

The fabricated data is mostly presented in the form of bar graphs. The fraudulent image of the mid1∆ cdc15-19A cells shown in Figure 3C could not have been detected for manipulation by JCB, as it was taken intact from another experiment. The image was deliberately mislabeled rather than manipulated.

Martin noted that Ullal is a co-author on two other papers from her lab:

On one publication, he is a minor author for an experiment that reproduced one performed by another author on the paper. The other describes a method commonly used in my lab. These publications are not put in doubt.

We have tried to contact Ullal using an email we believe belongs to him, but haven’t heard back. He is the Chief Scientific Officer at Karmagenes, a DNA sequencing company.

Please see an update on this post.

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10 thoughts on “Former postdoc admitted to fraud in cell bio paper, lead author says”

  1. Karmagenes is not a “DNA sequencing company”, it’s a pseudo-science company that sells supposedly DNA based horoscopes. They pretend to predict personality for marriages (notably aiming for the arranged marriage market in India), hiring, etc.

    COI: I am in the same university as Sophie Martin, and I applaud her behavior.

  2. Hello,

    As the CEO of Karmagenes, it is part of my role and my responsibility to reply to positive or negative comments when the company’s image is affected.

    At Karmagenes, we are very recently aware of the fabrication regarding Fig. 3, C (bottom right) and D (far right) of the paper ”The DYRK-family kinase Pom1 phosphorylates the F-BAR Cdc15 to prevent division at cell poles” and the subsequent retraction published in February 16 2017.

    We immediately had an internal discussion and we have decided that Dr Ullal’s will no longer serve as second CSO at Karmagenes. Dr Ullal is fully aware of the consequences of his Academic misconduct. We would like to clarify that there is no link of his scientific career and his recent Academic misconduct, and Karmagenes technology.

    The scientific team of Karmagenes consists of 5 people with PhD in Life Sciences from various well-accredited Universities to eliminate such cases, since all scientific decisions are made by the scientific team as whole and not by individuals. In addition, there were 2 CSOs and the principal CSO was and continues to be Dr Dudin. Thus, Dr Ullal’s Academic misconduct can not affect in any way Karmagenes technology.

    Regarding pseudo-science, the simple answer is that our proprietary algorithm has been developed by all the Karmagenes Scientific Team members based on the relevant information extracted from a pool of more than 22’000 scientific publication regarding human behavioral genetics, as seen in The National Center for Biotechnology Information that advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information In addition, we provide a custom psychological test based on the internationally well-recognised BIG5 model (Openness, Consciousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism).

    Definitely, human behaviour is a complex subject to be understood and behavioural genetics and overall genetics still have plenty of room for more discoveries. However, our expertise enables us to develop the best possible scientific tools to provide behavioural analysis based on existing published scientific research capturing the role of nature and nurture in shaping behaviour.

    Regarding our business model, it constantly advances and I believe I could provide much more insights. The arranged marriage market in India is only a small portion of potential markets that we aim to address. We do not also plan to use our technology for hiring since it is morally and legally not acceptable. So far, 93% of our early adopter customers highly recommend Karmagenes product.

    We are glad to reply in a constructive way to any further questions since awareness, transparency and credibility are the core values of Karmagenes.

    Kyriakos Kokkoris PhD

    A previous PhD-awarded from University of Lausanne and Sophie Martin’s Lab. A great lab that does great science with great scientists.

  3. It seems Ullal has been demoted. The following text was recently added to his page on the Karmagenes site:

    “Dr Ullal was serving as the second CSO at Karmagenes but after some recent developments in his scientific career, Dr Ullal has decided to pursue his child dream of soon launching his own food business. Still, he serves occasionally as Scientific Narrator at Karmagenes and his role includes explaining scientific content in simple words through Karmagenes scientific blog”

    1. It’s really interesting that he got caught for something that was not such a blatant frankengel as in that example, and would have been impossible to detect by reviewers if the corresponding author didn’t catch it. This once again reinforces my suspicion that gels are the low-hanging fruit of the worst type of scientific misconduct (i.e. making stuff up).

  4. In light of all recent developments, the Board of Directors addressed the case and we have decided that Mr Ullal is no longer professionally associated with Karmagenes.

    We would like to clarify that the fabrication has no link whatsoever with Karmagenes.

    Kyriakos Kokkoris PhD

    1. It appears that Kyriakos Kokkoris, PhD, has also decided to abandon the “Dr.” honorific for “Mr.” Ullal. *That* will show him!

  5. In light of all recent developments, the Board of Directors addressed the case and we have decided that Mr Ullal is no longer professionally associated with Karmagenes.

    That seems rather churlish, and creates the impression that Karmagenes is more interested in appearances than in the scientific bases for its business. If Dr Ullal’s work at Karmagenes was valid, there is no reason to sack him for scientific misdeeds from before you recruited him. If his work wasn’t valid then you should have sacked him much earlier.

    Is this general company policy? Throw members of the business to the wolves, the moment they become embarrassing to its image?

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