News Research integrity

Sonia Melo loses EMBO YIP Funding, suspended as PI

Sonia Melo, the Portuguese scientist accused of data manipulation and misconduct, now loses her EMBO Installation Grant funding by the European research agency EMBO. The EMBO funding was of ”50,000 Euros annually for three to five years” for her research lab at the Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto (Ipatimup) in Portugal, as well as “benefits similar to those of the EMBO Young Investigator Programme“.  EMBO has began their investigation into Melo’s publications in January 2016  after they were made aware of the accusations of data manipulation raised against Melo on PubPeer (see details here).

As I was informed by Tilmann Kiessling, Head of Communications at EMBO:

“as a follow up to your reporting on Sonia Melo, this is to confirm that EMBO has withdrawn the installation grant awarded to her. After EMBO had become aware of the allegations against papers authored by her we set up a committee to investigate these allegations. After a thorough analysis of all papers that had formed the basis for her application for the grant, the committee concluded that the body of work upon which the selection for an installation grant was made contained evidence of a level of negligence in handling and presenting data that would have precluded a recommendation for an award. The committee therefore decided that Sonia Melo should not become a member of the EMBO network of Young Investigators and Installation Grantees, and that the installation grant will be revoked. This has been communicated to Sonia Melo and her home institution on February 29.”.

As I previously reported, Melo’s former PhD advisor, Manel Esteller was intended to be investigated by his host institution, Institut d’Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge (IDIBELL) in Barcelona (which for now is not going to happen, see update below). Melo and Esteller already had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009) due to image duplications.

I also attempted to obtain information whether Melo’s former lab of Raghu Kalluri, Chair of the Department of  Cancer Biology  at MD Anderson, University of Texas, is under investigation as well. MD Anderson has a sponsored research agreement with Kalluri’s company, Codiak Biosciences, which raised $80Mio investment to develop a prostate cancer screening test based on the Melo’s and Kalluri’s 2015 common paper in Nature.


Update 04.03.2016: I received a reply to my Open Records Request/Public Information Act from February 17th to Weldon Gage, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the University of Texas at Austin. There I asked, if any publications from Kalluri lab at MD Anderson were subject to an institutional investigation for data integrity concerns. Gage’s official reply indicated the absence of any such investigation at MD Anderson:

“After a diligent search, we have discovered no documents responsive to your request. By providing you with this response, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center considers your request closed”.


Update, 3.03.2016: as the Portuguese newspaper Publico reports, “her duties at the  Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) were suspended this week”. Ipatimup, where Melo’s lab is based,  is integrated into I3S. Publico quotes the I3S Press Communications Unit:

This suspension of duties “affects the acts related to the principal investigator function”, but does not affect “the current activity of the researcher within the research group in which she operates”. 

Furthermore, according to the Portuguese newspaper, I3S stated:

The same source ensures that the institute “has always been careful, since it has noted the allegations made to the scientific integrity of the work by Sonia Melo.” However, since the work in question were not performed at the institution, the body “has no formal legitimacy to launch an audit of the work”.

As Publico writes, Melo’s activities in I3S laboratory in Porto are suspended until the conclusion of an external investigation. The committee was already appointed by the I3S management, based on their decision the institute will decide on the future of their association with Melo.
2nd Update 3.03.2016. 
I now received by email this statement by Júlio Borlido Santos, Communication Unit Coordinator, Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde, Universidade do Porto (original here):

The Board of Directors of i3S is fully aware of the allegations concerning the scientific integrity of Sónia Melo’s work prior to becoming an i3S member and has been closely monitoring the discussion surrounding these allegations. The Board was given advanced information of the 2009 article retraction in Nature Genetics, as well as of the reasons that led to such a decision. EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization), with which i3S has been in permanent contact, has reassessed Melo’s application to the EMBO Installation Grant that had been awarded to her. EMBO has now released its conclusions and has imparted i3S that the funding contract is being cancelled.

In addition, i3S has opened an inquiry to analyse the case, which is being executed by an External Committee that was instated for this purpose. In the meantime, Sónia Melo decided, in accordance with the Board of Directors and her research group’s leader, to suspend her activities as Principal Investigator at i3S until the inquiry is closed. However, this suspension refers only to activities intrinsic to the nature and duties of a Principal Investigator, and does not affect her ongoing work as a researcher within the research group she integrates. The Board of Directors of i3S will base its decision regarding the researcher’s affiliation to this research unit, which is tied to FCT and the University of Porto, upon the official stance released by the External Committee that is comprised of independent, external members.

At present, the i3S Board of Directors think it premature to address any sort of procedural details, albeit renew the wish for a prompt resolutio


Update 7.03.2016: Spanish science and technology news site Hipertextual quotes today this message from  IDIBELL they just received (hyperlinks by Hipertextual, translated by Google Translate, with editing from my side):

“With regard to your question about the case of Sonia Melo, we inform you that the article published during her collaboration with Dr. Esteller was retracted from the journal Nature Genetics because of doubts about the conduct of research. The group of Dr. Esteller is reviewing all results which could be subject to dispute, as it is common in scientific practice, in response to requests from independent researchers requiring this information.This process is completely normal and is made group-internally according to the usual protocols of publication and scientific discussion.

Additionally, the Idibell has the office of the Ombudsman to ensure the quality of scientific research and resolve conflicts between researchers of the institution. If necessary, this figure can act independently to resolve any questions about good scientific practice, which does not occur at this time because, as we said, Dr. Esteller proceeded to immediately retract the article to unravel the doubts on the conduct of Dr. Melo.

It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for managing the results of a scientific publication usually falls on the first author, and that the work of the senior author  (last name), is to direct, coordinate and review the work, which occasionally allows the published errors to pass unnoticed through his filter. Thus, the attitude of Manel Esteller has been exemplary in recognizing a possible error and retracting the work quickly, once doubts were expressed about it”.

44 comments on “Sonia Melo loses EMBO YIP Funding, suspended as PI

  1. Plantarum

    It will be interesting to see if IPATIMUP now keeps Melo on at the institute. As for Voinnet, at some point, honest error and kind, compassionate forgiveness for apparent human error will cause a strain on individuals who also bring, through their actions, disrepute to the organizations they find themselves in. Dr. Schneider, can you advance any information about whether IPATIMUP is conducting an internal investigation? Furthermore, did Dr. Kiessling provide any report of this “evidence” he alludes to, or what this simply an email exchange? I would assume that for EMBO to make such a radical decision that a formal report must exists somewhere with “evidence” (it would be difficult to envision such an organization relying solely on PubPeer reports for such an official outcome).


  2. EMBO say that

    “the committee concluded that the body of work upon which the selection for an installation grant was made contained evidence of a level of negligence in handling and presenting data that would have precluded a recommendation for an award.”

    If we take this statement seriously it means that in order to get an EMBO award, good publications are not enough – the data has to actually support them (and not be misrepresented either deliberately or in error.)

    Yet how often does EMBO check the raw data? Never, I suspect, except when suspicions have already been raised in a case like this. What a game changer it would be if EMBO (or any funder) took it upon themselves to investigate (or ‘vet’) applicants’ work before handing them money…


    • P.S. Employing someone to vet applicants’ work would cost money of course but think of all the money that it would save in the long run. For a start EMBO could use Melo’s grant (50k euros for 3-5 years) to employ a full time investigator.


      • Actually, EMBO Press already employs image analysts to screen near-accepted papers.
        I once met the data integrity analyst Jana Christopher, as well as EMBO J/EMBO Press EiC Bernd Pulverer, and wrote in German about our discussion:


      • The thing is that not even now EMBO checked raw data. In this case no high resolution images where asked to the authors. The investigator under investigation wasn’t interviewed, the PI that are Corresponding Authors and bosses at the time of the papers in question were not heard or asked any information by EMBO. You call this an investigation? I would urge Mr. Schneider to ask EMBO about the report of the investigation. Or the declarations of the PI or the minute of the interview with the investigator. There’s nothing because they didn’t do it! They based their decision in gossip and unfounded suspicions. Outrageous!


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  5. Update! Mr. Schneider, did you ask for the Report to EMBO? It would be really interesting if you publish it here in your blog.


    • Thanks, I will ask, but must dampen your hope here: in Germany, where EMBO is based, I learned that even whether or not any scientist is being investigated is subject to confidentiality. Generally, when a report’s brief summary (never the entire report!) is ever published, the name of the scientist is also kept confidential. We are a very confidential country. But again, EMBO is a European organisation, so I will try.


      • EMBO has recorded the remit of the investigating committee, the procedures the committee used, the details of the analyses and the final conclusion of the committee, which was based on a thorough analysis of the published papers that formed the basis of the application for the installation grant. The remit of the committee was to assess whether the award was justified, and they concluded that the degree of negligence in handling and presenting data that they had found was sufficient to undermine the position of Dr. Melo as an awardee. Our committee will not be releasing the report publicly, but EMBO will consider making the committee’s analyses available confidentially upon formal request to other institutions that are officially involved with the case. Tilmann Kiessling, EMBO, Head of Communications


  6. It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for managing the results of a scientific publication usually falls on the first author, and that the work of the senior author (last name), is to direct, coordinate and review the work, which occasionally allows the published errors to pass unnoticed through his filter.


    Last author NEVER responsible for data manipulations in own papers, says @idibell_en

    Last author NOT responsible for data manipulations in own paper, says @idibell_en

    Could you please go insight of this subtle but important change in what IDIBELL is saying? One could think this is a slightly manipulated manner to get some extra impact on Twitter…

    Last author COULD unnotice data manipulations in own papers, says @idibell_en

    Maybe could be a more precise resume of the statement.


    • In this case, image irregularities were found in several publications from Esteller lab, not all of them even featuring Melo as co-author. Unless you believe in conspiracies, one can at least discuss the possibility of poor supervisory duties or mentoring. Nevertheless, IDIBELL explicitly rejected the option of involving their Ombudsman, never mind initiating an independent investigation. In fact, Dr. Esteller is tasked with investigating his own papers himself.
      This action (or non-action) is justified by IDIBELL with the supposition that the last author is not responsible for data integrity in own papers. This in fact, is nonsense. The last author is very much responsible here, and he is also responsible to provide appropriate oversight and mentoring, and even more so for papers which first author was a PhD scientist under his tutorship.


    • Plantarum

      ICMJE guidelines for authorship, clause 4:
      “Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”

      First, last, middle, or 10th author: all irrelevant. The entire authorship takes responsibility. Funny, when I read this I get deja vu about the Voinnet case where everyone was trying to pass the buck, but ultimately all were in it together.

      If a set of authors is quite happy to get credit for publishing in a high level journal, then they must also be collectively responsible, as team members, when there is any issue with their paper.


  7. Senior Author only responsible for success and never for anything untoward – this is one major component of the basic recipe of corruption, always has been, always will be. The buck stops at the PI’s desk and any claim otherwise is nonsense, face-saving cover up.

    Is Sweden in EMBO? They require publication of docs and sometimes one can bypass secrecy in some EU countries by requesting a Swedish colleague to ask government for docs. Only sometimes!


    • Plantarum

      Exactly, it’s usually the senior author who gets the funding. I have always been of the opinion that when one head rolls, all heads roll together. Glory and shame in science publishing are not inseparable categories. If anything, given the level of responsibility that a senior investigator, last author, or PI have over other (all?) members of the group, then the greatest responsibility to be held should be by the last/senior author. In that sense, I have to agree whole-heartedly with ferniglab that this washing-the-hands-clean of responsibility only when there is a scandal is a clear sign of corruption or, at best, gross negligence and academic irresponsibility.


  8. Almerinda

    Amazing! Was IDIBELL that actually wrote that? Or was IDIBELL mandated by Esteller? The last author has no responsibility in quality control of his own work, leaving all to his PhD student? Should the student consider to ask IDIBELL for the supervisors salary at the time? What is the supervisor for? I am baffled by this statement. Unscrupulous. Only the statement itself should be enough to launch an investigation to Esteller’s role as supervisor. If these are the rules in his lab, i feel very sorry for all those who work with him.


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  10. Fully agree!!! Leonid I do not know how you can believe this piece of lie “It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for managing the results of a scientific publication usually falls on the first author”.
    Now Esteller is not responsible of this miscondut….???
    Last author is the main responsible of the job, specially if the first author is a graduate student, as Melo was. Actually if you can see Manuel Esteller has 23 papers in Pubpeer, many of them with manipulation.
    So my bet is that was Esteller who taught Melo this manners.
    Ashame of IDIBELL and ashame of Manuel Esteller.


    • Hello John, what made me post the translated IDIBELL statement is that it faithfully reproduces the official position of this institute, regardless of how much sense this viewpoint makes to the scientific community. Even if I think it speaks for itself (and very worrisomely so), I again attempted to contact Dr. Jaume Reventós, director of IDIBELL, where I also asked “if at IDIBELL PIs have any supervisory oversight and data integrity responsibilities in connection to the research they publish as corresponding authors”. I received no reply so far.


      • Jonh Smith

        True that!
        You have done your best to inform us accurately. Thanks Leonid!


  11. Carlinhos

    It Is unfortunately common that a PI is not fully aware about what his/her student presents as, depending on the PI, there is literally no time enough for mentoring. ME is very prolific in many different environments, appears constantly in the media and applies and coordinates numerous research projects.

    However, once all these misconduct cases are disseminated and fully known. What would be consistent to ME’s version is to willingly retract problematic articles where both are authors.
    Melo et al. Cancer Cell (2014)
    Melo et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., 108 (2011)
    Melo et al. Cancer Cell (2010)


    • Jonh Smith

      Totally agree.
      The point is that thanks to all this papers published in reputable journals, Manuel Esteller has got important grants.
      And more importantly not only grants, Esteller has been awarded many research money prizes.
      So this “flaw oversight” has been very lucrative for him.
      Actually this guy has more than twenty papers with doubts in Pubpeer, much more that Sonia Melo has.


    • There is only not enough time if the PI has too large a group. The cult of the individual and the star, allied to stupidity on the part of funding bodies, means some PIs indeed have far too many people to supervise. Things can go seriously wrong at this point.
      For any research worthy of the name to occur, groups have to be small. The LMB in Cambridge (nothing to do with the University, though they make a claim for the Nobels of the LMB) was carefully organised by Max Perutz to ensure groups were small, that PIs actually engaged in research (=work at the bench) – the limit was 5 people per PI, if you got a 6th, the institute removed one of its core funded posts.
      Not only do PIs then have the time to supervise their students and postdocs and engage in research directly, but they also have time to talk to each other and challenge data. The difference in productivity between LMB (it isn’t that big) and any other research organisation in the world is measured in orders of magnitude.
      Nevertheless, we still spend huge amounts of time organising research, when the optimum has (and still is) been demonstrated: 10 Nobels and alumni have been awarded a further 11.


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  18. Since the Melo et al paper was retracted, his supervisor, PI and corresponding author has been awarded with three prizes in Catalonia. Coincidence?


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