The following guest post by a Swedish professor under the assumed name of ”Frank Nilsson” (his real identity is known to me) is an open letter response to a recent article in Svenska Dagbladet by Sven Stafström, Director General of the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet, VR). There Straftröm wrote, in the wake of the Paolo Macchiarini scandal:
“Research misconduct is rare, but when it occurs it is usually individuals or small research teams working under the strong influence of a dishonest research leader. Such a closed environment makes it more difficult to quickly detect cheating. […]
The main responsibility for combating scientific fraud through preventive measures and for investigating suspected fraud and taking action is the responsibility of the country’s universities and colleges – the research organizations. […]
Of course it is also crucial to handle the matter properly, when suspicions of scientific misconduct occur. The Swedish Research Council has repeatedly argued that this should be done in a manner that guarantees independence from the influence of personal connections and other conflicts of interest, research misconduct should be investigated by an independent body”.
Certain previous cases do not make Swedish investigative authorities look good in regard to research ethics. Maybe this is why VR recently delegated (or surrendered) their investigative responsibilities to the Central Ethics Review Board (Centrala etikprövningsnämnden, CEPN). VR’s own handling of the 2009-2010 investigation of the misconduct by the regenerative medicine researcher Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson was nothing else but a travesty. The entire report was trashed, and the two external investigators were first baselessly accused by VR of misbehaviour themselves, then delivered to the legal threats of a biotech company owned by Sumitran-Holgersson’s husband (see my detailed report here). The dishonest, yet acquitted professor kept her position with the University of Gothenburg and even her generous funding continued to flow. Meanwhile, a new investigation into her human experiments is about to conclude at the Gothenburg university clinic. But: Sumitran-Holgersson’s alleged data manipulations are still not being looked into by her University of Gothenburg. According to my source, no external investigator has been appointed yet, and all complaints by the Dean of medical faculty about image duplications in Sumitran-Holgersson’s papers are being ignored. Despite everything, VR continues to pay her funding, even though other agencies stopped doing so when the new allegations broke and the hospital investigation began (see my other report here).
Two years before, in 2007, a star plant researcher from Sweden, Ove Nilsson, had to retract a two year-old paper in Science. Until then, Nilsson claimed all the merits for this “Breakthrough of the Year” for himself, but when data proved irreproducible and manipulations became evident, the sole responsible for his Science paper suddenly became the first author and former postdoc in Nilsson lab, Tao Huang. The retraction note and the official investigation by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå placed the blame firmly on Huang, while the principal investigator Nilsson was applauded from all sides for reporting the incident. Shortly after, Nilsson was awarded the prestigious Marcus Wallenberg Prize by the King of Sweden, for his scientific achievements which included this very Huang et al Science paper. Meanwhile, the accused Huang maintained that his ex-boss was well aware of the data manipulations and even incited those, to speed up publication when competing with two other labs. Obviously, hardly anyone believed Huang, in fact the external investigators appointed by SLU never even attempted to contact him. Against all administrative rules, Huang was never given a chance to present his version before the decision was made. VR as central authority in Stockholm was not involved at all, since only the Rector of the SLU in Umeå had was entitled to forward the case there (see comments at the end of this The Scientist article). Apparently, this didn’t happen because the issue was already solved by SLU to (almost) everyone’s satisfaction. In 2016, Nilsson, officially a hapless victim of Huang’s secretive cheating, became EMBO member. The details of the Nilsson/Huang case are described in a rejected letter to Science from 2007 by Shi Liu (recovered by a reader of my site). Also the Swedish research misconduct historian Johan Thyberg refers to this case in his book “Scientific Fraud or Legal Scandal?”
The lesson we are repeatedly told by retraction notices: it is always the malicious scheming junior scientists who abuse the generous trust and bumbling genius naiveté of their professors and group leaders. In fact, the reality is less black and white: it ranges from senior scientists who in their excitement unquestioningly publish too-perfect research data, to those who demand their lab members to deliver certain results and who ostracise or even punish employees who produce contradictory experimental outcomes. And finally, up to those group leaders who actually encourage and even instruct those they are supposed to educate to fake data, as a personal account of a former PhD student on my site narrates. And then of course, there are cases where it was the boss personally who manipulated the data, like Olivier Voinnet.
If a professor does get caught red-handed on faking data, like Sumitran Holgersson: the authorities often prefer not to believe their own eyes. It goes so far that they sometimes discard the evidence and close the case. Just as it happened with Sumitran-Holgersson in 2010 and again with Paolo Macchiarini in 2015, when the then-Rector of Karolinska Anders Hamsten trashed the entire misconduct investigation and extended his professor’s contract, tempted by Macchiarini’s promise of generous funding.
In the following guest post, the pseudonymous “Frank Nilsson” now accuses the Swedish academic authorities like the Research Council of hypocrisy. This Swedish professor refers to a 2015 case of data manipulation at the University of Uppsala, which involved a professorial couple at the Department of Organismal Biology, Irene and Kenneth Söderhäll, who work on invertebrate immunology and circadian rhythms. The investigation by the Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN) ended up with four retractions and the blame was almost exclusively placed with the former PhD student of Söderhälls, Apiruck Watthanasurorot from Thailand. The committee also recommended for his dishonestly acquired PhD to be revoked by the University of Uppsala. Before the investigation began, Watthanasurorot moved to work as postdoc to the lab of the Nobel Prize winner Bruce Beutler at University of Texas Southwestern in USA (confirmed here). It is not clear where Watthanasurorot is now. What is clear, that both Söderhälls were only found guilty of unintentional misconduct by “negligence”, without any administrative consequences for them. The original Swedish CEPN report is here, the translated English version is available from RetractionWatch. Interestingly, the investigators were not able to reach Watthanasurorot for his version of events, but they somehow found him having admitted his responsibilities for the manipulated figures in his papers.
By “Frank Nilsson”, a Swedish professor
The Director General of the Swedish Research Council (VR), the country’s main agency for the support and development of basic scientific research in Natural Sciences, has published a debate article in one of the largest and most respected Swedish newspapers in which he mentions the Macchiarini scandal and suggests a number of ideas that could reduce scientific fraud in Sweden and protect the public confidence on scientific research. Among other things he proposes to follow strictly the Law and academic procedures, that the concerned institutions take responsibility responding quickly to any claim of scientific misconduct, that an external investigation should be appointed and that if the following investigation confirms the claim they should take strict measures with those who were found guilty.
This sounds as common sense but none of these criteria were followed when a couple of high-ranked researchers at Uppsala University with close ties to the Research Council were accused of scientific fraud a couple of years ago.
One of the two scientists Irene Söderhäll, -LS) was –and still is- the Administrative Head of the Department where scientific fraud was suspected to happen. The other [Kenneth Söderhäll, -LS], a prestigious Professor in the same Department, also worked in one of the Research Council’s important committees that evaluate grant applications. Both were operating with grants from the VR and both were accused of publishing about ten scientific papers with images manipulated in a way that is not acceptable for a scientific publication. The clearest examples of misconduct were available to the public before the investigation started because they were scrutinized and exposed to the public on PubPeer. According to detailed comments posted on PubPeer, some images were more or less duplicated and used to illustrate completely different samples or experiments.
Uppsala University was reluctant to start an investigation and was apparently satisfied with the claims from its two scientists, who denied any wrongdoing and accused instead one of their former students [Apiruck Watthanasurorot , -LS] as the only one responsible of the manipulated images. However, this student was not a co-author of some of the papers in question [Jearaphunt et al 2014 and Lin et al 2008, officially proven to contain “image manipulations”, -LS]. An external investigation was delayed until a letter from a professor from another University was addressed to the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN).
Once an expert group has investigated the case, obtained access to most of the original files (some of them were never found) CEPN concluded that the two accused scientists had been ”negligent” and ”dishonest” but not really responsible of fraud or misconduct themselves, which was thought to be the sole responsibility of the young student. This conclusion was apparently not consistent with the interpretation of the very same body when it released, later on, the conclusions of its investigation of fraud in the Maccharini’s Nature Communications paper. In this later case, CEPN concluded instead that all co-authors were responsible of misconduct, even if some junior authors should be judged more benignly than more senior authors, especially Macchiarini, who was the main author. In their investigation of the faked Uppsala papers (four of which have been recently retracted), CEPN concluded that it was a foreign, junior author who must take the major responsibility and not the Swedish, senior professors.
Even if CEPN had appointed different scientists for each of these two investigations, such an extraordinary divergence in the criteria used for the judgement of whether a scientist is responsible of scientific fraud does not appear as a sound basis for the work of the Board and its reputation.