The travesty around the data faking regenerative medicine enthusiast Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson is finally over. Her Swedish employer University of Gotheburg (GU) announced yesterday to have opened labour law proceedings against her, with the expressed goal of her dismissal as university professor. No appeal is possible anymore, and her loyal GU supporters Elias Eriksson and Kristoffer Hellstrand can now take a rest from nearly 10 years of lobbying, obstructing and bullying everyone involved in the misconduct investigations of their dear colleague. On top, retractions of 7 Sumitran-Holgersson publications were requested by the GU rector.
Sumitran-Holgersson, formerly a Karolinska Institutet researcher, survived a misconduct investigation by the Swedish Research Council from 2009-2011, because her friends achieved a dismissal of all damning evidence of data manipulation on formality grounds; the two investigators themselves ended up threatened with lawsuits. The newly appointed GU professor only had to retract one paper. In early 2016, when the regenerative medicine scandal around Paolo Macchiarini exploded in Sweden, PubPeer evidence of image manipulations was posted en masse (including by certain readers of my site) about Sumitran-Holgersson’s work in the field. That prompted a new misconduct investigation by GU and the Swedish Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN). In spring 2016, Sumitran-Holgersson saw her funding frozen and her paper retracted, which reported an unethical Macchiarini-style trachea transplant, likely responsible for the death of that patient. That work was performed together with GU surgeon Michael Olausson, with whom Sumitran-Holgersson also developed bioengineered blood vessels which they tested on children without proper ethics approvals. For that, both were found guilty of misconduct one year later, in March 2017. Which not only still didn’t cost Sumitran-Holgersson her job as GU professor: her own business Verigraft was right after awarded €2.3 mn by the EU Commission under Horizon 2020, based on her papers tainted with data manipulations and severe ethics breaches. The money was earmarked by excited EU bureaucrats to market and bring that very same blood vessel graft technology into a large clinical trial; in this regard please read the excellent investigation for my site by Sophia Tibblin. Olausson’s own misconduct activities in the area of regenerative medicine and especially trachea transplantation served as his qualification to advice the Swedish State Prosecutor to drop manslaughter charges against Macchiarini in October 2017.
In March 2018, both Sumitran-Holgersson and Olausson were found guilty of misconduct once again, this time it was about data manipulation flagged on PubPeer 2 years before. Retractions of 8 papers was recommended by the CEPN decision, which GU now largely upheld in the rector’s yesterday’s announcement, with the difference that now all co-authors were freed of suspicions of misconduct. Update 7.07.2018: That was because GU’s (now updated) good scientific practice rules of the time did not sanction negligence, of which Michael Olausson and Jan Holgersson (Suchitra’s husband, also professor at GU and Chairman of Verigraft) were found guilty of, but with no disciplinary consequences.
For the indestructible Sumitran-Holgersson though it is now the end of the road.
Follows the translated press release from 26 June 2018.
A professor at the University of Gothenburg found guilty of research misconduct
Rector Eva Wiberg has decided that a professor working at Sahlgrenska Academy is guilty of research misconduct. The current professor is lead author of ten scientific articles under investigation. Other co-authors are cleared of suspicions of scientific misconduct.
In just over two years, the University of Gothenburg misconduct commission investigated on behalf of the rector four cases of suspected scientific misconduct. Matters relate to the same lead author.
It was in March 2016 as the Academy’s then-Dean Olle Larkö reported a case of suspected research misconduct. Anonymous comments on the site PubPeer pointed out ten articles where University of Gothenburg researchers were suspected to have fabricated and distorted a large number of images. Subsequently, the rector submitted two further reports. These related to two scientific articles where there were suspicions that ethical approval was lacking in the research presented in those articles. And in January 2017, another matter was brought to the Rector. That was about inaccurate publication of images in two scientific papers.
The two ethics cases were finalised on March 24, 2017. The then-Chancellor Pam Fredman decided that there had been scientific misconduct and two professors were found guilty. The misconduct commission has continued to examine the other two cases.
Rector pronounces a professor guilty of research misconduct
On June 26, Rector Eva Wiberg decided on the two remaining cases. In the first case, the rector decided that the main author was guilty of scientific misconduct through deliberate fabrication, distortion or suppression of original data, and deliberately deviated from good scientific practice in seven of the reviewed articles.
In total, these articles have 35 authors, 26 of which can be linked to the University of Gothenburg. Aside of the main author, they are freed from the suspicion of scientific misconduct.
In the second case, the rector decided that the professor was guilty of scientific misconduct by deliberately deviating from good scientific practice.
– Research misconduct is very serious, and of course, nothing of that kind should occur at our institutions. It is therefore important that misconduct is discovered and that it has consequences for those responsible, says Eva Wiberg.
Journals are notified of decisions
University of Gotheburg will notify the relevant journals about the decisions. It is then up to the magazines to decide whether the articles should be withdrawn.
Labour law procedure started
Rector Eva Wiberg has also initiated a labour law procedure against the current professor and asked that the National Disciplinary Board (Statens ansvarsnämnd) examines a request for dismissal.
- Higher Education (1993: 100) 1 chapter § 16 states that if a university, through a complaint or otherwise, becomes aware of a suspicion of misconduct in research, artistic research or development, the university is to investigate this.
- During the investigation, a university may procure the opinion of the expert group on research misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN). In the present cases such were received.
- The files in question are assessed according to the University’s procedures current at that time, and applied in cases of suspected misconduct in research and development.
- Since three years, the University has new procedural regulations
The decisions include the following articles
Fetal liver-derived mesenchymal stromal cells augment engraftment of transplanted hepatocytes. Cytotherapy (2012) 14:657-669.
Recellularization of acellular human small intestine using bone marrow stem cells. Stem Cells Trans. Med. (2013) 2:307-315.
Phenotypic and in vivo functional characterization of immortalized human fetal liver cells. Scand. J. Gastroenterol. (2014) 49:705-714.
Isolation and characterization of human primary enterocytes from small intestine using a novel method. Scand. J. Gastroenterol. (2012) 47:1334-1343.
CD271 identifies functional human hepatic stellate cells, which localize in peri-sinusoidal and portal areas in liver after partial hepatectomy. Cytotherapy (2014) 16:990-999. [temporary removed, -LS]
Successful tissue engineering of competent allogeneic venous valves. J. Vascular Surgery: Venous and Lymphatic Disorders (2015) 3:421-430.
Update 7.07.2018. I now received from GU registrar an Swedish summary of the decision by the Gothenburg University Council, see here.
Google-assisted translation of the final section:
“The council believes that the senior authors Suchitra Holgersson, Michael Olausson and Professor Jan Holgersson had greater responsibility in the writing and compilation of the manuscript as they are project managers and supervisors for participating doctoral students / postdocs, as well as having contributed with research funding. The Council requested supplementary opinions from Michael Olausson and Jan Holgersson, inviting them to meet the Council on February 1, 2018. Both responded that they were aware that they as co-authors are responsible. Michael Olausson referred to Suchitra Holgersson assuming full responsibility for the mistakes that seem to have been committed. Jan Holgersson regretted that he did not make sure that the images were not published in other articles, but as researchers they tend to trust each other.
In the light of the findings of the investigation, the Council considers that there is reason to assume that there is scientific misconduct attributable to Suchitra Holgersson, according to point 7a (conscious fabrication, manipulation or suppression of original data) and 7f (deliberate departure from good scientific practice ) in the procedure of Gothenburg University, which took place during the period in which the current studies were conducted (Control document Dnr H5 865/05).
The Council strongly criticizes senior researchers Michael Olausson and Jan Holgersson because they have not taken responsibility as co-authors of the articles in question, as project managers for their research projects and as supervisors for doctoral students and postdocs who participated in the studies. The Council strongly criticizes Michael Olausson as co-author in seven of the notified articles, six of which were found to be scientific inadequate. The Council believes there is a reason to assume that Michael Olausson and Jan Holgersson acted “grossly negligently”, which is however not defined as scientific misconduct in accordance with the procedure of the University of Gothenburg applicable for the period during which the relevant studies were conducted (Steering Document Dnr H5 865 / 05).
The Council believes that the other authors of the University of Gothenburg acted negligently, but there is no reason to believe that they have committed research misconduct.
The nine authors who do not have / had connections to the University of Gothenburg are not covered by the investigation”.
Update 13.07.2018. I received and now share here two more summaries of Council decisions on Sumitran-Holgersson, case D 2016 nr 42 and case D 2017 nr 15. The latter notification of research misconduct and data manipulation was submitted by Olausson.
Update 1.11.2018. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology is about to retract two papers on the above list, Patil et al 2014 and Chougule et al 2012. The Editor-in-Chief Helge Waldum announced today to have requested the retractions from the publisher Taylor & Francis. That development is interesting because back in 2016, Waldum (who is clinical professor at Norwegian University of Science and Technology) declared to me the following about same papers:
“We agree with you that some parts of figures first published in Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology later were used in another publication. We have written to the author about this, but will not do anything more about it. After all, the pictures used twice only made up a minuscule part of the figures, and we do not find this error of such a degree to do anything more”.
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