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Updated: Gothenburg tries and fails to sack Sumitran-Holgersson, requests 7 retractions

The travesty around the data faking regenerative medicine enthusiast Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson is finally over. Her Swedish employer University of Gotheburg announced to sack her as university professor. Retractions of 7 papers were requested

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.

Update 2.01.2019. The disciplinary committee led by Swedish supreme judges and a politican rejected the rector’s request for Sumitran-Holgersson’s dismissal on 21 December 2018. The travesty with that zombie scientist is to continue after all.

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.

Facts

  • 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.

Replacement of a Tracheal Stenosis with a Tissue-Engineered Human Trachea Using Autologous Stem Cells: A Case Report. Tissue Eng. Part A (2013) 20:389-397. [already retracted, -LS]

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.

b3aa9ce3d73e44cf_800x800ar
Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, with an artificial vein. Source: GU

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 1.11.2019. 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”.

Update 2.01.2018. Sumitran-Holgersson will remain professor. The disciplinary committee (Ansvarsnämnden) unanimously rejected the rector’s request to sack her, on 21 December 2018. Suchitra will now haunt University of Gothenburg and international science as a Zombie scientist until she reaches retirement age. Incidentally, the exactly same day Sumitran-Holgersson’s company Verigraft announced a clinical trial with her discredited regemed vein technology, on 15 patients and funded by EU Commission (more here).

This is the decision document (in Swedish), a concluding quote from it, translated:

“The fact that Suchitra Holgersson  has been found to be guilty of research misconduct in four individual decisions speaks for itself, with regard to her particular responsibility as a professor, a resignation would be strongly justified. However, in the case of an overall assessment of the nearer circumstances in the case, the named responsibles consider that what has come to light about the various rectors’ decisions, neither individually nor together – whether or not the circumstances in many respects are relevant for Suchitra Holgersson – constitutes now any proper ground for such an extremely serious consequence of research misconduct as a dismissal is meant to be. The named responsibles then take into account the time that has passed since the various articles have been published and what emerged about the character of each of the cases of misconduct found. The university rector’s desire for dismissal must be rejected without approval. The decision does not cause any further action on the part of the named responsibles, and will not be further handled.

In the debate participated: Chief Justice of the Appeals court Anders Perklev, former Supreme Court Justice Karin Almgren, member of parliament Anneli Karlsson and General Counsel Helene Robson. The decision is unanimous.”


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18 comments on “Updated: Gothenburg tries and fails to sack Sumitran-Holgersson, requests 7 retractions

  1. Monica Säter

    As a swede I am so thankful for your writing Leonid. This puts focus on fraudulent behavior among researchers in a way that is a warning to other unethical researchers. Sweden seem to have a lot of this type of researchers and at the same time fraudulent coworkers, that supports them. From my own experience I have requested open data from professor Thorbjörn Laike at Lunds University since 2015. He doesn’t answer any mail about this requests. Lunds University doesn’t send out this data despite requested since 3 years. Only fragments of the requested data is released. Thorbjörn Laike is a researcher that claim an effect of the use of electrical light despite staying in daylight and in uncontrolled lighting conditions for a longer time compared to the time spent in the experimental and control rooms. Lighting Research and Technology publish this type of conclusions despite my communication with them. Again, as a researcher I must say that the journalists that take the time to follow fraudulent behavior among researchers and write about complex studies are helping society to protect science. Journalists should not be punished for writing about fraud. This should be known among those who can solve the problem.

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    • Ana Pedro

      At least sometimes the good wins to the evil…unfortunately is true there is some a few Swedish scientists that are questionable

      Like

  2. Jonas Malmstedt

    A good abeit late decision.
    There is a interesting difference in the approach to the co-authors between Karolinska institutet (all co-authors jointly responsible) vs GU (no co-author responsible). Would be good to have an international view on this matter.

    Again, Leonid, you do a great job!

    Like

  3. After following this case for many years, I am glad GU took the right decision, despite too late. Leonid has done a great job in this matter!
    There are many other similar cases and I hope Leonid (and researchers that care about science) will continue too put pressure in order to stop the cheaters. Let the revolution for truth and openness in research begin!

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  4. I have now looked into the reason for why GU does not convict the co-authors, in spite of the CEPN advisory report pinning 25 of them as having strong responsibility in virtue of gross negligence and/or recklessness. This, of course, was a big surprise, especially in light of the recent conviction of co-authors of Macchiarini by Karolinska Institutet. The reason is formalistic: the applicable GU misconduct regulation (now changed since three years) did not include either negligence or recklessness as valid grounds for misconduct convictions. There was a lot of pressure from many of us at the University to change this, and as mentioned it was changed in 2015. However, as the convicted articles were all written and published before this new regulation came into effect, it could not be applied to this case.

    My own reflection is that this just adds to the many reason to change the Swedish system around research misconduct from one were each university sets its own rules and makes its own rulings. Such change is under way: the will shortly be a law (including criminal penalties) defining a bona fide crime of research misconduct, and a central state authority to monitor it. This crime will not include everything that the scientific community defines as research misconduct however, but it would certainly have included the misconduct slammed on Sumitran-Holgersson, Jungebluth and Macchiarini. In parallel, the research ethics regulation is being upgraded so that statutes of limitation are extended to 5 years, and maximum penalty for breach is 2 years jailtime. Also, the research ethical review organisation is centralised, and all cases are to be reviewed at a national level, where before they were reviewed by regional offices of the research ethical review authority.

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  5. Leonid asked me to give more info on the new Swedish research misconduct legislation. It is not yet in effect, it is a bill in its secondary stage, revised after broad public review, and now submitted for scrutiny to the Swedish high judicial council (lagrådet), before it is forwarded to parliament (after possible further revisions of a legal nature). As I have understood, post Macchiarini, there is a strong parliamentary support for it, and it is expected to pass this fall, or early next year, to come into effect from July 2019. The law is not a criminal law, this was a mistake in my previous post, it is purely administrative, meaning that it contains no individual punishment statutes (in contrast to the research ethical law, that I also mentioned above). However it makes it obligatory for all public research institutions (universities, colleges, all public agencies and instances from municipal to national level, or other bodies offering education and research, such as foundations or societies) to report suspected research misconduct to a central public authority for review (this authority is created through this same law). Research misconduct as a defined offense includes all sorts of serious fabrication, manipulation and plagiarism, and may include not only intentional acts to this effect but also negligence and recklessness. The law will also state an individual responsibility of all researchers to uphold good research conduct. In effect, rulings by the new authority will give institutions reasons to take disciplinary action based in labor law, such as reassignment of duties, withdrawal of funds, and dismissal. The most important implications of the law will be that Sweden gets a consistent system for assessing serious research misconduct allegations, and that research misconduct across all kinds of public and non-business institutions can be persecuted consistently. A researcher found guilty of research misconduct will have the opportunity to appeal to a n apelate administrative court. Up till now the system has been for each university or college (only these have had a duty to investigate research misconduct) to set up its own standards and rules for how to handle cases of this sort, leading to vast variation and legal insecurity, and the ensuing decisions by VCs have been impossible to appeal. Here is a link to the bill in its current state (only in Swedish): https://www.regeringen.se/rattsliga-dokument/lagradsremiss/2018/06/ny-ordning-for-att-framja-god-sed-och-hantera-oredlighet-i-forskning/

    Like

  6. Pingback: Dahlman-Wright: Gothenburg investigation began, raw data doesn’t match – For Better Science

  7. Sirgraphs

    What a bizarre statement from the disciplinary committee (Ansvarsnämnden) that unanimously refused the rector’s request to fire her.

    Can anybody explain to me exactly what they are giving as the reason she shouldn’t be fired? It is not clear to me.

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  8. I really don’t understand the conclusion from the disciplinary committee (Ansvarsnämnden). I was sure that if you commit serious research fraud you will be fired without questions. What the toothless Ansvarsnämnden actually is saying with their blatant decision is that research fraud is welcomed at swedish universities. You can loose all your articles and integrity, but you will still be a professor and get your salary.

    I hope the staff at the Gøteborg University every day will remind the fraudulent professor about the shame and hopefully she will take the obvious decision herself: to leave ashamed. The problem might be that this kind of people do not feel shame at all.

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    • “The problem might be that this kind of people do not feel shame at all.” Not rare. Social Darwinism selects for them. Mistaken by others as “leadership”, will push, or make others run away.

      Like

  9. Challenger

    Bizarre indeed If University is not able to dismiss Professor guilty of fraud. All 4 persons who took the decision are not scientists. Anyway, they spend time reading all excuses provided by Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson and deliberate if any of four cases of fraud are “grave” or not. It is bizarre also that so much weight is given to the fact that investigation took long time to complete. Following the logic of this decision any fraud become not punishable after 2-3 years time. Any student who make little cheating on exam get dismissed form University almost automatically. Professor found guilty of fraud in four different official cases is not a problem. No real punishment is possible in this system as it looks. Very good news for all kinds of fraudsters and very bad news for researchers who trying to build their careers in honest ways.

    Like

  10. Hi all,

    the background here is an administrative regulation meant to protect university professors against political or other coercion by threat (of dismissal), as part of the setups meant to combine government-funded and -operated universities with academic professional autonomy. A crucial part of this regulation is a very high bar for dismissal. The bar for other disciplinary actions (financial penalty or forced leave) are lower, but in this case GU asked for dismissal only.

    Reading the Swedish decision text by SAN (the translation above is far from perfect, and translation is tricky as it is a question of legal text where otherwise ordinary words may have a technical meaning which I am unsure of how to translate into English correctly), the argument seems to be structured in two parts:

    The toughest sanction (dismissal) should be reserved for only the gravest breaches.
    Although the breaches of Sumitran-Holgersson are serious, it is not evident that they reach up to the gravity required for the toughest sanction.
    In addition, the time passed since the breaches further discounts the penal value of the breaches.
    Therefore, the toughest sanction is not justified.

    Of these arguments, no. 2 seems to connect directly to the admin regulation mentioned above, while no. 3 is a more general legal principle regarding penal justice that applies to all penal law, bot administrative and criminal. No. 1 is also linked to general penal law principles, but is also linked to the role of SAN to interpret regulation, and probably has ground in precedent case law.

    As the judgement of SAN cannot be appealed, I’m unsure if this leaves a possibility for GU to advance claims for milder sanctions. Until something else is said, I’d say it might.

    GU may also take other actions:
    1. “Buy out” Sumitran-Holgersson to voluntary quit her post against a financial compensation. This is pretty common in Swedish public administration when people of higher ranks are found incompetent, but cannot be dismissed on objective grounds.

    Bar her from work in areas where there is a risk of further damage, such as research, supervision and teaching.
    Refuse to undersign applications for external grants due to the same risk.
    Refuse salary increase.

    It is up to the immediate superiors of Sumitran-Holgersson to take decisions 2 or 3 (i.e. heads of department), but due to the publicity of the case, they would probably like backup from higher levels. action 1 would have to be negotiated by the top HR people, but formally signed by the head of department employing Sumitran-Holgersson. 4 could easily be acted by a head of d., but might meet with resistance from the union (if Sumitran-Holgersson is a member).

    In addition, Sahlgrenska University Hospital (which is operated separately from the university) may refuse to allow Sumitran.Holgersson to continue to operate in collaboration with the hospital (making impossible any involvement in clinical trials, maybe restrict access to labs hosted by the hospital, etc.). I have no idea if that might already have been done, considering the ethics breaches already sticking to her. I also lack insight into who would be the proper manager to make such a decision. In any case, such decisions, possible together with decisions of type 2 and 3 above, may create situation of redundancy with regard to Sumitran-Holgersson, activating the only other possible ground for dismissal of a university professor in Sweden. We’ll see what happens, but of course, the VC of GU may here confer with the head and the chairman of SUH. If they want to.

    Like

  11. Challenger

    “Hovrätt” is highest Court in Sweden, right? It means that the head of highest judicial body in Sweden together with member of Swedish parliament (Riksdag) evaluated the gravity of research misconduct. I can hardly imagine that the head of Supreme Court in USA together with some Congressmen will ever try to detail the gravity of research misconduct in principle. I don’t think they have a competence to evaluate research results and to understand how serious is that or other problem. I guess they will simply trust to opinion of experts. It is a job for experts and they said their word, no other expert opinion was presented in the document. Is it necessary to have approval from the Head of Supreme Court to dismiss any professor in every University in Sweden for any reason?

    Like

    • No, “Hovrätt” is the appellate court. Above that is the Supreme court, “Högsta (förvaltnings)domstolen. However, in this case there is no room for appeal.

      Like

  12. Pingback: Indestructible Sumitran-Holgersson: Commit misconduct on patients, get EU funding to continue – For Better Science

  13. Hi Leonid,

    Holy Shit! This is unbelievable! What else does she have to do/commit to be dismissed?
    Does she have to murder one of her students? Does she have to steal some golden silverware fom GU cafeteria or faculty lounge?
    What does it take for a swedish university to dismiss a professor that already has commited serious research misconduct? What does this say about the state of science in Sweden?
    Inquiring minds like to know.

    Cheers, Oliver

    Like

  14. Challenger

    Now Suchitra can go around and threaten to kill all whistleblowers and even rector of her University . She will not be dismissed for that. I am not kidding, here is another amazing decision by the same Ansvarsnämnden taken just before Christmas:

    https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=78&artikel=7117638

    There is no reason to dismiss professor even if he/she promised to kill both rector and pro-rector of University.

    Like

  15. I find it very surprising that none of the major swedish news media is mentioning that a professor at a swedish university can continue in here position despite the fact that she has committed serious research misconduct, violated medical ethics (no approval before she recruited three children for an experimental procedure that involved vein transplants seeded with the patients’ own cells), and in addition she has sabotaged the investigation.

    I know that Svenska Dagbladet and Göteborgs-posten have been contacted, but there is no interest at all to cover one of the most serious and bizarre research scandal in this country. Why?!

    Like

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