A researcher collected her own blood and forged the labels so it would appear to be samples from nearly 100 people, according to a new finding of research misconduct released today by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI).
The former researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center swapped her own blood samples for those taken from 98 human subjects. The misconduct affects two grant progress reports and two papers; one paper has already been retracted, and the former “research interviewer” — Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub — has agreed to correct or retract the other.
Adel El-Naggar, a co-author on both of the papers also based at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told Retraction Watch:
This is an unfortunate situation.
El-Naggar said he didn’t know many details of the investigation, but as the principal investigator on the affected grant (worth approximately $1.3 million), he has been informed.
He said the institution had decided that “all publications related to this incident” should be withdrawn, but could not specify which ones. El-Naggar said researchers at the institution realized something was wrong when they used the same blood samples for another study, and found they did not produce the same result as the one Elqutub reported.
We found a discrepancy.
According to today’s notice:
ORI found that Respondent engaged in research misconduct by recording dates and providing her own blood samples to cause these samples to be falsely labeled as samples from ninety-eight (98) study subjects in a cancer genetics study involving human blood samples.
We were unable to find contact details for Elqutub. A spokesperson for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center told us:
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center supports the findings of the Office of Research Integrity and has worked closely with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reach a settlement. MD Anderson is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and works to uphold those standards through structured training programs and reporting mechanisms for institutional research conduct.
According to El-Naggar, Elqutub worked in the lab of Erich Sturgis. When we contacted Sturgis’s office seeking comment, he referred us to a university spokesperson.
Earlier this year, we reported on the retraction of one of the two papers affected by Elqutub’s work, a 2015 paper in Cancer that has been cited eight times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. At the time, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society — which publishes the journal — told us that Sturgis had initially asked for a correction to the paper. The journal ultimately retracted it, noting:
…the authors discovered that, unbeknownst to them, the sampling had been compromised, resulting in duplicate samples involving 93 controls and 4 cases.
Apparently, “duplicate samples” in the notice refers to Elqutub’s blood (which seems quite oblique). When we asked Sturgis for more details about the Cancer retraction after it first appeared, he also referred us to a university spokesperson.
The other paper flagged in the ORI notice is a 2015 paper from PLOS ONE, which has been cited twice. A spokesperson for PLOS told us:
We were only just made aware of this issue and are evaluating it. We will follow up per our editorial processes to establish appropriate steps to correct the record. We hope to identify a way forward soon.
For three years, Elqutub has agreed to have her research supervised, and — if she is employed by an institution that seeks federal funds — submit a certification that the data she provides are legitimate.
El-Naggar told us:
For my standpoint, this issue has been resolved locally and with the funding agency.
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