Tina Wenz is a German mitochondria biologist, who was now found guilty of research misconduct in her six publications, authored as postdoc and group leader. The investigation was performed by her former employer, the University of Cologne in Germany, the results were announced in a press release on September 29th 2016. She was instructed to retract all these 6 publications, her former postdoctoral advisor and corresponding author Carlos Moraes from the University of Miami already announced to ask the journals to retract his four common papers with Wenz. Two other papers came from Wenz’ own former lab in Cologne, within the CECAD ageing research centre. Previously, Wenz’ lawyers attempted to squash any kind of identifying reporting about their client; a source indicated that the Cologne investigation had a certain heavy legal edge to it. None of these legal efforts helped, it seems. The university chose to de-anonymise Wenz’ name as well as to release detailed descriptions of research misconduct, a rather singular event in the notoriously secretive German academic environment, where the outcomes of institutional misconduct investigations are reported in public only with all identifying information removed or in fact are sometimes not even known to have ever taken place. In fact, the same University of Cologne keeps rejecting my freedom of information requests about a different investigation they have performed. On June 20th 2016, my inquiry to the University of Cologne about the outcome of that and the Wenz investigation was rejected outright.

Wenz was recruited as group leader to the Institute of Genetics of the University of Cologne in February 2010 while funded for five years by the elite Emmy Noether programme of the German Research Society (DFG). The funded research topic was: “Mitochondrial protein synthesis defects: From molecular basis to therapeutic approach“. Wenz then led her lab at the University of Cologne for 3 more months with funding from the pharma giant Boehringer Ingelheim, and in October 2015 she switched completely as “Lab head, Principal Scientist” to Boehringer Ingelheim, located in Biberach in southern Germany. Her LinkedIn profile containing this information has been deleted meanwhile (backup here).

Prior to her move to Cologne, Wenz worked as postdoc in the Moraes lab at the Miller School of Medicine of University of Miami for almost four years. Accidently, a collaborating author on two now to-be-retracted papers by Wenz and Moraes is Bruce Spiegelman, a star obesity and diabetes researcher from Harvard. A certain paper from Spiegelman’s own lab on irisin was harshly criticised for irreproducibility, its first author and key irisin “discoverer” was the proven cheater Pontus Boström from Sweden (see my reporting here).

In October 2015, an anonymous source alerted me to the PubPeer evidence which freshly emerged against five Wenz’ publications. These were the papers 2 till 6 on the list below, it seems therefore university commission investigated an additional paper from the former Wenz lab in Cologne (listed as Nr 1, Di Domenico et al 2014). The source suggested to me to pitch this as a potential story to Lab Times, the English-language magazine published by the German Laborjournal-Verlag which I used to regularly write for (we separated soon after, not in friendship). Laborjournal commissioned with me an article which was never paid, and I started to investigate. Soon I learned that the University of Cologne was scrutinising the case, though the university itself refused to confirm this to me.

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Evidence against Wenz publications, as posted on PubPeer

However, right away, on October 14th 2015, I received from the Cologne-based law firm Höcker an “information and warning letter regarding press law”, where I was told that “no identifying reporting about their client is permitted”. RetractionWatch received a similar letter, but reported about this as well as the PubPeer allegations against Wenz nevertheless on October 26th 2015.

The law firm Höcker also told me that I have to offer their client the opportunity to take a stand against any allegations. Therefore, on October 29th 2015 I submitted a detailed inquiry which covered every single PubPeer accusation, to this law firm and addressed to Wenz (in German, a copy available here). The law firm acknowledged to discuss this request with their client, and I never heard back from any of them.

Wenz former postdoctoral advisor Moraes retracted one of her publications (Wenz et al, Cell Metabolism, 2009) already in October 2015 and then commented on PubPeer that “these were not innocent mistakes”. Now, he wrote to me:

“I am saddened by the fact that even though the results from some of the publications that she did in my lab are probably correct, as they have been reproduced by other labs, they have been tainted by blot duplications. This body of work took an incredible effort from a large number of people and considerable resources over many years. In any case, science needs to be credible and therefore must correct itself. In this context, I am glad these problems were detected. I am now working with Journal editors to retract affected papers, in addition to the one I have already retracted”.

While following up the case for Laborjournal, I also asked Wenz’ employer Boehringer Ingelheim what they thought of these accusations and the ongoing investigations. In October 2015, Ralph Warsinsky, the spokesperson for Boehringer wrote to me the following, which he reiterated this again on April 14th 2016:

“The investigations you mentioned are known to us. Since these relate to the time at which Dr. Wenz was not working for Boehringer Ingelheim, there is no direct link to her activities at Boehringer Ingelheim”.

Two months later, the Cologne investigation concluded. I wrote again to Warsinsky from Boehringer and will update this post with his reply.

Update 5.10.16: my phone call to Boehringer Ingelheim reception was answered with the information that Tina Wenz still works at this company.

Update 11.10.2016: Warsinsky now declared on behalf of Boehringer Ingeheim:

“The quality and integrity of the scientific data collected in our research is of paramount importance to Boehringer Ingelheim. The accusations concerning the investigation at the University of Cologne refer to the time before Dr. Wenz joined Boehringer Ingelheim. Dr. Wenz was and is always transparent to us with regard to the ongoing investigation and she assumes the responsibility for data collected by her or her former employees at the University of Cologne. Boehringer Ingelheim has no reason to doubt the quality of the work of Dr. Wenz in our research”.

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Evidence for Wenz et al Cell Metabolism, 2008 as posted on PubPeerposted on PubPeer

Below is a translation of a press release issued by the University of Cologne.

The Rectorate of the University of Cologne determines scientific misconduct in six publications

The Rectorate of the University of Cologne has decided in its meeting of June 28th 2016:

I. Dr. Tina Wenz is being accused to have committed scientific misconduct in several cases by providing false information in publications according to § 6 prov. 1a) and b) guidelines of the University of Cologne on good scientific practice and on dealing with scientific misconduct (GWP-O).

II. The Rectorate demands of Dr. Wenz to retract the following publications – unless it has not happened yet, as mentioned at point 4:

  1. Di Domenico, A. ; Hofer, A., ; Tundo, F. and Wenz, T. (2014): Mitochondrial protein acetylation mediates nutrient sensing of mitochondrial protein synthesis and mitonuclear protein balance, IUBMB Life, 66 (11) 793-802,
  2. Noe N., Dillon L., Lellek V., Diaz F., Hida A., Moreas C. T.,Wenz T. (2013); Bezafibrate improves mitochondrial function in the CNS of a mouse model of mitochondrial encephalopathy. Mitochondrion, 13(5) 417-426,
  3. Wenz, T. Rossi, S.G., Rotundo, R.L. Spiegelman, B.M., and Moraes, C.T. (2009) Increased muscle PGC-1a expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 106 (48) 20405-20410,
  4. Wenz T., Luca C.; Toracco A.,Moraes C.T. (2009) mTerF2 regulates oxidative phosphorylation by modulating mtDNA transcription, Cell Metab. 9(6); 499-511,
  5. Wenz, T. Diaz, F., Spiegelman, B.M., Moraes C.T.  (2008); Activation of the PPAR/PGC-1alpha Pathway Prevents a Bioengergetic Deficit and Effectively Improves a Mitochondrial Myopathy Phenotype. Cell Metab. 8; 249-256,
  6. Wenz, T.; Diaz, F., Hernandez D., Moraes C.T. (2009); Endurance exercise is protective for mice with mitochondrial myopathy. J. Appl. Physiol, (106; 1712-1719.

III. Since no objection against the decision of the rectorate was raised within the statutory period, the decision is now final.

  1. The University of Cologne distances itself strongly from the origin and content of these publications and has informed the relevant journals as well as the individuals and institutions affected by the Rectorate’s Decision.

Additional information regarding the press release from September 29, 2016

The University of Cologne has carried against Dr. Tina Wenz an investigation in accordance with the guidelines on good scientific practice and on dealing with scientific misconduct, as issued by the University of Cologne on 22 July 2011.

Based on the recommendation of the Commission on good scientific practice (hereafter: Commission), the Rectorate of the University of Cologne decided at its meeting from June 28th 2016 that scientific misconduct was found in the following publications:

  1. Di Domenico, A., Hofer, A., Tundo, F. and Wenz, T. (2014): Mitochondrial protein acetylation mediates nutrient sensing of mitochondrial protein synthesis and mitonuclear protein balance. IUBMB Life, 66 (11): 793-802.
  2. Noe N., Dillon L., Lellek V., Diaz F., Hida A., Moraes C.T., Wenz T. (2013): Bezafibrate improves mitochondrial function in the CNS of a mouse model of mitochondrial encephalopathy. Mitochondrion, 13(5), 417-426.
  3. Wenz, T., Rossi, S.G., Rotundo, R.L., Spiegelman, B.M., and Moraes, C.T. (2009): Increased muscle PGC-1a expression protects from sarcopenia and metabolic disease during aging. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 106(48): 20405-20410 (Erratum wurde veröffentlicht).
  4. Wenz T, Luca C, Torraco A, Moraes CT. (2009): mTERF2 regulates oxidative phosphorylation by modulating mtDNA transcription. Cell Metab. 9(6): 499-511 (bereits zurückgenommen).
  5. Wenz T., Diaz, F., Spiegelmann, B.M., Moraes, C.T. (2008): Activation of the PPAR/PGC-1alpha Pathway Prevents a Bioenergetic Deficit and Effectively Improves a Mitochondrial Myopathy Phenotype. Cell. Metab. 8: 249-256.
  6. Wenz T, Diaz, F., Hernandez, D., Moraes, C.T. (2009): Endurance exercise is protective for mice with mitochondrial myopathy. J. Appl. Physiol. 106: 1712-1719.

The inquiry was prompted by initial hints in the context of an internal quality assurance measure. To investigate the allegations both internal and external expert opinions were sought.

The research revealed, among other, the following results:

  • With the first publication it is not evident whether any (and if so by whom) necessary repeat measurements were performed for the statistical analysis of the experiments. Furthermore, it was found that the data submitted to the University of Cologne did not reflect the published data. The figures in the publication 1 are based on a single measurement and not on several measurements, as alleged in the publication. This constitutes scientific misconduct according to § 6 Nr. 1a) and b) GWP-O.
  • With the publications 2,3,4,5 and 6 there are clear signs of deliberate manipulations and deceptions. This is scientific misconduct by data manipulation, according to §6 Nr. 1a) and b) GWP-O. It is unlikely that the image manipulations in the publications 2 and 3 occurred due to copying errors. The complexity of the image modifications (horizontal and vertical mirroring, rotations and stretching, adjusting brightness and contrast, rotation, angle changes) speak against accidental copying.

Based on these findings, the University of Cologne arrives to the conclusion that the content of these publications have come into existence through work methods which are clearly to be regarded as scientific misconduct. This is a breach of scientific integrity to which all scientific employees of the university are bound to by § 4 point 4 University Act of the state North-Rhine-Westphalia.

For the University of Cologne such a violation is unacceptable, since by tolerating this infringement also its own integrity would be damaged.

The University of Coologne therefore distances itself strongly from the origin and content of these publications and has informed the relevant journals, as well as the individuals and institutions concerned by the Rectorate Decision.

Since within the time limit provided by law no objection against the decision of the Rectorate was raised this decision final”.


Update 31.03.2017. The German funder DFG announced its decision on Wenz misconduct. She receives a written reprimand and is barred from DFG funding for 5 years. This of course is less painful than it sounds, since Wenz left academia and works in the pharma industry, with Boehringer.

However the DFG notes (translation mine, here original):

“Initially, an investigation on the accusations of scientific misconduct was launched against Wenz by the University of Cologne following respective notifications in 2015. The DFG launched also its own investigation, since the accusations concerned publications which were funded by the DFG, or presented as project-relevant in a grant funding proposal which the DFG has rejected. the University of Cologne found already in September 2016 scientific misconduct by Wenz in 6 publications and demanded from her the retraction of the publications, which already happened in the most cases”.

Wenz received from DFG a 5-year start-up funding as Emmy-Noether research group leader. It seems from the above message that she then unsuccessfully applied to DFG for a kind of large follow-up funding, possibly Heisenberg professorship. When that was denied, she left academia and was welcomed by Boehringer, where her research work as lab head will now help develop drugs to treat many thousands of patients.

15 thoughts on “Can lawyers influence a misconduct investigation? Case of Tina Wenz

  1. Dear Leonid, now that the university has reached a verdict, do you know whether the DFG is going to react? According to the Emmy Noether guidelines, the DFG (http://www.dfg.de/formulare/50_02/50_02_en.pdf) has for example the option of “revoking funding decisions (complete or partial cancellation of the grant, recalling granted funds, demanding repayment of funds spent);” which would make tax-payers whole again.

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    1. First of all, I do think research institutions should be made to return dishonestly obtained funding, as I expressed in that old guest post for Retraction Watch.
      However, the institutions which perform convincing investigations and are also transparent about it, should be rewarded. University of Cologne acted exemplary here, for German standards that is. Investigative reports are never published in Germany, not only scientists, also their zombie papers enjoy full personality protection and are not named even if the latter are proven as manipulated and unreliable.
      Instead, there is another Cologne case possibly worth demanding a funding refund. DFG and University of Cologne are investigating a former Cologne scientist Antonia Joussen (now clinic head at Charite Berlin), who also was awarded Emmy Noether funding.
      With that investigation, University fo Cologne is everything but transparent, in fact they recently changed their stance and insisted the accomplished Joussen investigation (for which they categorically refused to share the outcome) was in fact ongoing, without any clue as to when it might ever end.

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      1. Its baffling that the funding agencies can’t demand in their grants that any proven scientific fraud involving that grant will immediately call for returning the funds, or say 50-70% of the funds. That way both senior researchers and universities will have a common interest in making sure proper quality control and procedure is followed.

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      2. Dear Leonid,
        thanks for the reply. I was rather wondering whether the DFG guidelines construe a personal liability for Dr. Wenz? The DFG guidelines are quite vague in this respect. Who is the sanctioned party? The institution or the principal investigator? As the sanctions refer to items like “exclusion from acting as a reviewer or from membership in DFG committees” I thought it would refer to PIs. Dr Wenz must have personally gotten something like 500,000 € in salary from the DFG. This makes Emmy Noether different from other grants where the PI’s salary is not covered by the grant. Having to (partially) repay your salary in case of serious misconduct would provide researchers with proper incentives for norm-conforming behavior.

        In contrast, requiring research institutions to repay illicitly obtained funding also strikes me as counterproductive, if the institution cooperates. In that case, the institution is a victim as well. Moreover, it would mostly hurt the honest scientists at that institution, because it is their budget that will be affected when the university needs to come up with money. The grant money has already been spent on the salary and work of the dishonest faculty. Of course, there are second order effects on incentives for proper monitoring, but I don’t see how a university could have prevented fraud like this ex-ante.

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      3. I don’t think DFG has much legal leverage in getting Wenz’ salary back, in fact no German scientist ever had to pay anything back from own pocket after being found guilty of misconduct. In fact, I am not sure any German research institution ever had to return dishonestly obtained back funding.
        There are so many misconduct cases which never see the light of the day, in fact many university investigations either do not happen as such or happen in total secrecy. Again, see the Joussen case, which got so bad that two universities rejected FOIA requests out of hand, and one (Charite Berlin) simply refused to respond to it at all, helped by a peculiar non-action attitude of the data protection authority of the Federal State of Berlin. There a threat of funding refund would be motivating.
        And if something does come out into public as press release, all identifying information is removed, both for persons and research papers (they seem to have human rights in Germany), the report itself is always secret (you can never check the validity of evidence or the COIs of the investigators). The Wenz case is very singular in this regard, which might have to do with her leaving academia and its networks.

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    2. She could lose her doctorate under German law. If anyone pressed her uni with regard to a character deficit incompatible with the Doktorwürde. I’m astonished that BI pretends there was no problem. Makes me doubt BI.

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  2. I think lawyers or any other person has the right to influence a misconduct investigation which should be done rigorously and seriously by the respective institutions. Of course, a person or persons accused of scientific misconduct have the right to find a lawyer for advice relative to the investigation conclusions, but this is a different thing.

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    1. I agree with anonymous, that is very difficult for a university to prevent cases like this, given the way the system is organized nowadays. Perhaps each university/research institution should have within their research integrity department, an independent office to check all manuscripts before submission to journals against raw data, experimental protocols in human and mouse subjects, etc. Perhaps, anyone would be allowed to submit a manuscript without a stamp of their respective research integrity office….at the present point, frauds are detected mainly after publication; if many frauds still remain undetected or are not at well investigated, this is still a point to improve as indeed many honest scientists, science itself and eventually human beings might be prejudiced.

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  3. (The lawyer of) Tina Wenz has not filed a formal appeal against the preliminary decision of the University of Cologne that scientific misconduct was found in several of her papers. People might wonder why this is the case.

    An English version of the ‘Ordnung der UzK zur Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis und zum Umgang mit wissenschaftlichem Fehlverhalten” can be downloaded from http://www.portal.uni-koeln.de/sites/uni/PDF/Ordnung_gute_wiss_Praxis_en.pdf

    These guidelines reveal that the decision must be based on a report of a Committee, but that it is up to the University of Cologne to decide which actions will be taken when a final decision has been taken (publish (a summary of) the report or not, make a press release or not, take legal actions or not, etc.).

    It is towards my opinion an excellent decision of the University of Cologne to release this detailed press release. An article in a German newspaper provides some backgrounds. Copy/pasted from: http://www.express.de/koeln/skandal-an-der-koelner-uni-preisgekroente-doktorin-soll-bei-experimenten-getrickst-haben-24831498

    “„Wir mussten ausnahmsweise den Namen der Wissenschaftlerin, die nicht mehr bei uns tätig ist, öffentlich machen, damit der Verdacht der Manipulation nicht auf alle Co-Autoren zurückfällt“, begründet Uni-Sprecher Dr. Patrick Honecker die Bekanntmachung und spricht von einer „Selbstreinigungskraft“.”

    This newspaper has also contacted Tina Wenz for a comment. Copy/pasted from the same source as above: “Die lässt sich von einem Anwalt vertreten. Sein Kommentar: „Wir geben keine Stellungnahme ab.“”.

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  4. Good article, and well done for not caving to the barrage of legal threats.
    Nice to see a researcher with real integrity, in the case of Moraes

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  5. I also think that scientific misconduct should be investigated, identified, and related publications retracted. However, before pointing the finger at young scientists in public, and maybe asking about personal liability etc., one should consider the possible causes and also look at whether there might be a flaw in the system. While I can’t tell about the motivation in this case, I do know that in Germany (and elsewhere!) there is immense pressure on young researchers, especially in the field of biology, to publish high-profile if they want to compete for one of very few permanent researcher positions, which is that of a professor. Only a few percent of graduates, however motivated & talented, can eventually get there, while many of the others will be kicked out of the system, e.g. by a law that prohibits non-permanent employment 12 years after graduation. Since not all of those can get a job in pharma industry, this can eventually mean unemployment for some (+ their families). So, like in any other “crime case”, we should also discuss the possible root cause here instead of solely pointing out individuals. Unfortunately, I don’t see this aspect being mentioned on the publications of the German Research Association, or the involved academic institutions, related to this case.

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