ORI finds misconduct in case of biologist paid $100K by university to leave

A biologist who studied the impact of diabetes on the eye inappropriately altered data in five images from three papers, according to a new finding of misconduct issued by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

Readers may be familiar with the subject of the findings: Azza El-Remessy, a former tenured associate professor at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, spoke to us earlier this year about her battle with UGA. In June 2016, UGA found her guilty of research misconduct and recommended she be terminated. El-Remessy fought back, hiring a lawyer to contest the findings, and the university ultimately paid her $100,000 to leave. (For more, here’s UGA’s June 2016 investigation report and the settlement agreement between UGA and El-Remessy.)

In the ORI report, published Sept. 29, 2017, the agency determined that El-Remessy had “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly used the same Western blot bands to represent different experimental results” in three papers — a 2005 paper in Journal of Cell Science, a 2013 paper in PLOS ONE, and a 2007 paper in The FASEB Journal. The Journal Cell Science and The FASEB Journal papers have been retracted. The PLOS ONE paper, which has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, has not yet been corrected or retracted.

More specifically, the ORI found that El-Remessy had reused and relabeled bands in five images, three in the Journal of Cell Science paper and one in the PLOS ONE and FASEB Journal papers. For instance, in Figure 4A of Journal of Cell Science paper:

… duplicated controls for p85 immunoprecipitation by using three bands representing 2 normal glucose and 1 high glucose treatments, flipping them horizontally (mirror images) to also represent 2 high glucose and 1 peroxynitrite treatments.

Contacted by Retraction Watch, El-Remessy — who is still affiliated with the Veterans Administration — declined comment. According to the ORI report, El-Remessy “neither admits nor denies ORI’s findings of research misconduct.” El-Remessy has maintained that the errors were honest mistakes.

In the ORI settlement, she has agreed to correct or retract the 2013 PLOS ONE paper and to have her research supervised. She also cannot serve on any peer review committee for the U.S. Public Health Service (which includes the National Institutes of Health) for three years, starting from Sept. 12, 2017, among other sanctions.

The research was supported by five NIH grants.

To date, El-Remessy has had five papers retracted, one withdrawn before publication, and four corrected.

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8 thoughts on “ORI finds misconduct in case of biologist paid $100K by university to leave”

  1. Without knowing all the details of this case it’s hard to judge whether this is a case where the punishments are fitting or not.

    Having several papers retracted and losing your tenured professorship hurts.

    OTOH it does seem that funding bans (1, 3, 5, or 10 years) have been given for reusing bands.

    There’s also a question as to whether or not this data was used in grant applications – ORI is silent on this in this case.

    Seems every case is different.

    In the case of proven scientific misconduct it’s important to send the right message not just to the scientist being punished, but to scientists in general that the consequence of cheating is severe.

  2. Gotta say that it bugs me quite a bit when confidential institutional investigation reports are released to the public, especially when the names of the committee members and witnesses are not redacted.

  3. There should be more transparency in such cases, not less.
    More transparency will work preventive.
    Furthermore, paying cheaters is not the way to do it if you want
    to prevent research misconduct in the future.

  4. This serves as a nice illustration of what happens when government investigative agencies are not given the resources they need to do things in a timely manner (hello EPA!) Had ORI made their findings sooner, it is likely that UGA woud not have “wasted” $100k on this individual – money that could have been used instead for, ummm…… education?

  5. Paul, look at the dates in the linked documents. The final report was written on June 3, 2016 (not clear then how long it took for acceptance by officials, and then for transmittal to ORI), followed by the settlement agreement with the respondent and the university on October 5, 2016. ORI could not possibly have had time to examine all the evidence on nine findings, much less try to negotiate its own settlement with the respondent, in whatever part of those brief four months (during which ORI may have had the university’s report and decision).

  6. I have conducted misconduct inquiries and investigations. These are thankless assignments that are conducted in addition to, rather than in lieu of one’s regular duties: thus, exceptionally disruptive to one’s career. In my experience, the committee is deeply concerned for integrity in scholarship, justice, and even the well-being of respondents, even when they are fraudsters. I investigated one infamous and prolific cheater who was clearly guilty of misconduct. Even so, I have spent many sleepless nights concerned for his future and questioning how the “system” could have worked better in his or others’ cases.

    The thanks received for conducting an air-tight, absolutely professional and 100% fair inquiry/investigation? I no longer conduct my own research program, lost my grant, closed my lab, no more students, etc. In short, so far, the burden/cost to me has been greater than it has been for anyone else associated with this case…including the person found to have engaged in voluminous misconduct.

    Because of the above, it rankles me to hear about a cheater settling with ORI and not admitting anything. Much worse is to hear that a university pays off a cheater to just go away. I get it that $100,000 might be cheaper than facing the person in court at some point. I also understand the economics of ORI just trying to expedite closure of a case. I also get that these approaches might be analogous to plea bargaining in the criminal justice system. However, these approaches and tactics are FLAWED for the following reasons:

    1. Everyone gets off easy/cheap, except for the inquiry/investigation committees; if it’s going to be like this, next time I’ll just investigate ONE allegation, saving my time, energy and sanity. Why should we expend all the effort on multiple issues when ORI and/or the university will take their shortcuts?

    2. Where’s the sense of justice? So it’s OK for someone who engages in misconduct to go away, never having to admit to anything to ORI and their next employer? It seems to me, for example, that the criminal justice system typically doesn’t do this…for legit reasons. Instead, they continue through to the end of the investigation and prosecute for ALL crimes committed by the accused. There are many reasons for this, and I suspect that the intelligent readers of RW don’t need me to give justification for this approach.

    3. Won’t this approach emasculate any deterrent aspect of the misconduct process? Not only does nothing bad happen to you for defrauding the government in your research, but you also get a big payday. Awesome!

    In fact, as I’m thinking of it, maybe at this stage of my career I should commit misconduct, anonymously inform on myself, and negotiate a $100,000 payout just before my planned retirement date!

  7. Sure, I Claudius. As a scientist-investigator in OSI/ORI for 17 years, I certainly can appreciate from first-hand oversight reviews, the very hard work — often under pressure from those within the institution as well as from outside attorneys — that is done by chairpersons and members of research misconduct investigation committees. I saw often, when the committtee’s work was done well and fairly, how they deserved credit and praise, but they often felt that they did not receive it internally.

    Yet it is not really “getting off easy” for a respondent to sign a settlement with ORI, which found that person had committed research misconduct and has to retract papers, and to have that ORI settlement made public — available online, forever — in both the NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts and the U.S. Government’s Federal Register [in this case, the posting at
    https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/10/04/2017-21367/findings-of-research-misconduct%5D. These Internet postings by ORI come up at the top when anyone does a Google search on “person’s full name, ORI, Federal Register” [or “name, ORI, NIH Guide”].

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