The decade-long saga capped by a $215,000 settlement with the US government

If you need a reminder of how slowly the wheels of justice grind, here’s one.

Earlier this month,  Sam W. Lee agreed to pay the U.S. government $215,000 to settle allegations that the former Harvard researcher had made false claims in a grant application.

It turns out that at least one skeptical researcher had notified journals and regulators about his concerns over the veracity of some of Lee’s other published findings back in 2011. 

In July of that year, David Vaux, an Australian scientist and research ethicist now at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, wrote to Nature about a new paper by Lee with what he believed were several critical flaws. According to Vaux, multiple colleagues of his had raised questions about the article, “Selective killing of cancer cells by a small molecule targeting the stress response to ROS,” which the journal had published earlier that month. 

Among the criticisms, wrote Vaux, a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization, were: 

  • “implausibly small” error bars in “most” figures; 
  • Everyone I’ve shown it to believes that Fig. S9b shows multiple pictures of the same mice (just from different angles).
  • No one has ever heard of measuring the size of tumour in mice by length.
  • It is not statistically possible to count cells using trypan blue to get results with a coefficient of variation as small as that depicted in Fig. 1b or c.

Vaux then turned his attention to a 2009 paper by Lee’s group in Molecular Cell titled “AMT, a p53-Inducible Modulator of Apoptosis, Is Critical for the Adaptive Response to Nutrient Stress.” It too, he told the editors, showed signs of unreliable data. The journal retracted it in 2013.

While Vaux waited for the journals to act — and waited and waited and waited some more, in the case of Nature, which didn’t retract the suspect article until 2018, allowing years of  citations to accrue  — he contacted the U.S. Office of Research Integrity about Lee. 

A prompt initial reply was followed by a year of silence, so Vaux reached out again, in October 2012, for a status report. In an Oct. 6, 2012, email, ORI’s John Dahlberg told Vaux that: 

Harvard is indeed reviewing the multiple papers over many years that appear to have inappropriately manipulated images.  Although they tend to be slow, they are thorough and have an excellent track record with ORI.

It was around that time that Lee threatened to sue Paul Brookes, of the now-shuttered, for his critiques of Lee’s work.

Nine years later, we are still waiting for any kind of statement from Harvard, MGH, or ORI about the Lee case. The closest we’ve come, as we recently reported, is this August 2021 announcement  from the U.S. Department of Justice of Lee’s settlement with the feds. The statement notes that Massachusetts General Hospital, where Lee — who has at least five retractions — worked, repaid the entire amount of the grant (nearly $940,000) — but neither MGH nor Harvard has addressed the payment or Lee publicly. The two papers Vaux flagged were not linked to the NIH grant for which Lee provided bogus data.

Here’s all we received this week from an MGH spokesperson, which is more or less the boilerplate comment institutions make when the merde hits the fan: 

We take research integrity issues very seriously, and review issues brought to our attention in accordance with all applicable regulations and policy. Upon becoming aware of the concerns, the hospital acted proactively and cooperated with federal officials to fully resolve the matter.

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