Probe finds misconduct in eight papers by researcher in Sweden

Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, via the University of Gothenburg

An external probe has concluded that a researcher based at the University of Gothenburg committed misconduct in multiple papers, all of which should be withdrawn.

Among 10 papers by Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson at the University of Gothenburg, an Expert Group concluded that eight contained signs of scientific misconduct. The Expert Group, part of Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board, also found evidence of problems within her laboratory environment.

In an email to Retraction Watch, Sumitran-Holgersson denied any “willful manipulation of data.”

According to the report (in Swedish, which we translated using Google):

The expert group concludes that the case shows systematic shortcomings in the composition and function of the research group and an almost dysfunctional research environment. There have been no proper meetings and people have come and gone, often on unclear grounds. This circumstance is probably one of the main reasons for the shortcomings [the] research shows. The Expert Group strongly criticizes the research culture found in the group around Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson.

A spokesperson for the University of Gothenburg told Retraction Watch that Sumitran-Holgersson and her co-authors now have the opportunity to respond to the report:

On request of the University of Gothenburg, the Expert Group at the Swedish Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) has issued an opinion in relation to matters under internal investigation at the university. This opinion is now added to the ongoing investigation by the ‘Council for matters concerning investigation of suspected misconduct in research, research in the arts or development work at the University of Gothenburg’.

As the next step, the opinion from the Expert Group will now be sent to the University of Gothenburg affiliated researchers named in the document and they will be given the opportunity to comment. Hereafter ‘The Council for matters concerning investigation of suspected misconduct in research, research in the arts or development work at the University of Gothenburg’ will state their conclusion in an opinion to Vice-Chancellor Eva Wiberg who, based on that, will make a decision in the matter.

Sumitran-Holgersson told us:

There is yet no formal verdict in this matter. I admit carelessness in the preparation of these manuscript, and I take the full responsibility for the mistakes. I categorically deny any willful manipulation of data.

The Gothenburg spokesperson added:

If the Vice-Chancellor makes a decision that scientific misconduct has taken place in the matter, the university will inform the relevant scientific journals of the findings and the university decision.

Last year, the university concluded that Sumitran-Holgersson and a frequent co-author,  Michael Olausson (also at the University of Gothenburg), were guilty of misconduct in two papers:

That earlier investigation was prompted by a series of questions about their work on PubPeer. The CEPN investigation (also reported by Göteborgs-Posten), in contrast, concluded that Sumitran-Holgersson’s explanation for the issues with an image in The Lancet paper raised doubts over whether the authors had committed misconduct:

…although the explanation seems strange, it can not be determined that it is false.

The Lancet paper — one of the two papers the Expert Group says should remain part of the scientific record — reports transplanting a vein graft using donor tissue seeded with a patient’s own stem cells. This procedure may sound familiar — another investigator, Paolo Macchiarini, has been under fire for years after he claimed success with a similar procedure transplanting trachea seeded with autologous cells. Both Sumitran-Holgersson and Macchiarini were once based at the Karolinska Institute, which also investigated Sumitran-Holgersson before she transferred to Gothenburg.

In 2016, a spokesperson for the Swedish government told us it had launched an investigation to rethink how it handles accusations of misconduct.

Sumitran-Holgersson has already lost one of the eight papers recommended for withdrawal after she asked the journal to swap out an image that was duplicated by mistake. Instead of letting her correct the paper, however, the journal opted to retract it.

Here is the list of the other papers included in the report, one of which has received a “temporary removal” notice from Elsevier:

Update 16:37 UTC on March 19, 2018: The story has been updated to include comments from Sumitran-Holgersson.

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