Infamous case of fraud by protein crystallographer ends in 10-year funding ban

In 2009, a university announced a prominent researcher in the field of protein crystallography had likely fabricated nearly a dozen protein structures. Nine years later, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has upheld the results — and announced a relatively long sanction, by the agency’s standards.

Today, the ORI placed a 10-year ban on Federal funding for H.M. Krishna Murthy, a former research associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), noting he “falsified and/or fabricated” research in nine papers and multiple structures added to a widely used database. Four of the papers have already been retracted; two others have been flagged with an expression of concern by the journal. Three remain otherwise intact.

The announcement was a long time coming — after the ORI provided Murthy with its initial finding and proposed sanctions, he appealed. On January 19, 2018, and Administrative Law Judge declined to move forward with the appeal, allowing the agency to proceed. Today’s finding was accompanied by a rare message from the interim office of the director, Wanda Jones, in which she notes today’s announcement:

…discusses an investigation that has taken years – and countless hours of ORI work — to resolve. Additionally, the institution dedicated a massive amount of time and effort to the inquiry and investigation. I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to acknowledge the range of contributions by ORI staff on this case…A judge’s ruling in ORI’s favor is cause for recognition.

A ruling from administrative law judge Steven Kessel in the case (dated January 2017, which we suspect may be in error) says:

Respondent evinces neither remorse for nor understanding of his misconduct. He continues to assert that he committed no misconduct in the face of a mountain of undisputed facts that prove otherwise. I can only infer from Respondent’s continued defiance that he is manifestly untrustworthy and that his untrustworthiness justifies a lengthy debarment and prohibition.

We were unable to find contact information for Murthy.

Kessel’s ruling says:

[Murthy’s] defenses are that he made honest mistakes that do not amount to fraud or reckless indifference to the truth, that his errors are commonplace in the research community – that everybody makes and publishes errors like the ones that he made and published – and that, furthermore, he is the victim of a vendetta conducted against him by individuals at UAB and by ORI…I find that nothing that Respondent asserts rebuts the undisputed facts of this case. Many of Respondent’s fact contentions are fanciful and are not evidence-based. I find no support in the record for Respondent’s contention that his false research findings are typical of errors that are commonplace. I find Respondent’s assertion that he is the victim of a vendetta to be both fanciful and irrelevant as a matter of law.

The ORI notice recommends retracting the five remaining papers affected by Murthy’s misconduct, including the two with expressions of concern, along with the affected structures in the Protein Data Bank. Five of the protein structures flagged by the ORI notice have already been removed.

Nine years, “countless hours”

The case dates back at least nine years; in 2009, UAB announced that an investigation committee had concluded that Murthy had supplied fraudulent data in nine papers and several structures in the Protein Data Bank, and requested that all be retracted. (The UAB’s 2009 statement has been removed; we have an archived version from March, 2017.)

According to a 2009 news story from Nature:

The finding by a university misconduct investigation that a crystallographer “more likely than not” faked almost a dozen protein structures has left the field in shock. The fraud is the largest ever in protein crystallography. The disputed structures had important implications for discovering drugs against dengue virus and for understanding the human immune system.

Paul Thaler, of Cohen Seglias, who has frequently represented researchers accused of misconduct, told Retraction Watch that cases can take years to complete — sometimes the ORI has to go back and forth with institutions over the findings, and participants routinely ask for extensions.

There are a lot of cases that have dragged on for that long or longer. It’s an unfortunate reality of this practice. It’s much more rare to get matters resolved quickly.

Plus, Murthy appealed the initial findings — something that Thaler has also seen more frequently.

I think that there are more appeals because historically there were next to none. That there are any indicates there are more.

Other researchers who have tried to appeal ORI findings include Frank Sauer, Christian Kreipke, and Scott Brodie.

Thaler said it’s not clear why more respondents are appealing,  since it still happens so infrequently.

Each case has its own set of facts and circumstances.

In 2016, Nature retracted one of the papers flagged in the ORI notice, years after it had been flagged with problems by UAB. The paper had been under scrutiny since it was published in 2006, when a letter published in Nature pointed out “physically implausible features in the structures it described.”

Thaler noted that the announcement by Interim Director Jones isn’t undeserved — as the office has undergone recent turnover in staff (including the reassignment of director Kathy Partin), “it’s probably been a very tough place to work.” The people who are left are likely overworked and burdened by demands, especially on such a complicated case:

To go through all of that, and then to have someone confirm that there work was correct and is being upheld, I think they’re taking some well-deserved satisfaction.

As a litigating lawyer, Thaler said he too takes satisfaction when a judge rules in your favor without putting you through a trial.

It’s nice to win.

The five intact papers recommended for retraction by the ORI are:

  • Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 101:8924-8929, 2004; Editorial Expression of Concern in: PNAS 107:6551, 2010 April 6
  • Biochem. 44:10757-10765, 2005
  • Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 103:2126-2131, 2006; Editorial Expression of Concern in: PNAS 107:6551, 2010 April 6
  • Cell 104:301-311, 2001 (hereafter referred to as “Cell 2001”)
  • Biochem. 41:11681-11691, 2002 (hereafter referred to as “Biochem. 2002”)

We received a statement from UAB’s Assistant Vice President for Research, Research Integrity Officer Pam Bounelis:

Over a decade ago, UAB investigated allegations of research misconduct against H.M. Krishna Murthy.  A committee found the allegations to be substantiated and that Dr. Murthy was solely responsible for the misconduct. UAB took appropriate action to correct the scientific record. Dr. Murthy is no longer employed at UAB.

Update, April 11 2018, 1:46 UTC: We received a statement from a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes ORI:

This case, as with all [Administrative Law Judge] cases, has taken a while to work through, and with nearly everyone in the office “touching” it, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the behind-the-scenes work.

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3 thoughts on “Infamous case of fraud by protein crystallographer ends in 10-year funding ban”

  1. Researchers who commit proven fraud should be barred for life. Lawyers, teachers, police, and other professionals generally loose their jobs and cannot practice professionally when convicted of fraud.

  2. Utterly astounding that the process should take so long for a case that was so blatently obviously fraud to a practicing crystallographer!

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