Research problems at Australian university hit the news

A university in Australia that’s made headlines before over allegations of research misconduct has found itself in the news once again.

Last week, the University of Queensland (UQ) announced some of its authors were retracting a paper after discovering data were missing. Just days later, the university made headlines over an investigation into three papers about controversial therapies that were OK’d by UQ ethics committees.

The university announced the retraction via a press release, a practice it says it has maintained since 2013. The other story was revealed by a report in ABC News Australia, in which the university confirmed it is investigating alleged “undeclared conflicts of interest” in at least three papers. The research, which explores unproven therapies promoted by a controversial group called Universal Medicine, was approved by UQ’s ethics committees and led by Christoph Schnelle, who listed UQ as his affiliation; however, Schnelle and his coauthors failed to disclose their affiliations with Universal Medicine.

ABC reported that three UQ researchers have publicly advocated for Universal Medicine; one was the lead author on three papers promoting the organization’s controversial therapies. The Journal of Medical Internet Research, which published two of the papers, says it’s considering retracting them because the authors did not declare their conflict of interest. BioMed Central, which published the third paper, says it’s also investigating the matter.

The university sent us the statement it had provided to ABC, in which Mark Blows, UQ’s pro-vice chancellor of research, said:

The University is investigating the matter under its policies and procedures and in accordance with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. UQ is committed to correcting the scientific record if errors or significant omissions are discovered as part of any investigation.

Transparency efforts

This isn’t the first time UQ has faced allegations against some of its researchers.  For example, two of its former faculty—Caroline Barwood and Bruce Murdochwere among the few researchers to ever face criminal charges over research misconduct. Both were found guilty, and received suspended sentences. The case came with some fallout: A few years ago, a graduate student who lost her project under Murdoch and Barwood went to a government ombudsman to ask UQ to reimburse her for tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.  

In 2013, UQ took the unusual step of issuing a press release when it began investigating Murdoch. We also don’t see many schools do what it did last weekissue a press release for the upcoming retraction of one paper: A 2016 math paper published in eLife (making it the journal’s second-ever retraction).

Although it’s unusual for institutions to issue announcements about retractions or investigations, it’s not unprecedented—after facing criticism over how it had handled previous allegations of misconduct, Ohio State University, for example, recently published a 75-page report detailing the scientific misconduct of a former faculty member. In 2012, the University of Connecticut also released details of its three-year investigation into one of its researchers.

Interestingly, UQ’s most recent release was embargoed for a few hours. eLife, however, does not embargo content (at least, not typically). The embargo, according to a UQ spokesperson, was to ensure that the press release coincided with publication of the journal’s retraction:

We could not issue a statement that an article had been retracted until the article had actually been retracted.

Andy Collings, the executive editor of eLife, explained that the embargo in this case may have been the result of “a breakdown in communication” between the university and journal:

We can accommodate embargoes in exceptional circumstances, but I don’t think it was necessary in this case.

The retraction notice for “A mathematical model explains saturating axon guidance responses to molecular gradients” explains that the authors “encountered a number of errors and inconsistencies” when trying to reproduce the 2016 analysis, and the paper’s first author, Huyen Nyguyen, could not supply the source data for the control experiments.

The paper has been cited six times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Geoffrey Goodhill, the corresponding author on the eLife paper, explained that the errors that led to the retraction appear to be the result of an “innocent mistake:”

The first author has told us that, essentially, she was trying to do too many things at once, and must have accidently deleted the data…. [But] the fact that the control data is missing means that we can’t reproduce the figures that rely on that data.

Nyugen added that she was “not in the best state of mind at the time:”

It’s regretful that it resulted in not doing my due diligence in checking everything thoroughly. They did not excuse my conduct but were contributing factors to my lack of clarity. It is a burden on my conscience that I wasted the time and effort of my professors and colleagues, negatively affected their reputation, that of the university and my own. I hope it is a valuable lesson for PhD students to learn about the critical importance of data management and code version control.

University policy

Blows, UQ’s pro-vice chancellor of research, told us:

The University of Queensland proactively publishes statements about retractions of journal articles in line with its commitment to transparency and accountability and to ensure the integrity of the scientific record.

A spokesperson for UQ said starting issuing statements about retractions in 2013. (Indeed, we found that most retractions associated with UQ since 2013as listed in our databasewere accompanied by university statements.)

Update April 25, 2018 22:00 UTC:

Schnelle and his coauthors issued a press release, claiming to have submitted conflict of interest statements for the three papers in question:

Recent media reports which suggest researchers associated with Universal Medicine have failed to declare a conflict of interest are misleading and inaccurate.

There have been three published papers about subjects related to Universal Medicine in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The authors submitted a conflict of interest statement with all three papers.  

In those statements all authors who attend Universal Medicine events declared so.

None of the authors received, has received or is receiving any money, instruction or direction from Universal Medicine.

The authors stand by their original statements and their accuracy.

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4 thoughts on “Research problems at Australian university hit the news”

  1. It is good to see the University of Queensland providing information, treating cases seriously, and even initiating criminal prosecutions. The apparent lack of cases at other Australian universities is much more of a concern.

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