Exclusive: Urology researcher demoted after misconduct investigation — then becomes chair at another school

Hari Koul

A urology researcher at Louisiana State University lost his post as department chair after a misconduct investigation, Retraction Watch has learned. But he eventually moved on to be department chair at a different LSU campus — where he remains today.

In June, we reported that the work of urology researcher Hari Koul had been investigated by his former employer, the University of Colorado, following a recommendation by LSU. But between the time the misconduct investigation concluded in 2014 and the publication of our story, only three of nine papers by Koul that Colorado recommended for corrections or retractions had been amended in any way. More of those publications have been retracted following our story, the reporting of which was how some editors learned of the issues.

Now, via a public records request, we’ve gained access to the inquiry at LSU which led to the investigation at CU Denver and includes notes from interviews with Koul and his postdoc. The Denver investigation didn’t find Koul guilty of misconduct, but it found many errors in his published work, leading LSU’s Health Science Center in Shreveport to demote him in 2016. After several years of apparently unrelated legal battles with LSU’s Health Science Center in Shreveport, Koul moved to a different LSU institution, LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, last year.

There, Koul took a new chair post, and most of the investigation committee’s requests for correction or retraction fell through the cracks. Most of the concerns about Koul’s works wouldn’t catch up with him until this year — and he remains in his post in New Orleans.

The inquiry that led to the Denver investigation started shortly after an anonymous whistleblower reached out to Sandra Roerig, a dean and research integrity officer for LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, on June 2, 2014, according to the inquiry report. The whistleblower, who used a Gmail account called Procancerresearch, notified Roerig of PubPeer posts which alleged the misrepresentation of images in three of Koul’s published works.

The inquiry committee of three LSU faculty sat down with both Koul and Mintu Pal, a postdoc with him at the Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and first author on one of the three papers.

When the committee interviewed Pal on July 14, 2014, he said he’d mixed up images when preparing them for a poster in an annual research symposium at LSU. According to the notes, he said he “copied the images from the original images and put into the power point [sic] slides in smaller sizes” and in doing so made “cut and paste” errors.

However, when the committee pressed him for details and asked how this could explain how an entire set of images were based on one image which was “frameshifted,” Pal gave “nebulous” answers, according to the inquiry report. 

Neither Koul nor Pal have responded to multiple email requests for comment from Retraction Watch. Pal, during the inquiry, made complaints about a previous draft of the inquiry report and asked that the report be eliminated based on “erroneous pretence.”

“We never could figure out what had actually happened. He [Pal] couldn’t really answer our questions very well,” says Roerig, now emeritus status at LSU.

Pal said he emailed Koul on May 14, 2014, immediately after realizing the error, and followed up with corrected images. The article had been published in April 2013, more than a year prior. The PubPeer allegations surfaced around the time Pal wrote to Koul about his mistake and the committee asked Pal if he knew of the site PubPeer. He said he did not.

On May 16, the report says, Koul wrote to the editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, where the article “The transcription factor sterile alpha motif (SAM) pointed domain-containing ETS transcription factor (SPDEF) is required for E-cadherin expression in prostate cancer cells” was published, to tell him of Pal’s image error. The next month, the anonymous whistleblower reached out to Roerig to share allegations over that paper and two others.

A few days after Pal’s interview, the committee met with Koul, who said that he was aware of PubPeer and that he “would like to look through his data and notes and make corrective actions if needed.” He said that he was confident “that the amount of data that his lab had for those manuscripts far exceeds what was published.” But as per our previous coverage, the investigative committee at CU Denver found little to no data to support the manuscripts.

The report says Koul “expressed puzzlement” at how Pal could just have noticed this error after “presenting the data on at least four different occasions.” And he wasn’t sure “whether this was Dr. Pal’s incompetence or a deliberate action.”

However, Koul said that he had not been in his lab for “the past twelve years, and does not typically have one-on-one conversations with his lab members.” Koul said he wasn’t meeting regularly with Pal and and hadn’t at all during the spring. The report says that because of Pal’s previous research experience, Koul, “felt that [Pal] did not need any more of Dr. Koul’s ‘divine intervention.’”

The report says that Koul thought the whistleblower was a disgruntled peer at LSU “trying to get revenge for some actions that Dr. Koul has taken against this faculty member.” According to the report, the committee did not attempt to identify the whistleblower. “He has very few friends here,” Roerig says, so it’s possible Koul is correct.

The committee asked how Koul trained his lab members in ethics. The report says Koul reinforced the idea that the data should tell the story and “indicated that his training was by example.”

After the inquiry concluded in 2014, Roerig sent its outcome to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. Koul would lose his chair in early March 2016. On March 4, Alison Lakin, the research integrity officer involved with Koul’s investigation, sent an email to Ghali Ghali, then a professor and surgeon, as well as chancellor, at the LSU Health Science Center in Shreveport.

“There were some improvements to be made at all levels within this institution but there was no finding of research misconduct,” Lakin wrote.

Koul replied to Ghali, referring to Lakin’s email, “Now that you have this e-mail am I still being suspended?”

Roerig doesn’t recall Koul being suspended, only losing his chair position. It’s possible, she says that Koul referred to a suspension because he still hoped to regain his lost chair.

Retraction Watch also obtained a set of letters signed by a person or people claiming to be “LSU Shreveport Faculty” dated from June 2020 to September 2020, which address concerns over Koul’s work. These letters were sent to LSU’s research integrity office and Joseph Moerschbaecher, who was the vice chancellor of the LSU Science Center in New Orleans, with the FBI, Office of the Inspector General, and PubPeer listed as ccs.

The letters allege grant “double dipping” — in which a researcher receives funding from two different agencies or foundations to do the same work — and appear to show pasted grant application abstracts that Koul submitted virtually the same federal grant application for a VA and an NIH grant, each worth about $300,000, and acceptance of funding from both sources.

The allegations of double dipping were not a part of the investigation, surfacing afterward, but Roerig says that recently an LSU administrator told her that “the VA might be now looking into that.”

The last letter asks the research integrity office to launch an inquiry to investigate Koul and says that he should be “suspended from all the research activities.” It ends with an ultimatum: “If you do not act, we will report this matter to the news media and other agencies.”

The most recent document, tacked on to the letters, is an email from Allan Kaye, then vice chancellor of academic affairs and professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pharmacology at LSUHSC-Shreveport, to Moerschbaecher dated Oct. 6, 2020, which states: 

“There are various opinions about him. He was known here to be ‘arrogant’ and ‘condescending’ at times.” Koul was “given a super chair at the Cancer Center. When he arrived, there was suspicion that he had data re-publication and it caught national attention on websites like ‘pubpeers’ [sic] and ‘retraction watch’ [sic]”

Koul lost his department chair position in March, 2016 as a result of the investigation, according to Roerig and Stephan Witt, who filled Koul’s chair position after Koul “was removed as the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology,” Witt says.

“He was a full professor with tenure, so he remained on the faculty until he left last year,” and retained his chair salary until then, Roerig says. The LSU Human Resources contact verified that Koul was paid $106 hourly for full time work during his employment at LSU between September 14, 2013 and February 29, 2020. It is unclear whether Koul lost his other chair position which was at the Feist-Weiller Cancer Center.

“He did bring a lawsuit against the university — specific people in the university and I was one of them,” Roerig says. Koul sued for damages in 2017 in Caddo Parish, according to Louisiana public records. “But it wasn’t based on anything to do with misconduct,” Roerig says. Koul alleged that “He was discriminated against — that he lost salary because of that,” but Roerig says the allegations were baseless and he eventually dropped them to enable him to take a new position at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans in 2020.

LSU’s media contact did not respond to our requests for comment, so we don’t know if those who hired Koul in New Orleans knew about the fallout of the misconduct investigation, but at least one person on faculty — vice chancellor Moerschbaecher — was alerted to allegations against Koul as early as February 2020, the same month Koul was taken on, based on the letters addressed to Moerschbaecher.

The ORI has not yet announced a finding in Koul’s case. 

“He is a ‘hard worker’ and is ‘smart’ per the people here,” Kaye’s letter concludes, “To this day, they never found the postdoc who returned to India.”

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a one-time tax-deductible contribution or a monthly tax-deductible donation to support our work, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, or subscribe to our daily digest. If you find a retraction that’s not in our database, you can let us know here. For comments or feedback, email us at team@retractionwatch.com.

5 thoughts on “Exclusive: Urology researcher demoted after misconduct investigation — then becomes chair at another school”

  1. Ugh.
    Is there a single example where a faculty has “lawyered up” when accused of misconduct, and then won the case against their university?
    I can think of several examples where the involvement of lawyers causes these investigations to drag on for years, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any situation where suing the RIO et al. had a beneficial outcome for science?

  2. Pal claims he did not know of PubPeer. The original allegations were posted on PubPeer on or before May 14th 2014 (I know this because, per my personal email records, I emailed a colleague at 10:30am that day, notifying them of the PubPeer post on the 2013 JBC paper).
    Pal emailed Koul on May 14th. We are expected to believe that the exact same day of the PubPeer post, Pal just happened to independently discover the error and proactively offer a resolution. What are the chances?

  3. There’s a stunning indictment of US science buried in this story: that someone who, by his own admission, had not been in the lab for *twelve years* would be considered to be doing an adequate job as lab head. Someone who was too busy to look at data, to attend lab meetings…to do anything but put his name on papers, apparently. And we think such people are “productive.”

    1. I was thinking of exactly the same thing. If you are someone who hasn’t been in his lab for “the past twelve years and does not typically have one-on-one conversations with his lab members”, why is your name on these papers? Not exactly sure how he can train people in his lab on ethics when he “indicated that his training was by example” when he is not physically present.

      Just goes to show that everyone involved in chair searches should do due diligence on checking the background of all applicants. The public record is very informative: PubPeer, social media etc. can give a good example of what drives the individual.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.