Exclusive: How a researcher faked data and gaslit a labmate for years

Ryan Evanoff

Sometime in early 2019, a postdoc in a veterinary microbiology lab at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman came to suspect that a research assistant in her lab was fabricating data.

The postdoc had noticed that the research assistant’s experiments always produced positive results, while hers were always negative. And the experiments she performed with materials from the assistant gave “alarmingly inconsistent” results for no apparent reason, she said in an interview with an investigation committee.

She brought her concerns to a senior researcher, and the research assistant, Ryan Evanoff, was asked to “detail what he had done,” but apparently nothing came of it. 

The supervisor indicated that the postdoc’s initial message outlining her concerns “was not clear enough,” but the postdoc thought she’d been clear and says she’d been “extremely careful” due to the severity of the situation.

Later, the postdoc approached the supervisor again to say that “Evanoff was not honest with her,” and, “she was also ignored.”

Nearly two years later, the postdoc – whose name is redacted from drafts of a misconduct investigation report obtained by Retraction Watch through a public records request – was vindicated. One of the papers co-authored by Evanoff was retracted, and he resigned from WSU.

None of that happened before the postdoc resorted to “withdrawing from authorship” to motivate action, according to the report. And by the time Evanoff was caught, his work had tainted two published papers, an NIH R21 grant, and possibly a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and prevented two other manuscripts from being published.

In December of 2020, we reported that Evanoff was caught fabricating data and quit his position at WSU Pullman before he could be fired. Evanoff admitted to fabricating one dataset, though he “denies any culpability” in the other cases of misconduct he was accused of, the report says.

The postdoc had to leave the lab after four years without a single intact publication to show for her work on hepacivirus.

The postdoc was among the witnesses interviewed by the WSU committee that investigated the matter. She joined the lab where Evanoff worked in September 2015 with “a DVM, two PhD degrees, and four years of postdoctoral experience,” according to the report.

She worked on two relevant projects — one which measured the effectiveness of a drug given to horses with a tick-transmitted parasite called Theileria equi, and one with equine viruses that may act as a model for hepatitis C virus infection in humans. Evanoff “participated in both projects,” but was more involved in the Hepacivirus project, the report says.

The postdoc “stated that one of the first things that caught her attention in the laboratory was that “Mr. Evanoff was generating a significant amount of research data that was not consistent with the hours of laboratory work he was putting in.”

In an interview with the committee, she said she “was always generating negative results” while Evanoff had “beautiful results” and stated that he “was the star in the laboratory.”

She also noticed that when she used Evanoff’s materials, she got “alarmingly inconsistent results without a clear explanation,” the report says.

The committee conducted seven interviews with five witnesses between December 9, 2019 and March 19, 2020, the report says. Evanoff would not agree to be interviewed and gave limited answers in written form. “Evanoff did respond to written questions five weeks after submission” after a few rounds of email reminders, the report says.

The report describes “a repeated and measurable pattern of research material manipulation, changing of data, omission of critical research procedures and findings in lab notebooks, and fabrication of data and results” which lasted for years and seriously affected the career of at least one colleague.

When her original complaints apparently went nowhere, the postdoc reached out to another supervisor about her concerns regarding Evanoff around March, the report says. This person, “was receptive to the claims and asked for proof,” the report says.

Prior to this, she had kept old control samples from Evanoff and compared them with “new samples he provided that should have been the same material,” the report says. The data didn’t match: The samples contained proteins with different molecular weights, the report says and, “When asked to discuss, Mr. Evanoff never called [redacted] back.”

The two supervisors involved appear to be Robert Mealey, a professor and chair of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at WSU, and Joshua Ramsay, an associate professor in the same department. 

The postdoc said that Evanoff cast doubt on her laboratory skills and “suggested that she was confusing the samples” or putting them in the wrong position,” according to the report.

The supervisor asked the postdoc and Evanoff to “submit a sample” to the University of Idaho for mass spectrometry. The report says emails show the samples, supposed to be a “recombinant envelope protein of a virus” Evanoff had generated, were sent.

The results from the University of Idaho showed that “the sample had horse serum proteins and chicken egg albumin,” which it wasn’t supposed to contain, “instead of viral envelope proteins.”

Peer review of a manuscript Evanoff had contributed to also came back questioning the plausibility of his methods. The report later says that a manuscript was rejected as a result of Evanoff’s contribution, but didn’t explicitly say it was the same. 

After at least one of the sample analyses threw Evanoff’s work into question, one of his supervisors confronted him. 

“We caught him in the act while troubleshooting some experiments that were not working,” Mealey told Retraction Watch in 2020. “He provided sequencing results that he clearly fabricated because they were completely different from what the outside sequencing lab reported on the same samples. (Mealey declined to comment further for this story.)

A witness told the committee that Evanoff claimed he had verified a DNA sequence by sending it to a company called Eurofins, which was normal, “but the actual sequence obtained from Eurofins was of poor quality and did not support this claim.”

Instead, the witness stated “Mr. Evanoff substituted a known sequence,” in the information he gave to the postdoc. When confronted over the discrepancy, “Evanoff acknowledged that he had misrepresented the DNA sequence” and assured the witness that this was a one-time issue.

In the report, the witness describes his interaction with Evanoff when, after the evidence had built up and the witness first took the issue seriously: “When I really faced him that first day with those falsified sequences, and I looked at him. I mean I was shocked and I just assumed this was a one-off deal…I guess that’s what I wanted to believe.” 

He expressed how surprised he and the lab were to find out that because of Evanoff, they had been trying to conduct experiments on samples that were essentially water. 

Referring to Evanoff’s deception, he said, “I mean who does that?”

Eventually, the committee found that Evanoff had falsified plasmid sequencing data, fabricated peptide data, falsified/fabricated a “sequence analysis of a potential Hepacivirus A quasispecies,” falsified “T-cell response data” for “a surrogate animal model for human hepatitis C infection,” falsified data “related to metabolic pathways as potential causes for maladaptation to training syndrome” in horses, and falsified data “related to the prevalence of evaluate gamma-glutamyl transferase and sorbitol dehydrogenase activity” in horses.

The committee found “a lack of quality oversight in Mr. Evanoff’s daily research efforts” for which a supervisor took responsibility, the report says. Still, “the evidence makes clear” that Evanoff committed research fabrication and falsification, according to the report.

In addition to data fabrication, the investigation learned that Evanoff was guilty of neglecting his basic responsibilities. A witness told the committee that Evanoff “kept horrible records and the lab notebooks kind of petered out in 2015.”

A researcher recalled wondering about the level of six liquid nitrogen tanks used to maintain samples “going back to the 80s” and checked on them to find that “all of them were bone dry.” At first, the researcher worried that “with everything going on,” they may have neglected them.

Then they checked with their business office and learned that “our lab hadn’t purchased any liquid nitrogen since 2016.”

Although the evidence against Evanoff was substantial, the report says Evanoff’s judgment may have been altered at times. One witness testimony, apparently from a lab he worked in several years earlier, says he was a diligent and transparent worker. The report also refers to an event in November 2018 that “shocked the entire lab.” A witness said to be careful with Evanoff because he “never took a break after the loss and he could be confusing the samples” and “doing things that were not proper because he was not well.”

In the end, the committee called for a closer look at four papers which might have been affected by Evanoff’s misconduct. Two of them were retracted, one in the Equine Veterinary Journal and the other in the Journal of Virology with seven citations between the two of them, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. At time of writing, there is a retraction notice for the Journal of Virology paper but the article does not reference its retraction.

According to Ramsay, who was an author on several of Evanoff’s papers, “we did not find evidence of misconduct in the other published manuscripts he contributed to.”

WSU declined to comment on the investigation. As did Ramsay and the postdoc, whose name we were able to glean from the context but have decided not to disclose because of the potential for further damage to her career through no fault of her own.

The report recommends that Evanoff’s WSU file should be flagged to ensure he’s never hired again “under any circumstances.” It also outlines two general recommendations for the university going forward. First, WSU should make its principal investigators more aware that misconduct happens and that “they are responsible for the conduct of research they are supervising” even at the risk of “damaging WSU’s reputation.”

Second, WSU should support use of “robust, computerized systems” for research records and “make students aware of their responsibility to keep accurate records.”

The committee also emphasized the importance of taking “actions to ensure that those impacted negatively” by fallout from Evanoff’s misconduct, especially the former postdoc and assistant professor could move on with their careers successfully. Ramsay, has since been promoted to associate professor

Evanoff did not respond to an email request for comment or to a voicemail left at a number associated with his address.

Barred from future employment at WSU, Evanoff apparently went on to be a schoolteacher in Pullman the Asotin-Anatone School District, according to his LinkedIn profile. His profile omits the seven years he spent as a WSU research assistant.

Regular contributor Leto Sapunar studied physics at Oregon State University, earned a master’s at NYU’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) and has written for Scientific American, Popular Science, Inside Climate News, and other outlets. Follow him at @letosapunar.

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24 thoughts on “Exclusive: How a researcher faked data and gaslit a labmate for years”

  1. “Barred from future employment at WSU, Evanoff apparently went on to be a schoolteacher in Pullman, …”
    He may live in Pullman, but he teaches in Asotin-Anatone, which is over an hour’s drive south of Pullman, and in a different county.

  2. “The committee also emphasized the importance of taking “actions to ensure that those impacted negatively” by fallout from Evanoff’s misconduct, especially the former postdoc and assistant professor could move on with their careers successfully. Ramsay, has since been promoted to associate professor.”

    I really hope they follow through on this with the postdoc. Postdocs always get the short end of the stick.

    1. Yes, that is true, but put yourself in the postdoc’s position. Would you attempt to stay at the same place that wronged you for another ~2 years to maybe (maybe!) salvage a single publication?

  3. “Barred from future employment at WSU, Evanoff apparently went on to be a schoolteacher in Pullman, according to his LinkedIn profile. His profile omits the seven years he spent as a WSU research assistant.”

    So aside from being allowed to resign his position at WSU and accepting a lifetime ban from future employment at WSU Evanoff apparently gets to walk away scot free for his actions and pretend that the whole seven years as WSU research assistant and the fraud never happened.

    Boy, that’s really going to deter anyone else from committing scientific fraud in the future that’s for sure. (<–that's sarcasm by the way.)

      1. Cases like this one illustrate the need for the creation of a central registry that lists those who have committed serious research misconduct. Such a registry would be analogous to, say, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) used by the FBI or the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that is supposed to be used by firearm stores. Moreover, given the global nature of science, such a registry would, ideally, be international in scope. Like William said, those who commit serious misconduct cannot simply be allowed ‘to walk away’ with the opportunity to offend again elsewhere. That some of them do, borders on the criminal. And, yes, Aina Puce’s observation about the post doc IS infuriating.

        1. That sounds like a good idea, but it actually has serious problems. What is the criteria for being on such a list? A hearing of some sort would be necessary. A person would be entitled to counsel. Would a right to appeal results be included?

          Many problems between the conception of this “ban list” and the realization. I doubt it is feasible, simply due to the cost of adjudication.

          1. For sure, there are a number of conceptual, legal, as well as logistical challenges to creating of a registry for research misconduct offenders, especially one that is international in scope. But, it seems to me that doing nothing is not option either. At the very least, I think we need to start a conversation that addresses these situations. To me the status quo is simply not acceptable.

    1. What would you prefer happened to him? Jail? Public execution?

      He has left research. He is still a person and needs to make a living.

  4. Looks like WSU forgot one recommendation to the PI about investigating anomalous findings in the lab, even though he might be uncomfortable about doing that, when concerns are raised by an experienced scientist working in the lab. Interesting that a [male] lab assistant – someone who appears to not have had graduate training – is believed over a [female] scientist who is qualified to put it mildly [‘a DVM, two PhD degrees, and 4 years of postdoctoral experience]. And the really frustrating & infuriating thing here? Whose career is going to suffer? Not the PI’s, not the lab assistant’s – he resigned before he was fired.

    1. I am struggling to see how gender feature in this. Nowhere in the article is the underlying dynamics within that lab even hinted at. Your reading of the article is convoluted.

      1. Dear Mr Observer
        I can accurately posit your gender based upon this comment.
        Because Every Single Woman who reads this story understands exactly how gender features in this. We live this every single day, and it becomes more egregious the further we progress in our careers. Your understanding of how the world works is convoluted. If you are genuinely interested, talk to your female colleagues and ask them about their experiences. Every single one will have a story.

        1. I’m struggling to see how gender features in this situation/incident. Just because the “post-doc” is a woman and the “research assistant” is a man doesn’t mean that gender had anything to do with the university’s response. Yeah, it’s cruddy they didn’t believe her earlier but to assume that it was because of “gender” does everyone a disservice.

      2. Best to just ignore Aina Puce as she tends to invent & inject gender issues into any situation that affects a woman whether or not it’s appropriate to do so.

    2. Absolutely. I found this tidbit particularly telling:

      “The postdoc said that Evanoff cast doubt on her laboratory skills and ‘suggested that she was confusing the samples’ or ‘putting them in the wrong position,’ according to the report.”

      Not only did he refuse to accept responsibility for his actions, he attempted to manipulate this postdoc into questioning her own observations, abilities as a scientist, and qualifications. This kind of chicanery deserves nothing short of contempt, and I find myself seriously questioning the laboratory “supervisor” for allowing it to continue unchecked for YEARS until other people noticed.

      I wonder how much longer Mr. Evanoff would have been allowed to continue this behavior had he bothered to re-order liquid nitrogen regularly.

      Wherever the postdoc ended up, I wish her all the best.

  5. This has a similar vibe to the David Baltimore case of 30 years ago, where Baltimore (a very prominent researcher, president of Roosevelt University) was associated with Researcher A. Researcher B was hired to replicate the Researcher A results. She could not. Finally B asked A why not, and A clearly indicated that the results would come out “correctly” to replicate if 40% of the data was excluded.

    Failing to properly document. Not checking results. Failing to maintain research records. All of these are found in one case of research fraud after another. The problem really is that the lab directors are not setting proper standards.

  6. I think the basic problem here is that most people that work in a lab are aware you need a great publication record and outstanding letters of reference to have any kind of decent job in science, such that you can make a decent living to raise a family. You really have to be the “star” researcher that turns everything to gold. Some (and I think a lot) of people are willing to fake that to get that job and avoid the penurious fate of having years waisted in grad school/post doc for nothing.

    As a former high school teacher, I don’t think the perpretrator here is getting away “scott-free” In my opinion, he will be serving hard time in front of kids who are forced to be in a classroom and don’t want to learn.

    To some degree I have a little sympathy for cheaters if they want to avoid this fate, but in the end you should not cheat.

  7. Looks very real to me . That is why I do not trust critical experiments to technicians.
    First I do it myself and see how it goes with my own eyes and in my own hands ..
    and then I can transfer my developed way to do experiment to someone else.
    And still I check it a lot , before I trust.

  8. Aren’t PIs supposed to be critical of their own work? How come it took a postdoc to question the productivity of the RA? I don’t know the details for this case but PIs tend to be really comfortable with high volumes of “nice” data coming their way, then misconduct happens and the same sob story “how could they do this to me? I gave them all my trust” and then, they are excused. It’s a shame that the RA did what he did, but this type of case, for me, points to a deeper and more serious problem in science. Also, why do you need to publish his photo?

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