In 2013, Frank Sauer blamed “visual distortion” for problems with the images in his papers and grant applications. That explanation gave way to the production in 2016 of a mysterious and ominous letter from an unnamed researcher claiming that they’d sabotaged Sauer’s work in a plot of revenge. Soon after, Sauer was claiming that a mysterious cabal was plotting to undermine the output of German researchers.
Whatever Sauer was selling, Leslie Rogall, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Departmental Appeals Board, wasn’t buying.
Rogall has concluded that the Office of Research Integrity acted properly in 2016 when it found Sauer — a former faculty member in biochemistry at the University of California, Riverside — guilty of misconduct. His offense: doctoring images in three published papers and seven grant applications to the National Institutes of Health.
In a May 22 decision first posted today, she writes (italics hers):
Even assuming all facts in the light most favorable [to Sauer], including those facts that push the extreme limits of plausibility and credibility, the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the undisputed material facts of this case is that [Sauer] committed research misconduct by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly falsifying and fabricating data.”
Sauer, who garnered nearly $3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, had earlier received sanctions from the National Science Foundation, which barred him for five years from receiving grants, from 2015 until 2020. And now that Rogall’s ruling is public, the ORI has done the same, but beginning June 22 of this year and lasting until 2020.
Sauer, whose whereabouts we were unable to determine, also has multiple retractions, including two papers in Science, for image manipulation. One of these, a 2006 article titled “Noncoding RNAs of trithorax response elements recruit Drosophila Ash1 to Ultrabithorax,” has been cited 164 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. Sauer also had a 2002 research letter in Nature retracted.
Another 2010 paper in PLoS ONE has yet to be retracted or corrected, although Rogall’s judgment notes that some action “is warranted” based on the ORI’s verdict. The ORI, which says it will now ask the journal to correct or retract the paper,
found by a preponderance of the evidence that the Respondent engaged in research misconduct by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly falsifying and/or fabricating images in seven (7) submitted NIH grant application and three (3) published papers by manipulating, reusing, and falsely labeling images.
The details of Sauer’s case are available in the judgment from Rogall, which paints a picture of a man desperately trying to dig himself out of a hole — with a fork. As Rogall observes, Sauer offered “an evolving and inconsistent tale” for how the doctored images made their way onto his pages.
To his former institution, Sauer reportedly dismissed the claims against him as
‘hyper-technical, and none of the alleged instances of image manipulation caused the papers in which they appear to be anything other than an accurate and honest reflection of Dr. Sauer’s scientific work.’
At that point, in 2013, Sauer wasn’t saying he’d been the victim of sabotage. But he did tell the university that “his notebooks and original data had been stolen in the past,” according to the document — and that those missing data held the proof that no misconduct had occurred.
Even when the NSF — which awarded Sauer nearly $600,000 in 2005 — began investigating in 2014, the biochemist didn’t raise the specter of sabotage. That happened in early 2016, when he produced a letter to the NSF that he’d purportedly translated from German (his native language) into English. According to Rogall’s decision, the letter read:
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I have lost my job, you yours.
That led to one of the more bizarre revelations: To push his revenge plot, Sauer appears to have forged the seal and signature of a notary public — a misdemeanor criminal offense — in order to buttress his story that a person named “Rune Dreser” was part of a shadowy anti-Teutonic conspiracy “‘to achieve the discontinuation of all gene-technological work in Germany with all available methods.’”
All we can say about Rune Dreser is that no one with that name, in Germany or elsewhere, pops up in the Google machine.
As an aside, we recently came across another retraction issued in 1996, of a 1996 Cell paper on which Sauer is the first author, citing “technical problems:”
We previously reported that transcriptional activation of hunchback (hb) and huckebein (hkb) by Bicoid in the Drosophila embryo is impaired by mutations in TAFII110 and TAFII60. This conclusion was based on in situ staining of wild-type versus mutant embryos (Figures 5 and 6 of Sauer et al., Cell 87, 1271–1284, 1996). However, we have come to realize that, due to technical problems with our previous embryo staining procedures, the in vivo results in Figures 5 and 6 are incorrect and those in Figures 7–9 are uncertain. Recent data by J. Zhou and R. T. indicate that mutations in TAFII60 (Figure 1 below) and TAFII110 (data not shown) have no detectable effect on hb expression. However, the isolation and molecular characterization of these TAFII mutants (Figure 1–3, Sauer et al., 1996) is correct and recent studies (see Zhou et al., 1998) suggest that these TAFII mutations affect Dorsal-mediated activation of snail and twist in the Drosophila embryo. We thank Gary Struhl, Claude Desplan, and Mike Levine for alerting us to problems in our previous embryo staining experiments and Jumin Zhou for the results in Figure 1.
“TAF(II)s Mediate Activation of Transcription in the Drosophila Embryo” has been cited 63 times.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.