A pair of Canadian scientists may be running out of options to save their laboratories, which have been permanently closed based on findings of research misconduct.
Sylvia Asa, once the head of the largest hospital diagnostic laboratory in Canada, and her husband and collaborator Shereen Ezzat, have spent almost five years fighting allegations of research misconduct involving data falsification and fabrication in more than a dozen published papers. The couple’s work has been scrutinized by their employer, University Health Network (UHN), a healthcare system affiliated with the University of Toronto, in two investigations. The investigations did not find evidence that Asa or Ezzat were directly involved in image falsification or fabrication; however, they concluded that, as supervisors, they failed to conform to accepted standards and practices as they related to scientific rigor and accountability.
After the first investigation, UHN decided to temporarily close both Asa and Ezzat’s labs. After the second, the UHN decided to make that closure permanent. The couple have had three papers retracted and at least one correction.
Recently, the pair faced yet another setback. After they asked an Ontario court to review two of UHN’s decisions, on July 13, a judge found no fault with either one. Justice Ian Nordheimer, one of three judges who considered Asa and Ezzat’s request, said in his written opinion:
The applicants have failed to identify any failings in either of the appeal decisions that would render them unreasonable.
The first UHN investigation lasted from 2012 to 2014; the second, from 2015 to 2016. UHN executives temporarily suspended their research activities and closed their labs in 2014 as a result of the first investigation.
Issue number one in the recent court action stemmed from this temporary closure. Last year, after Asa and Ezzat challenged the first investigation’s finding of research misconduct, a court instructed UHN to revisit the sanctions against the couple, namely the decision to temporarily close their labs and suspend their research.
Given that Asa and Ezzat had been found guilty of “material non-compliance” with accepted standards and not falsification, the court thought UHN should at least reconsider the sanction. But sometime in late January or early February 2016, UHN decided that the penalty would remain the same. Asa and Ezzat appealed that decision internally, but their appeal was dismissed.
So, as the couple did with the first finding of misconduct, earlier this year they asked the Divisional Court of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for “judicial review” of the so-called “reconsidered sanction.” The Divisional Court is a venue that has the power to weigh in on the legality of administrative decisions made by governmental or quasi-governmental bodies. Similarly, Asa and Ezzat challenged the finding of misconduct in the second investigation, which was also appealed to UHN and dismissed.
But the court has found no fault with UHN’s decisions to keep the punishment the same and to find Asa and Ezzat guilty of misconduct, due to material non-compliance.
A UHN spokesperson told us that the organization was “pleased with the decision,” but could not comment further because Asa and Ezzat “have not yet indicated if they intend to seek leave to appeal the decision.”
Indeed, Asa told us that she and Ezzat are planning to file an appeal soon.
Asa told Retraction Watch:
The integrity and validity of our research is not in question. The essence of the challenge to our standing as serious researchers is about the digitization of the images used in the journal articles supporting our published research.
The entire issue of digitization is at the heart of our situation and may be at the core of many retractions of research papers. Scanning of research lab gels is the “elephant in the room” ….
While it may appear that UHN followed its policy, our concerns were with other aspects of the investigation. We are disappointed at the lack of response to our concerns, specifically the following:
-We were faulted for not retaining some of the primary data for four of the five papers under investigation. These papers were written by two individuals in our lab. UHN specifically directed us to give them all the primary data that would be collected by the Research Integrity team. We complied with these directions. They then fired the two individuals in our absence and without telling us, and the hospital individual who fired them did not collect the data.
-The Committee identified “falsification” and “fabrication” in images that had no detectable changes and completely reproduced the original data. The UHN identified “boxes around bands” that were, in the opinion of an IT expert, consistent with compression artefact. The UHN identified “boxes covering faint bands”; independent scientific experts indicated that the faint bands were indeed still visible in the published images.
Asa and Ezzat retained the image processing and scientific experts to contribute to the couple’s response to the second investigation committee’s draft report. The couple’s lawyer, Michael Fraleigh, of Toronto firm Fogler, Rubinoff, told us that the experts are: Philippe Poussier, a physician and researcher affiliated with the University of Toronto; Anthony Ho, of the University of Alberta; and Kevin Lo, managing director of Froese Forensic Partners, an expert on digital image files.
Justice Nordheimer noted that Asa and Ezzat’s “main complaint” related to the second misconduct investigation was that the committee “dismissed or failed to consider” the reviews supplied by these hired experts.
According to the timeline laid out in Justice Nordheimer’s decision, the second investigation began in May 2015. In addition to allegations of image irregularities in 17 publications, the second investigation considered image issues in additional publications, as well as one allegation of statistical irregularities in a paper published in Molecular Endocrinology.
The committee released its final report on Sept. 28, 2016. Justice Nordheimer noted that the investigators specifically mentioned that Asa and Ezzat:
(i) Failed to comply with the standards for manuscript preparation according to journal authorship policies and those standards generally accepted…
(ii) Failed in lab oversight, including a lack of accountability for primary data;
(iii) failed to acknowledge and adequately address concerns raised regarding published material identified by the Committee to contain improperly manipulated figures.
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