Exclusive: City of Hope cancer researcher goes to court to fight misconduct finding

Flavia Pichiorri

An alumna of the lab of Carlo Croce, a high-profile cancer researcher at The Ohio State University with 14 retractions, has sued the institution over the results of its investigation that found she committed research misconduct. 

Flavia Pichiorri is now a principal investigator with her own lab researching potential therapies for multiple myeloma at City of Hope – a cancer center that also owns Cancer Treatment Centers of America –  in Duarte, Calif. 

She worked at Ohio State from 2004-16, first as a postdoctoral researcher in Croce’s lab, then as a research scientist, and finally as an assistant professor of hematology. She has been a PI on grants that garnered millions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health since switching jobs. 

After Pichiorri left Ohio State, the university received allegations that some of her work contained fake data in the form of manipulated and reused images. A subsequent investigation, finalized in 2020, found that Pichiorri was responsible for the faked data in four publications, one of which was a correction, spanning from her time in Croce’s lab through her establishing her own lab at Ohio State. Nature reported the university’s findings last year, calling them one of “the first determinations of research misconduct relating to work done in Croce’s lab.” 

Now, Pichiorri is suing her former employer, alleging in her complaint that the investigation was “flawed,” the findings “invalid,” and the issues identified in her work the result of “honest error.” She further alleges that the university’s investigation and requests that journals retract her papers with fake data violated her rights to due process, and that the publication of the final report defamed her. 

Croce has filed several lawsuits unsuccessfully, and now owes his attorneys well over $1 million.

Among Pichiorri’s demands: that Ohio State retract its investigation report, no longer keep it on file, and revise its findings to be “consistent with federal research misconduct standards and evidence presented by Plaintiff.” 

A spokesperson for Ohio State told us the university “cannot comment on pending litigation.” Ohio State  in a court filing asking for the suit to be dismissed with prejudice has disputed Pichiorri’s allegations and argued that federal regulation of research misconduct investigations preempts her claims.

Pichiorri declined to be interviewed and referred questions to her lawyers. We asked the lawyers, Renny J. Tyson and William W. Patmon III, both of Columbus, Ohio, to comment on the university’s arguments in its motion to dismiss the case. Tyson responded that Pichiorri “stands by the allegations in her complaint.”

Pichiorri’s suit names each member of the university’s “College of Medicine Investigation Committee” – officially referred to as “COMIC” – as well as the Ohio State Board of Trustees and the university’s Vice President of Research. She claims the members of the investigation committee “lacked the requisite expertise to review and evaluate research misconduct investigations,” and that Ohio State’s “failure to properly select, train and provide sufficient oversight” to the committee “resulted in a flawed investigation.”

The findings, the suit alleges, were “premised upon improper standards of review; and unevenly applied to Dr. Pichiorri, especially with respect to male researchers.”

The complaint elaborates: 

Dr. Carlo Croce was the principal senior lead researcher overseeing all the findings in which image falsifications were found and no research misconduct finding was made against him, even though all the work was produced in the OSU laboratory controlled by him and Plaintiff and other PhD students and post-doctoral researchers were supervised by him.

Pichiorri further describes the conditions in Croce’s lab:

Dr. Pichiorri and other OSU researchers at the time were not trained, were left unsupervised, without computers connected to OSU servers or standard of procedures to save or record the data, required to work long days and nights under strenuous conditions and treated as cheap labor to perform the bottom rung work related to the manuscripts in order that OSU and Dr. Croce, the party primarily responsible for the research, could continue to receive grants and grant monies. 

Despite the problems in Dr. Croce’s laboratory, of which OSU and the COMIC were aware, the COMIC ignored those problems and assigned fault for the laboratory failings to Dr. Pichiorri.

In her complaint, Pichiorri maintains she “followed all procedures, protocols and standards of practice with regard to her work.” Other co-authors were responsible for the data and figures in question, she alleges, and “there was no evidence she was not diligent as a co-author.” 

In contrast, the investigation committee’s report, published by Nature, had concluded that responsibility for the integrity of the images “should lie with the individual assembling the figures, which by her own admissions, is Dr. Pichiorri.” 

During the course of the investigation, Pichiorri submitted what she said were original data from the experiments that formed the basis for the figures. The committee, she alleges, should have viewed this data and the formal corrections she had already made to some figures in the published papers “as evidence of honest error.” 

Pichiorri also claims the number of questionable figures – eight, four of which were corrected before the investigation began – indicates the irregularities were the result of honest error. Her complaint states that the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which oversees research misconduct investigations: 

has historically determined that research misconduct accusations are typically the result of honest error where, as in the instant case, only a few images and data are involved. Where ORI has found research misconduct, it has only found actual research misconduct in cases where the mean number of falsified or fabricated data involved an average sixty-two (62) images within a range of minimum twelve (12) to one hundred eighty-nine (189) images. 

In its review of the data and explanations Pichiorri submitted, the investigation committee concluded: 

none of Dr. Pichiorri’s current arguments justify how an image would be altered by stretching, flipping or inverting.

Pichiorri alleges that her “career and professional reputation have suffered irreparable, grave injury” because Ohio State’s “improper and errant findings of misconduct and the publication of such erroneous findings that have placed Dr. Pichiorri in a false light and irreparably damaged her reputation in the scientific community.”

She claims in her complaint that after Nature’s story publicized Ohio State’s finding, she was removed from an NIH panel she had served on for seven years. 

She also alleges that Ohio State contacted City of Hope with its findings and requested the cancer center investigate all of her NIH-funded work. The second investigation found she had “not engaged in any research misconduct,” according to the complaint, “but the damage was already done.” Pichiorri was left feeling “diminished in her role as a senior leader,” and a member of her staff “allegedly resigned due to the accusations.”

The Ohio State investigation committee recommended that two of Pichiorri’s papers should be retracted and another corrected. Of the two articles recommended for retraction, one has been pulled and the other marked with an expression of concern. The article the committee wanted corrected does not appear to have been updated. Two other papers on which Pichiorri was a co-author have been retracted.

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7 thoughts on “Exclusive: City of Hope cancer researcher goes to court to fight misconduct finding”

  1. “required to work long days and nights under strenuous conditions and treated as cheap labor to perform the bottom rung work related to the manuscripts”

    Don’t go to the U.S.. It is well-known for much longer working hours and fewer holidays than Italy.

    If you can get a job in Europe stay in Europe.

    1. This may depend on your specific field of research. My experience in psychology is the exact opposite: When I was in the US as a postdoc and tenure-track faculty, I had lots of time to do research and be a scientist, including breaks for leisurely thinking and developing scholarship through reading. In contrast, in Germany there are frantic schedules, lots of teaching & admin, inefficient university bureaucracies. If you’re lucky you may also find some time for scholarship and research — on weekends and during vacations. Maybe times have changed since I last worked in the US. But if so, things have deteriorated in the US. It’s not that they’ve become any better in Germany since I am here (2007). Quite the opposite.

    2. I worked 8 years (2 different labs) in the USA. It was easier and less stressful than working in Spain, Netherlands, or the UK. Less hours and same holidays than in any other country I had been. It depends on the lab you are, not the country.

  2. If the “Croce Model” of litigation is going to be followed here, Tyson and Patmon III might want to consider getting paid up front.

  3. “Pichiorri further describes the conditions in Croce’s lab:

    Dr. Pichiorri and other OSU researchers at the time were not trained, were left unsupervised, without computers connected to OSU servers or standard of procedures to save or record the data”

    Why is this person now able to run their own lab if they, but their own admission, we never trained..?

    1. I worked in 6 different labs and I was never, ever trained by a faculty member. Not once. Best you can hope for is that the other staff post docs and grad students will train you, but even there its pretty limited, because they are very busy. You really need to learn to do things yourself.

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