Tomorrow is Joe Thomas’s 35th birthday. And earlier this week, he received quite a birthday present, even if it wasn’t intended that way: Thomas earned a $33.75 million payout from a lawsuit he filed against Duke University six years ago.
Retraction Watch readers may recall the name Erin Potts-Kant. We’ve been reporting on retractions by Potts-Kant, a former lab tech at Duke, since 2013. (The count is now 17.) Along the way, we learned that she had been convicted of embezzlement, but that there was a bigger story: There was a False Claims Act case against Duke, Potts-Kant, and Michael Foster, in whose lab she worked, alleging that the university had known that faked data had been included in grant applications.
A former researcher at Duke University has admitted to faking data that allegedly were used to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants.
Duke has also admitted that it knew Erin Potts-Kant, a pulmonary scientist, faked data, but it’s unclear whether that was discovered prior to using those data to apply for grants, as a lawsuit alleges.
The admissions come from court documents submitted by Potts-Kant, her supervisor — former Duke researcher William Michael Foster — and Duke itself, responding to allegations in a whistleblower suit that says they defrauded the government.
Regular readers may recall that Joseph Thomas, a former colleague of Potts-Kant and Foster, has filed a False Claims Act suit against the three defendants on behalf of the U.S. government. The responses, submitted separately by the three defendants, are the latest development in what could be a landmark case for research misconduct. The lawsuit has survived motions to dismiss and is moving through the discovery process, which is likely to reveal more than the defendants have already said.
Last year, the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Virginia unsealed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by another former employee at Duke against the university, a biologist and her former supervisor, alleging they included fraudulent data in applications and reports involving more than 60 grants. The total amount: $200 million. If successful, Duke may have to refund three times the amount of allegedly ill-gotten gains, and the whistleblower could himself receive millions.
These latest notices move the count up to 8.5 retractions for Potts-Kant and 7.5 for Foster (counting the partial retraction as 1/2), along with the correction for both. In both cases and in a familiar note from previous retractions, authors found “potential discrepancies” between two sets of data (partial retraction) and study figures that weren’t “reliable” (retraction).
The retraction comes after the authors discovered problems with three of the study figures. In the corrected paper, the authors were able to validate some of their findings after repeating the experiments, but retracted two of the study figures that they were “unable to verify.”
More journals have pulled papers co-authored by researchers Erin Potts-Kant and Michael Foster, at Duke University, bringing the total up to seven for Potts-Kant and six for Foster.
Authors were unable to replicate the experiments after “concerns about the initial data from the animal physiology laboratory” led them to reanalyze source data, according to the note in Environmental Health Perspectives. The comparison showed “potential inconsistencies in the data,” which “significantly impact the overall conclusions of the manuscript.” Similar issues appear to have felled the pair’s other papers, including the other two recent retractions in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and the American Journal of Physiology – Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology — but in the latter case, the discrepancies don’t affect the conclusion.
Potts-Kant was arrested on embezzlement charges in 2013. Authorities alleged that she stole almost $15,000 from Duke University.
Environmental Health Perspectives posted a retraction in July, for a 2012 paper that looked at the molecular underpinnings in airways that react to ozone.
BiochemicalJournal has pulled a 2006 paper for an undisclosed “background subtraction box” in an image –which, if you take a not-particularly-close look at the figure to the right, means somebody added a black rectangle over the control lane.
It’s unusual for us to post obituaries on Retraction Watch — we’ve published just one so far in three-and-a-half years — but we wanted to pause for a moment to note the passing of a tireless crusader for transparency and accountability whose electronic path crossed with ours a number of times since 2012 because of our shared interest in the case of Anil Potti.