Today, the Ohio State University (OSU) announced that Ching-Shih Chen, who resigned from a professorship there in September, was guilty of “deviating from the accepted practices of image handling and figure generation and intentionally falsifying data” in 14 images from eight papers. Chen had earned more than $8 million in Federal grants, and his work had led to a compound now being testing in clinical trials for cancer. (For details of the case, see our story in Science.)
OSU — which has been involved in several high-profile cases of misconduct recently — released a lightly-redacted version of their investigation report, and we asked C.K. Gunsalus, who has decades of experience reviewing similar cases, to examine it for us. A Q&A follows.
Retraction Watch (RW): What’s your impression of the case? How does it compare in significance with others you’ve looked at?
C.K. Gunsalus (CKG): This research is clinical, and was covered by an investigational new drug application (IND). Any time you have translational research that has been or is in the process of human use, the significance is high.
RW: OSU is releasing their investigation report. In our experience with universities, that’s rare, even when we file public records requests. Would you agree?
CKG: Yes, it is rarer than it should be, and is to be commended.
RW: We — meaning you and two of our co-founders — and a number of others recently developed a checklist, published in JAMA, to allow for peer review of reports like this. How does the report perform on that checklist?
CKG: Some strengths come through clearly and unaddressed questions surface. The virtue of a checklist is that it can quickly highlight important issues about the investigation and the institutional response. Applying the checklist developed by a convened group of experts in this area and applying it to this report raises some questions. The university may well have strong answers for all of them. They are not answered in the report that was released.
RW: What did OSU do well?
CKG: They received an anonymous allegation, assessed it for its factual basis–not always done–and responded by applying their procedures, sequestering data promptly, appointing first an inquiry, and then an investigative committee. They released the final investigation report. The report contains a good deal of detailed information about specific papers and figures. The report clearly states findings and how they relate to conclusions, and in at least in one instance, the committee expanded their work based on the evidence they were examining. They make recommendations that seem to respond to the seriousness of the findings.
Overall, this is a very tightly focused, internal investigation that examined some itemized issues in detail and with apparent care and rigor for those issues. As indicated above, a procedural review of the report raises questions that may well have been addressed in other contexts; there just is not information in this document one way or the other to answer those questions, some of which involve serious matters.
RW: What unanswered questions do you have about this case, based on the report?
CKG: There are a number of places where the released documents are less clear than might be ideal, leading to the following questions, among others:
While making it clear the investigation was conducted under institutional policies–the report at one point differentiates between institutional and federal standards and definitions–there is no information about the larger institutional implications of the findings, and little information about the clinical implications. There is no discussion of the relation of those papers to other lines of work in the lab, no timeline showing whether the misconduct started full blown on a particular date or is restricted to the line of work examined. It is not clear why the papers examined were selected, or how, though the committee did expand its scope of work after examining some of the initial evidence.
The issue over which I paused the longest is triggered by a sentence on page 3 describing the data sequestration process: “In some cases, Dr. Chen indicated that there were no laboratory notebooks kept by members of the lab, rather individuals only had weekly progress reports and no daily records of the experiments they conducted.” If that is the case, how is it that only his work was examined? How were all of his collaborators cleared of any involvement in the misconduct? What is the institution doing about the training provided (or not) to students and trainees in his lab over the years? How do the funders know that the work they supported was conducted, or how it was done?
The report does not include the charge nor the scope of the work the committee was to review. There is no way from what is in the report to determine if all pertinent evidence was available or examined, nor how the work that was examined was selected. How did the staff and committee determine which work to review? Did they set a chronological limit and not go any further back? Did they focus only on the items reported by the anonymous allegation? The report does not say. Again, there may be compelling and sufficient answers; they are just not in the report I reviewed.
While the investigative committee included a member from outside the home unit of the respondent, it did not contain any member from outside the university. There is no discussion in the report covering the professional expertise of the committee members nor statements about reviewing their work for potential conflicts of interest. Thus it is not possible, from the report, to assess whether the committee had appropriate expertise for its task, or any conflicts of interest. Please note that I am not questioning the expertise of the members; the report would be stronger if it were recited, along with its relevance to the work to be examined.
It appears that only the the respondent was interviewed, and that was only by staff, not by the investigative committee. This seems unusual to me, and raises a number of questions.
Finally, reconstructing the timeline of the investigation from the report–one is not included–opens some additional questions. The time from beginning of the process to the end is not especially startling; that without explanation, the report carries a January 2018 revision date, when it was issued in September 2017, is unusual. If the revision was to redact for reasons of student (or other) privacy, it would have been useful if that had been clearly noted.
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