Research integrity

Princess Sabine, her Ombudsman chaperone and a frog

If you wish to report data irregularities, especially a recurrent pattern thereof, one is well adviced not to write to the scientist behind those published papers, but to the institutional Ombudsman. This is also what is recommended by the US Office for Research Integrity (ORI, here) and by two real-life whistleblowers from Sweden:

“Collect evidence, but don’t contact the accused with questions if you are certain that they fabricated data, because they may then hide their tracks. Identify the appropriate authority where misconduct should be reported; this could be at your own or the accused’s institution”.

My own experience with reporting evidence to institutional Ombudspersons is mixed. Some do not reply at all (one of those has actually shady data in his own papers), some eventually write something non-saying back, some do take the issue seriously. A German university Ombudsman quickly put right a professor and dean of her department, and issued an apology on her behalf, after she attacked me for disagreeing with her on the academic merits of predatory conferences and medals issued by the false Linköping University professor Ashutosh Tiwari.

The Ombudsman of the University of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when alerted to PubPeer evidence of some strange image duplications in papers by an Osnabrück plant scientist, acted differently. The Ombudsman, a law professor, indirectly threatened me with a libel lawsuit, and refused to process the notification. The next day, the plant scientist admitted duplications on PubPeer, one paper has been already extensively corrected. This beautiful piece of evidence was posted on PubPeer on September 4th 2017.


The anonymous commenter, under the randomly assigned name Ptychohyla leonhardschultzei (Schultze’s Stream Frog) added: “Reusage of images in 4 articles“. We do see that the same flowers blossomed in four different publications from the lab of the University of Osnabrück botany professor Sabine Zachgo, specialist for developmental genetics of flowering plants. The flowery images re-appear across papers (as visualised by arrows) in different context, often standing in for different plant genotypes, sometimes cropped, rotated or mirrored. The four papers were:

1. Shutian Li , Andrea Lauri , Mark Ziemann , Andrea Busch , Mrinal Bhave , Sabine Zachgo

Nuclear Activity of ROXY1, a Glutaredoxin Interacting with TGA Factors, Is Required for Petal Development in Arabidopsis thaliana. The Plant Cell (2009) doi: 10.1105/tpc.108.064477 

2. Shutian Li , Nora Gutsche , Sabine Zachgo

The ROXY1 C-Terminal L**LL Motif Is Essential for the Interaction with TGA Transcription Factors PLANT PHYSIOLOGY (2011) doi: 10.1104/pp.111.185199

3. Jhadeswar Murmu , Michael J Bush , Catherine DeLong , Shutian Li , Mingli Xu , Madiha Khan , Caroline Malcolmson , Pierre R Fobert , Sabine Zachgo , Shelley R Hepworth Arabidopsis Basic Leucine-Zipper Transcription Factors TGA9 and TGA10 Interact with Floral Glutaredoxins ROXY1 and ROXY2 and Are Redundantly Required for Anther Development PLANT PHYSIOLOGY (2010) doi: 10.1104/pp.110.159111

4. Shuping Xing, Mario G. Rosso, Sabine Zachgo

ROXY1, a member of the plant glutaredoxin family, is required for petal development in Arabidopsis thaliana

German Research Council (DFG), which is the central German public funder and also a research integrity authority, provides on its website a list of Ombudspersons at all German universities and research institutions. I contacted the Ombudsman listed for the University of Osnabrück on September 8th 2017, who then directed me to his successor, the University of Osnabrück professor for public law, Oliver Dörr. Next day I wrote to Dörr, reporting a suspected data manipulation:

“I contact you in your capacity as Ombudsman of the University of Osnabrück.
These are the allegations on the Internet, about suspected data duplication in 4 publications by Prof. Sabine Zachgo:
I hope your university can help dispel the PubPeer allegations. I would appreciate your feedback”

I also sent Dörr the diagram assembled by the PubPeer user Ptychohyla leonhardschultzei., the Mexican stream frog. Almost 2 weeks later, on September 21st, Dörr wrote back to me:

“I thank you for your mail submission, but I have to admit that I did not understand the pictures and arrows even after looking at them several times. I have understood that you accuse a university professor of the University of Osnabrück, Prof. Zachgo, of scientific misconduct, but not what this misconduct is and what it should result from. I’m afraid if I’m to deal with that, you’d have to be a little bit clearer.

In order to prevent misunderstandings, I wish to point out in advance that it is not part of the duties of an Ombudsperson to “rebut allegations made on the Internet”.

Addressing allegations of data manipulations on the internet pertaining his university is in theory exactly Dörr’s task as Ombudsman. But he apparently prefers to threaten those reporting the evidence. Accusing someone of research misconduct is a crime of libel under German law, and Dörr as law professor certainly knows that. He may even have looked up my site and appreciated how German scientists and doctors keep suing me, for alleged libel.  I wrote back to Dörr and pointed out to him that I never raised such accusations against Zachgo personally, and asked him to clarify what I perceived as his insinuation of a possible libel lawsuit against me. I also explained what the arrows and pictures mean. Yet I never heard from Dörr since, despite my later attempts to communicate with him. He never withdrew or clarified his underhand threats.

However, right the following morning, on September 22nd 2017, after Dörr sent me that email on the evening before, Princess Sabine Zachgo went to PubPeer and penned this letter to her enchanted frog:

“Dear Pubpeer/Ptychohyla Leonhardschultzei,
Thanks for bringing these points to our attention.

  • Plant Cell, 2009

Fig. 2, control The negative control picture (YN-ROXY1/YC) shown in Figure 2 has already been corrected (March 2014. DOI: There were also mistakes in the selection of the flower phenotype pictures, which do not affect the conclusions drawn but that we will correct in a revised version.

  • Plant Physiology 2010

There are errors in this BiFC figure, which we sincerely regret not having recognized earlier. We are repeating the BiFC experiments.

  • Plant Physiology, 2011

Fig. 3A shows one typical BiFC picture representing the nuclear localization observed for YN-ROXY1/YC-TGA3, YN-ROXY1Δ4/YC-TGA3 and also, as stated in the legend, for YN-ROXY1/YC-PAN. We still believe in nuclear interactions in all three tested scenarios but recognize that showing only one representative case could be confusing and that it is advisable to show all figure panels separately in a revised version of the figure. There were mistakes made in the selection of the flower phenotype pictures of Fig. 4 and we will correct these.

Overall, we are confident in the conclusions drawn but accept that mistakes were made in compiling the figures and we will correct these as indicated above.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Best wishes, Sabine Zachgo”

The Plant Cell paper Li et al 2009 has been then corrected once again, in January 2018. The correction notice mentioned:

“As stated in the article, we presented a number of “typical” and “representative” flower images. However, some of the images were reused without explicit acknowledgment and the legends therefore may be misleading. In addition, an inappropriately duplicated image was shown as a negative control in Figure 2

In fact, as Zachgo admitted on PubPeer, the same Figure 2 has been corrected before. The journal Plant Physiology is aware of the duplications in Li et al 2011 and Murmu et al 2010 as I learned, but could not offer any comments.

The take home-message is: it can be worth it to report evidence to university Ombudspersons, even if they remain silent or seem to threaten you in return. It still has an effect, especially if the evidence is public, like on PubPeer. Do not let people like Dörr intimidate you.



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2 comments on “Princess Sabine, her Ombudsman chaperone and a frog

  1. Pingback: Boletim de Notícias: Câmara vota 5 projetos de C&T. STF veta redução de áreas por MPs. | Direto da Ciência

  2. Pingback: Lill space-time-blot anomaly in Marburg – For Better Science

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