A scientist was “dismissed” by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, UK. All evidence points towards that it was the cell biologist Irina Stancheva who specialises on the epigenetics and regulatory methylation of DNA, and who departed from the university recently, after a forced leave. She also has an impressive record on PubPeer, where her publications where flagged for suspected data manipulations around 2 years ago. The suspicions were mostly of western blot band re-use and duplication. Around same time, an investigation started about these PubPeer issues, and by now Stancheva’s name does not feature of the Department’s list of academic staff. A archived version from December 2016 does feature Stancheva, but not that of August 2017. Her institutional website was deleted just hours after I sent my email inquiries to her former faculty colleagues.

Suspected band duplication in Stancheva et al 2001, as flagged on PubPeer

The news about Stancheva’s departure from Edinburgh was forwarded to me by a source, who also shared this recent email by the Head of Department, Professor of Immunology David Gray (highlights mine):

“Dear All,

The School has recently investigated a case of research misconduct which led to the dismissal of a member of academic staff after they were found to have published falsified results.  A recent case elsewhere in the College has led to dismissal for financial fraud after a member of staff was found not to have acted with expected standards in claiming expenses.

I want to draw attention to this for two reasons:

First, I want the School to be an environment where anyone who has legitimate concerns about research integrity (or other behaviours such as bullying or financial misconduct) feels comfortable and confident in bringing those forward in the knowledge they will be handled appropriately and fairly for all concerned.  In both cases above, there is some evidence that individuals who may have been aware of issues did not feel they could raise concerns through the appropriate channels, or did not know how to do so.  I have a personal commitment to ensuring the School is a great working environment, and will be working with senior colleagues to make sure that everyone feels able to manage honest discussions on such matters and to challenge poor behaviour without negative consequences.

Second, I want to state the obvious and emphasise that we expect the highest standards of research and professional integrity from all staff in all areas of work. Should you have any doubt, for instance, as to whether an action is appropriate or expense is allowable, please seek advice from a senior colleague or member of admin staff.

I am always available to discuss, informally and in complete confidence, issues of integrity or inappropriate behaviour if they arise.

Sincerely,

David”

PubPeer evidence suggesting digital copy-paste of gel sections (Stancheva et al 2002)

This is some interesting change of direction indeed. In 2016, Stancheva was awarded a new MRC research grant running until 2019 and worth over half a million pounds.  She was placed in charge of Graduate School which is funded by Research Councils UK until 2023 with GBP 7.5 Million. On June 24th 2016, the Department’s head Gray sent this email expressing his full support for Stancheva:

“Dear colleagues,
As you may know, Irina Stancheva was appointed as Director of Graduate School of Biological Sciences on 1 September 2013 for an initial three-year term with the option of extension to five years. The initial three-year period is now drawing to a close. Irina has kindly indicated that she is willing to serve for a further two years until 31 August 2018. I am very happy to extend her appointment.
I would like to take this opportunity to record my thanks to Irina for her contribution to the School over the past three years and I look forward to continuing to work closely with her over the next two years.
Regards,

David”

Last year, Stancheva in fact responded to accusations on PubPeer and provided some original data, which seems in some cases help lift the suspicions (e.g., here). Her department colleague, William Earnshaw, commented on PubPeer, regarding evidence in Sarraf & Stancheva 2004:

“Dear Anonymous PubPeer individuals: I do not participate in an anonymous witch hunts. Those who wish to comment on the work from Irina Stancheva’s lab should show that they have the courage of their convictions by identifying themselves. Otherwise, this whole exercise has a more than slightly unsavoury air about it.
Yours sincerely, WC Earnshaw, FRS, FRSE, FMedSci”

Suspected band duplications in Sarraf & Stancheva 2004, as reported on PubPeer

Earnshaw confirmed to me in an email that Stancheva indeed left the university, but chose not to provide any details. Thing is, what his department and the University of Edinburgh did was also everything but open and transparent. As I found out, Stancheva investigation began in autumn 2015 and was simmering for some time until it kick-started properly after people (including myself) began asking about its progress roughly one year ago. On June 12th 2017, the cell biologist was placed on “immediate forced leave”, as I was informed. The above email by Gray suggests she was made redundant soon after.

 

Stancheva is still listed as member of editorial board of the journal Nucleic Acids Research (NAR), with her Edinburgh affiliation. Her lab’s website at the University of Edinburgh was fully functional as of morning October 11th 2017. As soon as I started sending emails to faculty, these pages began to disappear, replaced by an error message (I managed to save only this one page as backup, it was deleted the moment I saved it, at around 9:45 PM). The university then even jumped to remove all mention of Stancheva on her above mentioned MRC grant, which they apparently decided to keep. Let’s see for how long the above shown video will survive on the university’s website.

One wonders however if the University of Edinburgh, which was so ruthless in its misconduct investigation against their Bulgarian group leader Stancheva, ever bothered to put forward any questions at all to her former postdoctoral advisor, last and corresponding author on four PubPeer-flagged papers and professor at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, Richard Meehan. After having published that successfully with Meehan, Stancheva started her own research group in Edinburgh in 2002, as a Cancer Research UK Senior Research Fellow (grant number C7215/A8983). In 2006 she received an EMBO Young Investigator funding award, and was tenured as Reader with the University of Edinburgh in 2014.

Suspected band duplications for Stancheva et al 2003, as reported on PubPeer

This secretive Stancheva affair reminds of another Scottish misconduct investigation which resulted in a biologist’s “resignation” from the job: that of the Irish microbiologist Robert Ryan at the University of Dundee (read here and here).

I will provide updates to this article should any new information become available.


Update 13.10.2017.  David Gray wrote to me to confirm that the dismissed scientist was indeed Stancheva and that her PhD students “are now continuing their projects with alternative supervisors”. Gray gave me the following statement to be quoted, an equally worded one was sent to me simultaneously by Jen Middleton, PR & Media Manager at College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine:

“Over the past year the University, following its formal Research Misconduct Policy, has investigated and upheld allegations against one of our researchers. As a result, the researcher was dismissed from the University.
We do not comment on the detail of disciplinary issues.  We can, however, confirm that none of her colleagues were implicated. Given the understandable distress that this has caused to those involved, we would like to request that you refrain from contacting them, to enable them to concentrate on their research.”

When asked about any recommended paper corrections or retractions, given the documented misconduct committed at the University of Edinburgh, Gray told me:

“This is in process now”

 

 

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11 thoughts on “After misconduct investigation, Irina Stancheva left Edinburgh, in secret

  1. “…Given the understandable distress that this has caused to those involved, we would like to request that you refrain from contacting them, to enable them to concentrate on their research.”

    If the University of Edinburgh really want all the best for the innocent scientists at their institution and stop people like Leonid from asking, they should practice more transparency and publish the full investigation report and get the fake research data retracted ASAP.

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  2. “…Given the understandable distress that this has caused to those involved, we would like to request that you refrain from contacting them, to enable them to concentrate on their research.”

    Several posts about image duplication appeared on Pubpeer in May 2015.
    If the university had acted at that time it could have been over in 6 months (How difficult can it be to determine if images are the same?) so that the innocent could have got on with their research much earlier.

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  3. How come nobody at Edinburgh university noticed the problematic data in Stancheva’s publications?
    I don’t think that it is in any way like the Harvey Weinstein news reports as Stancheva is plain so eyes of foolish old men would not have been distracted on that account.

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  4. Each set of western data should be unique. You might produce data, which when quantified compared with some standard, are similar, but this does not mean that the images should look identical. Blots from the same membrane can be compared (cards in the same pack), but that does not you can shuffle blots from different membranes (different packs) and in so doing present more data (combinations) than you have. That is what many did and now they have been caught out. People either didn’t know this, i.e. did not understand the fundamental nature of the assay (but when has lack of understanding ever got in the way of success?), or did know and carried on regardless shuffling away, and were quids in. Witting or unwitting it did not make sense, and witting or unwitting does not matter. The name of the game is to be quids in.

    An early example to come to light, who is now employed as a professor 100 miles to the South of Edinburgh. http://retractionwatch.com/category/by-author/silvia-bulfone-paus-retractions/
    It pays to shuffle from different packs.

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