The young star of microbiology Robert Ryan, rose to great heights only to be publicly shot down, without much of an explanation. Instead, newspapers were tipped-off underhand and internal emails discretely forwarded; the only half-way solid information we have is the evidence of image duplications in his papers as posted on PubPeer. Ryan now left the University of Dundee in Scotland; his institutional profile has been deleted. EMBO recently announced in a footnote that Ryan’s Young investigator Programme (YIP) funding was withdrawn.
Unlike the official news suggest though, Ryan did not resign. He was sacked, apparently after a half-a-year long external investigation organized by the University of Dundee and after appeals which involved lawyers on both sides. Unlike I previously assumed, there was no misconduct investigation by his main funder EMBO, the YIP funding was terminated upon unpublished notification forwarded to Ryan’s funders by the University of Dundee. The University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland claims to have initiated their own (also not officially announced) investigation which seems to involve Ryan’s former mentor and co-author on every single manipulations-tainted paper, Maxwell Dow. At least this is what I was told by direct sources, but again, there were no real official announcements whatsoever.
Not a single paper was directly fingered as unreliable; no recommendations for literature corrections were issued. The scientific community and the general public have been kept utterly in the dark, while Ryan’s colleagues and funders dealt with his case without divulging any information, aside of controlled leaks to media, like to select journalists. With some prodding, I was able to slightly lift the shroud of mystery around Ryan’s public career execution. Or maybe I was misled as well, do judge yourself.
In my previous report, I attempted to figure out why Ryan’s suspension from his position of group leader in Dundee was made public by the means of four major newspapers. His research group has been dissolved, meanwhile the misconduct investigation was only supposed at its beginning. This didn’t make any sense. A researcher who said to have known Ryan “vaguely” described him to me as “a serious and studious chap, but hugely talented”. Ryan’s mentor Dow is one of the biggest figures in the field of microbiology. Dozens of “zombie” scientists continue making bombastic careers despite very worrisome PubPeer histories and even officially confirmed earlier fraud records, with evidence of data manipulation much worse than that against Ryan. What happened?
This is what I learned via a direct message exchange with the person behind the official Twitter account MMB Dundee (@MMB_UoD), described as “The Division of Molecular Microbiology, School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee”. (Update 18.03.2017. Through a FOI inquiry to Dundee I found out the name of the person who used to operate this meanwhile inactive Twitter account, a Dundee professor. The transcript of our exchange is here).
The Ryan investigation began apparently as soon as the first PubPeer criticisms were placed against his and Dow’s papers in March-April 2016, just when he was receiving a €5000 Young Investigator Award from the European microbiology society ESCMID. That money Ryan might have just as well used for his lawyers at the misconduct investigation. This was namely what MMB Dundee wrote to me:
“Over six months of full – by the book – investigation. Legal repesentation on both sides. Internal and external members on the panel. Full, non-prejudicial and by the book”.
The newspapers reported on Ryan’s suspension on August 28th 2016. The investigation was most probably concluded by then and likely entered the stage of appeals, which made Ryan’s suspension possible. The email of the Dean of Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, Julian Blow, which was leaked to Retraction Watch, seems to confirm this supposition. Obviously Ryan’s appeal was unsuccessful; he was sacked and announced as having “resigned his position”. Blow did not reply to my email, one wonders in fact if the Dundee report or at least conclusions of that external investigation will ever be published. At least so that the microbiology community knows which of Ryan’s twelve criticised papers were investigated and if their results are still any trustworthy.
MMB Dundee also told me this:
“The Dean of Life Sciences at Dundee has informed all funders and charities”.
And indeed, EMBO rescinded Ryan’s funding on 10th November 2016, but issued no real public notification of this, aside of a tiny footnote here. Most probably the British funder Wellcome Trust has already followed suit regarding Ryan’s Senior Fellowship. Only 2 weeks ago I asked EMBO director Maria Leptin about any new developments, but received no reply. Now I was slightly luckier:
“The termination of Robert Ryan’s membership in the YIP is based on the now publicly available statement that ‘Dr Ryan has now resigned his position’ – in the link that you sent [that of Retraction Watch article, -LS], and which is I suppose how everyone else received the news as well. EMBO was informed of this by the University of Dundee a few days ago. EMBO has not conducted an investigation”.
I also asked the president of University College Cork, Michael Murphy, if they intend to run their own investigation as well, and also to include in it the UCC laboratory of Ryan’s former boss and mentor Dow. This is important in view that the latter is a key co-author on practically all examined publications which were now confirmed by the Dundee dean Blow as containing “misrepresentation of clinical data and the duplication and misrepresentation of images”. This was what Murphy eventually told me:
“UCC is committed to the highest standards in the conduct of research. A detailed investigation into all aspects of this case is underway. Until it has been completed the university is not in a position to comment”.
Of course I don’t know for sure what kind of investigation it is and if it is indeed already happening. Like the University of Dundee, UCC made no public announcement either. Everything is clouded and foggy in this mysterious Celtic saga.
Update 14.11.2016: the text above was corrected to fix a misunderstanding in my communications with EMBO director Maria Leptin. As she now clarified, the notification about YIP grant termination on Retraction Watch “definitely did not come from EMBO directly”.