On August 24th I received an anonymous email over my website from a „Concerned Microbiologist”:
“I would like to bring the following to your attention on Robert P Ryan at the University of Dundee. https://pubpeer.com/search?q=Robert+P.+Ryan
He holds several high profile research grants and has won several awards. He is under investigation at the University of Dundee.
He has also featured in articles signing his praises in terms of his research achievements.
Only days after, on August 28th, big news broke out in Scottish and Irish media. The Scotsman brought the headline: “Leading scientist suspended amid ‘research misconduct’ investigation”. The newspaper then indicated that Ryan has to answer for suspected image manipulations in his papers:
“It is alleged he used identical images across multiple papers, claiming they were different strains. In some cases, it is alleged the evidence was flipped or rotated, which could indicate an “intent to deceive”, according to one source. The extent of the alleged misconduct is unclear, but the source indicated it is alleged to have spanned “a number of years” and involved numerous prestigious journals”.
“It is understood his research group at the university has been dissolved, with PhD students and staff scientists reallocated elsewhere while a formal investigation takes place”.
Robert Ryan is an Irish microbiologist, specializing in bacterial signalling and pathogenesis, who came to work as reader at the Life Science Division of the University of Dundee in Scotland, after a highly successful postdoctoral stay at the lab of leading plant pathogen researcher Maxwell Dow at the University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland. Still with his mentor Dow in Cork, Ryan became principal investigator with his own lab already in 2010 , supported by the Science Foundation Ireland Starting Investigator award and Wellcome Trust. In 2013, Ryan received a faculty position in Dundee, his salary and research are supported for five years by the Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship. He then won many other awards and research grants, as mentioned in the newspaper articles. In October 2015 Ryan was also appointed Young Investigator by the prestigious life science society EMBO. In brief, Ryan was an absolute success story and a rising star of microbiology and plant pathogen research. Was he actually another dishonest cheater like Olivier Voinnet, luckily stopped short before he became too entrenched in networks and tenure?
The PubPeer evidence alleging data duplications in journals like Molecular Microbiology, Journal of Bacteriology, PNAS and EMBO J were posted in March and April 2016. According to newspaper information, Ryan lost his lab before any investigation into his alleged misconduct was performed. Herald Scotland quotes “a university spokesman” from Dundee:
“There is an ongoing investigation into an allegation of research misconduct. In order not to prejudice in any way the outcome of that investigation, we are unable to comment further on it at this time”.
According to Irish Times, this is not a proper in-depth independent investigation, but a brief internal one (which may make its outcome subject to legal appeal):
“Dundee University has launched a formal investigation into the allegations against Dr Ryan, led by university vice-principals. The inquiry is expected to last between two and four weeks”.
Wellcome Trust apparently chose not to scrutinise Ryan’s work, but to rely on the results of the ongoing Dundee investigation, according to Herald Scotland:
“In a statement, the Wellcome Trust added: “Wellcome takes allegations of research misconduct seriously. We expect institutions to investigate any allegation of misconduct, as the University of Dundee are doing in this case, and we would consider taking action only if allegations are upheld”.
What about Ryan old employer University College Cork in Ireland, where all of his PubPeer-flagged papers hail from? Irish Times quotes “a spokeswoman for UCC”:
“UCC understands that there has been an allegation of research misconduct in relation to a member of staff at the University of Dundee. […] Should any action be warranted by UCC in due course, UCC will follow up at that point.”
To sum up, the available information indicates Ryan lost his lab and had his career destroyed on suspicion alone. He will not even receive a proper independent investigation, it seems. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that four regional newspapers would coincidentally follow up and bring this story simultaneously, based solely on some PubPeer evidence. The fact that Ryan was delivered for public crucifixion by the mass media indicates that a senior source from inside University of Dundee has briefed the newspapers officially. I wonder therefore who contacted me over my website.
Obviously, everyone involved received a gag order. Ryan did not communicate with any of the newspapers. Dow, Ryan’s mentor of many years and key co-author on all Ryan’s PubPeer-flagged publications, only replied to my inquiry with:
“I am afraid I cannot comment on this issue at this time”.
A major scandal, a breach of basic institutional privacy and employee rights guidelines as well as the right to fair trial? Should Ryan get himself a lawyer specialising on labour law and sue University of Dundee for all they have? Given the apparent absence of any investigative verdict, and the immense reputation damage he sustained, his chances to win in court would be practically 100%.
Maybe not. A huge silent elephant in the room has been overlooked, namely the only other major institution with investigative power and a big stake in the Ryan scandal: EMBO.
This respected European society recently started funding Ryan as Young Investigator, while one of his questioned papers appeared in 2013 in their own flagship journal, EMBO J. EMBO director Maria Leptin wrote to me on August 25th, 3 days before the news broke in the newspapers:
“We are aware of the allegations, and as usual, are carefully assessing whether actions might need to be taken”.
I contacted Leptin with my inquiry if there was a successful EMBO investigation into Ryan’s case already, but received no reply yet. If Ryan was indeed found guilty of data manipulation elsewhere (with EMBO the strongest candidate), University of Dundee would have an easy case suspending him and even sacking him after a brief internal investigation. Everything would fall into place.
In fact, this was exactly what EMBO did only recently. After they were informed in December 2015 through my article about PubPeer allegations against their recent awardee Sonia Melo, EMBO initiated own investigation. Already by the end of February 2016, the EMBO inquiry was done, with the result that Melo lost her Young Investigator funding and was suspended as PI by her Portuguese employer Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) at the University of Porto. The investigation there is still ongoing, as I was informed by the I3S communication unit coordinator Júlio Borlido Santos on July 29th :
“As far as I am aware, the analysis of Dr. Melo’s situation is still under way, conducted by the designated external committee. As soon as the Communication Unit is informed of the next steps to be taken, public statements will be publicly released”.
Thus, the Ryan case may be actually very similar to that of Melo. The only problem is that EMBO investigative reports are not published and only available to institutions directly involved, such as Melo’s I3S or possibly, Ryan’s University of Dundee. This secrecy is supposed to serve privacy and personal protection of the accused. Instead, if Ryan was really investigated by EMBO, this false confidentiality achieved exactly the opposite.
Update 14.11.2016. the shroud of mystery is slightly lifting, please read here.