News Research integrity

After misconduct investigation, Irina Stancheva left Edinburgh, in secret

A scientist was "dismissed" by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, UK. It was the cell biologist Irina Stancheva who specialises on the epigenetics and regulatory methylation of DNA. Her institutional website was deleted just hours after I sent my email inquiries to her former faculty colleagues.

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 were 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 A archived version from December 2016 does feature Stancheva, but not that of August 2017.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 Executive Editor at the 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”

Update 22.10.2017: The journal NAR did not answer my inquiry, but silently removed Stancheva as their Executive Editor from their website. A cached record is available here.

Update 14.12.2017. the University of Edinburgh now rejected my FOIA inquiry twice, also after internal review. The information which Stancheva papers were investigated, and whether her senior co-author Meehan was under investigation also, was denied due to privacy reasons.


 

 

Donate!

If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!

€5.00

30 comments on “After misconduct investigation, Irina Stancheva left Edinburgh, in secret

  1. Nix Recto

    @jobimT I agree and its a very strange story. However, it seems the papers still get citations from the field. I am not in the subject so can’t just if that support one or the other story…….would be interesting to know.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Abderrahmane Kaidi leaves Bristol after misconduct findings – For Better Science

  3. Pingback: Edinburgh saves Bird men from clutches of Bulgarian Jezebel – For Better Science

  4. EMBO J. 2001 Apr 17;20(8):1963-73.
    Loss of the maintenance methyltransferase, xDnmt1, induces apoptosis in Xenopus embryos.
    Stancheva I1, Hensey C, Meehan RR.
    Author information
    1
    Genes and Development Group, The University of Edinburgh, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Hugh Robson Building, George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9XD, UK.

    2019 erratum.
    https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/embj.2019103221

    The University of Edinburgh shared the report from an institutional investigation with The EMBO Journal in 2017 that concluded the presence of image aberrations in Figs 5D and J, and possible image aberrations in Figs 1F and 3A. The report recommended a partial retraction of Figs 5D and J, and an expression of concern on Figs 1F and 3A.

    IS provided source data to support these figure panels on April 30, 2019. RRM did not respond to the journal’s requests for comment. The source data provided are published with this note.

    The available source appears to be consistent with the published figure panels, and the journal does not deem further action necessary.

    Figure 1F: The report suggested multiple duplications in this panel; the journal notes that the source data appear to be consistent with the published figure and the journal did not detect image aberrations.
    Figure 3A: In this panel, the source data suggest that the allegedly duplicated bands are not the same.
    Figure 5J: In this panel, the journal noted image aberrations that did not substantially alter the data presented in the paper nor the conclusions.
    Figure 5D: In this panel, the journal notes that the order of p53 (MD ac (−) and MD ac10 U/ml TGF) is reversed in the source data. In the absence of annotations on the source data, the journal cannot determine the source of these inconsistencies. The source data for the PCNA bands shows no definitive evidence of duplication between the left and right set of bands. However, the left‐hand bands appear to diverge from the published figure, which displays a high level of similarity between both pairs of bands.
    The source data for all four panels are included for reference with this note.

    The journal notes that the data in Table 1 contain the base of several central conclusions in the paper. Unfortunately, the journal was not in a position to analyze the raw data underlying Table 1. The journal is not aware of issues regarding these data at this time.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: