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Gothenburg 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.

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.

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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.


 

 

 

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7 comments on “Gothenburg 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.

    Like

    • 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!

    Like

  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

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