In 2011, the University of Florida assembled a misconduct report about one of its ob-gyn researchers, identifying falsified data in a 2010 paper. But when an investigator at the U.S. Office of Research Integrity reviewed the report, something didn’t feel right.
“I reviewed the data, and I thought [UF] didn’t do their due diligence,” said Kristen Grace, then an ORI investigator, now heading up the compliance department of the Office of Clinical Research at the University of Pennsylvania. “Because the extent of the the falsification was so great.”
So the ORI asked the UF to re-open its investigation, expanding it to include previous years of work by Nasser Chegini, now retired. The institution also hired a new director of research compliance, who oversaw the second investigation. That report, completed in October 2013, was significantly more extensive — it documented intentional falsifications or fabrications in nine papers published between 2003-2008. (Through a public records request, we obtained a copy of this second report, which you can read in full here.) But last month, the ORI issued a finding of misconduct against Chegini that focused on only one paper; the agency said it chose to take a “targeted approach,” since eight of the nine papers had already been retracted.
The move has prompted a debate — while some argue it’s a pragmatic use of ORI’s limited resources, others (including Grace) are concerned:
I think there were many more findings that could be found by ORI, and I’m just disappointed that they decided to go with one finding.
John Dahlberg, former deputy director of the ORI, told us the narrowed finding sets a potentially dangerous precedent (and included this sentiment in a comment he posted to our story about the ORI’s finding). The federal agency depends on institutions to conduct thorough investigations, he said, which are not trivial endeavors.
…[At the ORI], we were appreciative of the fact that it can cost millions of dollars sometimes to pursue a case…Florida officials have to be angry that so much of their lengthy report has been ignored…If the evidence is strong enough, then there’s no justification for a weaker finding.
We asked Irene Cooke, who oversaw the second investigation at the University of Florida, what she thought about the government agency’s decision to limit itself to one finding. She told us:
UF conducted an internal investigation and shared its finding with ORI as is required under federal regulations. The university also sought to retract the affected publications, ultimately succeeding for eight of nine publications.
The university has long since moved on from this case, but UF shares ORI’s ongoing commitment to maintaining the integrity of scientific research and supports the office’s efforts in this area.
Grace notes that ORI’s mission is to ensure institutions are following regulations and conducting thorough investigations — and this narrowed finding may signal that it’s okay for institutions to limit their scope, as well:
Not following through with Chegini could be detrimental to the reputation of the ORI.
“Basically every paper…was falsified”
Indeed, there was much more that was problematic about Chegini’s work than just one paper, said Grace. So far, nine of his publications have been retracted. And when she examined the first misconduct report, she knew it had only scratched the surface of the problem. How?
Experience. Just looking at the data, and the papers. There was no way that type of falsification, I felt, was going to be limited to one paper. It was really just more of a gut instinct. But having worked in the field for a long time, you get a sense. There was a disregard for data.
Her suspicions were validated once she reviewed the second misconduct report issued by UF in 2013:
Basically every paper they looked at was falsified. And I knew it. I just knew it….A person doesn’t falsify that indiscriminately without having done it for a long time.
According to the report:
The overall conclusion of the Investigation Committee was that the Respondent had intentionally fabricated or falsified data in nine published manuscripts spanning the period of 2003‐2008 that were examined by the committee. …Together, these instances of fabrications or falsifications of data represent repeated and significant research misconduct. This research misconduct has had an impact on scientific research as other laboratories have been funded to repeat or conduct follow‐up research on the Respondent’s work resulting in a substantial waste of time, effort and valuable grant funding.
As part of the second investigation, the committee met formally 25 times, recording interviews with a number of sources. It determined Chegini had fabricated data points to produce the desired experimental results, and even added errors to give “the false representation of experimental error in each experiment.” He’d also falsified numbers — in some cases to suggest treatments had biological effects — and Western blot data, sometimes because the experiments hadn’t occurred.
Last month, the ORI sanctioned Chegini for tweaking the findings in seven figures of a 2007 paper, which hasn’t been retracted.
“A wise decision to maximize the outcome”
Earlier this month, the ORI told us the relatively narrow finding was part of a strategy:
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 [pursuing] targeted findings to support deterrence of research misconduct, protect Public Health Service funds, and correct the scientific record.
Not everyone believes the ORI’s decision sets a dangerous precedent. According to John Baumann, the associate vice president for research compliance at Indiana University:
Had ORI looked into every single allegation in which the University of Florida found research misconduct, and confirmed everyone of those research misconduct matters, the outcome would have been absolutely no different.
The remaining papers had already been retracted, Chegini appears to have retired from science completely, and the investigation had been going on for years, said Baumann — and the government agency has an “incredible backlog” of cases:
I know of many institutions that have cases that are awaiting ORI responses, for which the waiting has been more than a year.
He said he wouldn’t want this case to set a new precedent for the ORI’s approach to institutional investigations, but:
I think that in this case it was a wise decision to maximize the outcome, accept or acknowledge the determinations made by the University of Florida, impose sanctions that would have been the exact same sanctions had the ORI conducted the full investigation itself, then moved onto another case…If I were in Florida’s shoes, I would not be displeased with this outcome. Because it resolves the matter in a way consistent with [its] determinations.
Grace and Dahlberg conceded that in Chegini’s case, one could make the case for a smaller finding — many of his papers are already retracted, the investigation had been dragging for years, and he has retired from science. But, as Dahlberg said:
Retirement doesn’t necessarily mean the person wants to leave science.
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