After investigation that started at least 5 years ago, retired ob-gyn prof agrees to 5 years of supervision

Nasser Chegini

A now-retired professor tweaked the findings in seven figures of a 2007 paper, according to a new finding of misconduct released yesterday by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.

The subject of the findings isn’t a stranger to our readers: We’ve already reported on nine retractions for Nasser Chegini, a former professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida (UF) who had won more than $4 million in Federal grants. And Chegini, who retired in early 2012, had been under investigation since at least 2012, with the ORI asking UF to broaden that investigation at one point.

Indeed, the ORI’s notice states that eight of Chegini’s retractions resulted from the UF’s investigation. The ORI’s findings, however, stem from another paper, published in the Journal of Reproductive Immunology, which has not been retracted.

According to the ORI, in that paper, Chegini:

…falsified data points and standard errors of the mean in bar graphs plotting matrix metalloprotease expression or activity in the following figures of JRI 2007:

-Figures 2A, 2B, 2C

-Figures 3A, 3B, 3C

-Figure 4B

-Figure 5C

-Figure 6B

-Figures 7A, 7B, 7C

-Figure 8, middle left panel and lower right panel

Doxycycline alters the expression of matrix metalloproteases in the endometrial cells exposed to ovarian steroids and pro-inflammatory cytokine” has been cited 15 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. Just one of those citations came after 2012, when the investigation was already in full swing.

Chegini has agreed to retract the 2007 paper, and have his research supervised for five years. However, the report notes:

[Chegini] has not applied for or engaged in U.S. Public Health Service (PHS)- supported research since 2012; Respondent has no intention of applying for or engaging in PHS-supported research or otherwise working with PHS…

The fact that the ORI issued findings on just one study, despite the fact that so many other Chegini papers were clearly problematic, suggests a different approach than they have typically taken. A spokesperson for HHS, of which ORI is a part, told Retraction Watch:

In this case, the institution made research misconduct findings about a retired researcher’s nine publications, and eight of those publications were retracted by the journals after notification by the institution of the research misconduct.  The remaining publication has not been retracted.  To correct the scientific record, the HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI) pursued findings of research misconduct for the one publication that had not been retracted.  ORI accepts the research misconduct findings of the institution that led to the eight prior retractions, compliments the institution on its handling of the matter, and makes new findings only on the ninth publication, so that the scientific record is corrected.  ORI’s targeted approach in this case enables ORI to conserve resources while timely pursing targeted findings to support deterrence of research misconduct, protect Public Health Service funds, and correct the scientific record.

Our interpretation: This is akin to nailing Al Capone on tax evasion. Had Chegini still been in research, or had his other problematic papers not yet been retracted, the “targeted enforcement” approach would likely earn justified criticism. But closing this case means the ORI — which went many months without issuing a finding until May — can make a statement about Chegini that will be in the Federal Register forever, and turn its limited resources elsewhere.

The notice lists eight papers that were “retracted as a result of the institution’s investigation.” We have counted nine retractions for Chegini; the one not listed in the ORI report was retracted in 2012 by Molecular Human Reproduction, and mentions the UF investigation. (You can read our 2012 post here.)

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8 thoughts on “After investigation that started at least 5 years ago, retired ob-gyn prof agrees to 5 years of supervision”

  1. Statements from a spokesperson are as meaningless as statements from Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer.

    “ORI accepts the research misconduct findings of the institution that led to the eight prior retractions”

    This statement from the spokesperson is not consistent with the notification. The notification states that the ORI ACKNOWLEDGES that the retractions were made as a result of the institution’s investigation. Acknowledging and accepting are very different.

    Question for Alan Price – If ORI accepted the findings of research misconduct from the institution, doesn’t that mean ORI already expended their resources to oversee the university’s investigation? If so, what resources are being conserved by ORI?

    I agree with RW’s interpretation that this is akin to nailing Capone with tax evasion.

  2. The way in which ORI settled the Chegini case is well outside the norm for how the office dealt with major cases in the past. When the Division of Investigative Oversight (DIO) first received an investigation report from the University of Florida (UF) it was woefully deficient in scope and approach, failing in multiple ways to meet the ORI’s reporting requirements. As a result of DIO’s compliance review and instance on redoing the investigation, UF assigned a new Research Integrity Officer (RIO) and conducted an exemplary investigation. T Heir report provided sufficient evidence to warrant findings of misconduct involving multiple published papers. Thus, in my view, the analogy with the Capone case is inappropriate, since ORI could well have made as many findings of research misconduct as UF did in their report, while the federal government was unable to obtain adequate evidence that Capone had been responsible for any federal crime other than mail fraud. ORI’s failure to consider the full scope of the UF findings is an affront to the time consuming and expensive effort of the UF administration and investigation committee, and is likely to have a negative effect on the willingness of other institutions to “explore all leads” as required by the federal regulation.

    The way in which this case was handled by ORI both sets an unfortunate precedent for how other complex cases might be handled, and by having the ORI director, Dr. Kathy Partin, act as the investigator of the case followed by her taking responsibility for making the determination that Dr. Chegini was responsible for research misconduct. In the 23 years I was at ORI, there was always a wall between the oversight review conducted by DIO, and the determination of findings by the ORI Director. This reasonable approach, strongly advocated by experts advising NIH and OASH when the 1989 and 2005 regulations were drawn up, was to prevent inappropriate bias, perhaps due to an investigator becoming overly zealous about a case, from also making determinations. Thus, DIO only made recommendations, and the ORI director could, and often did, modify them.

    1. 2 extremes:-
      1. Vastly increased resources for the ORI.
      2. Winding up the ORI.
      The impetus from retraction seems to come from the public domain.

  3. ORI’s “Targeted Approach”
    Misconduct + Retraction = No ORI findings
    Misconduct + No Retraction = ORI findings

  4. I would like to see the return of all federal grant money accepted for this fraudulent research. Falsifying any research has the potential to harm real patients. Thank you for your work.

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