My recent story about the forced resignation of the cell biologist Abderrahmane Kaidi, formerly senior lecturer at Bristol University and before that, a valued postdoc in the lab of the star DNA damage researcher and entrepreneur from Cambridge, Stephen Jackson, caused some stir. That article published a leaked email, and gave some background on Kaidi’s past associations. The fraud case looked rather straightforward and exemplary: Bristol University caught a group leader on data faking and bullying, and immediately had him removed. Whistleblowers’ concerns were taken seriously and swiftly acted upon. Turns out, it was not really like that.
Now I publish even more leaked material, starting with a letter by Moira Hamlin,
Vice Chair of Bristol University’s Board of Trustees, to Nishan Canagarajah,
Pro Vice Chancellor for Research, on 26 June 2018. The original letter is available here.
“Dear Professor Canagarajah
I am writing to raise several concerns on behalf of the panel that you appointed to carry out a confidential investigation into allegations of research misconduct against Dr Abderrahmane Kaidi in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Biomedical Sciences. Our formal report on the investigation has been sent to you separately.
Our first concern was about the length of time taken between the reporting of the allegations by the Dean on 9 February 2018 and the final confirmation of the panel on 21 March. This in turn led to further delay in setting up the preliminary meeting of the panel, due to staff absences over the Easter break. Other unavoidable delays have subsequently intervened. As a result, the entire process has taken far too long, exacerbating the impact on those involved in terms of stress and anxiety. We feel strongly that investigations of this kind should be given the highest priority in terms of swift action to address the issues raised. We understand that the Research Misconduct Regulations are due to be reviewed shortly and would like to see this expectation built in to any revision of the Regulations.
During the investigation we interviewed three members of Dr Kaidi’s research group and these interviews raised several other concerns, relating primarily to how this matter was dealt with within the School and Faculty both before and after the formal involvement of the Dean in the research misconduct allegations. This letter sets out those concerns in the hope that lessons will be learnt from this case and that some of the unusual and possibly inappropriate decisions and actions that appear to have been taken are not repeated in the future.
Before listing our various concerns, we wish to acknowledge that this was a particularly difficult set of circumstances and that the School and Faculty may have felt constrained by the fact that although members of Dr Kaidi’s research group reported a range of problems and difficulties over a period of several months, they did not initially wish any formal action to be taken. Nevertheless, we felt that some of these problems were so serious that the School and Faculty should have taken advice, perhaps from the University’s legal sen/ices, rather than trying to deal with the issues informally and without professional support. It also appears that some incorrect information was given to members of the research group about how the matter would be handled once reported formally, which again might have been avoided if advice had been sought. We also acknowledge that we have only heard one side of the story and that it was not always clear who was responsible for the decisions that were made.
Most of our concerns relate to the impact on members of the research group. lt was clear from our meeting with them that they had been under considerable stress over a long period. Two of them were close to tears during the meeting. One of them had been put in the position of having to lie to the collaborator about the reason for her inability to order materials for experiments, which was in fact due to her lack of access to funding. She also had to continue with experiments and to meet with the collaborator, all the time fearing that the false data might to be published. One member of the group referred to ‘not sleeping’ and feeling ‘near to breakdown’. Another member in the final year of her PhD said she intended to leave Science because of the experience she had gone through. The third member of the research group was concerned about the impact on his young family if his contract was suddenly ended. Although many of the practical concerns have now been addressed, we felt it unacceptable that junior career academics should be left in this situation for so long with so little support.
We are aware that a formal complaint has already been raised about Dr Kaidi’s behaviour within the research group, unrelated to the allegations of research misconduct. We heard from the group of the following examples:
a) One member of the research group referred to an incident when she was working overnight to complete experiments in the lab. Dr Kaidi had ‘screamed at her for freezing down cells’. He took the cells out and destroyed the work and stood in front of the door blocking her exit. It appears she could not leave the lab for five hours (from 3am onwards). This sounds like a potentially serious incident.
b) When this incident was reported, at least two members of the research group were issued with rape alarms — by whom and in what circumstances is not clear but again a potential area of concern. This seems an inadequate response on behalf of the University.
c) One member of the research group was told she had to see Dr Kaidi to tell him in person that she did not want to continue in his laboratory, when she was unwilling to do so because of concerns over how he might react. A postgraduate student was asked to stand outside the office when she spoke to Dr Kaidi. Again, this seems an inadequate response. We feel that the student should have been given staff support in this situation.
Although we understand these matters are now being dealt with through an HR process, there appears to have been a period when the group did not wish formal action to be taken. During this period, we believe that the School and Faculty simply did not do enough to support them.
Even after the allegations of research misconduct were formally brought to the Dean’s attention, members of the research group reported that they were told (it is not clear by whom) that they would not know when Dr Kaidi was going to be informed of the allegations. Their anxiety about his likely reaction was compounded by the length of time it took for the enquiry to take place — they described going into work every day for months, ‘terrified today would be the day’. Sue Paterson, our clerk, confirmed that the research group was immediately told when Dr Kaidi was informed of the allegations and that if she had been asked, she would have made it clear that that would be the case. This knowledge would have significantly reduced the anxiety of the research group.
One member of the research group told us that she sent an email to you expressing concern that the false data might be published. She said she had not received a reply, and we understand that you have no record of having received her email. We were pleased to hear that you have now informed the collaborator about the data fabrication so that this risk has been removed.
We appreciate that the Dean gave his full support when asked and referred on the allegations to be dealt with. The role of others in the School and Faculty is less clear. Two members of the research group stated that when they wanted to leave the laboratory they did not find much support for the move (‘no one seemed to want to know’) and they had to find bench space themselves but with no access to funding. Funding had been promised but had not materialised by the date of the interviews. Subsequently we have been told it is now in place.
The panel hopes that the University will look into these concerns and apologise to the research group members for any shortcomings that are identified. The panel would also be pleased if some form of compensation could be considered in these circumstances.
I would be happy to meet with you to discuss these issues but anticipate that you may wish to make enquiries first and to share this letter with the Dean and Head of School.
Dr Moira Hamlin
Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees”
One notices that something very strange was going on there. Actually, strange things still happen in Bristol. As soon as my article was published last week, two interesting things happen. The Twitter account of School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine of Bristol University, @BristolCMM, was suddenly taken over by guerrilla university insiders, two academics and a secretary. My article and comments on it was widely shared and endorsed.
The Bristol University managed to take back control and shut down the @BristolCMM Twitter account, yet the guerilla opened another one right away, @CMMBristol. All that one was soon also seized by the “authorities”. The re-capture, which happened in total at least trice, was performed by the University Press Team, who are now accused of hacking and of a “a complete attempt at censorship of academic freedom and taking about any matters“. Suspects were threatened in writing and verbally, as the guerrilla told me:
“The University is not aware of who is controlling the account and has threatened disciplinary action against anyone they suspect of controlling the account or writing any “negative” comments about the University / Kaidi story”
All retweets and comments referencing the Kaidi case were deleted. And because Bristol University’s own Ministry of Truth is apparently run by paranoid looneys, they blocked me once they regained full control of their Twitter account. Not sure what was the point.
Yet some days later, @CMMBristol was back in guerrilla’s hands. They introduced two-step identification, and now the university has no chance to get their hands on it anymore. Unless they can locate and seize the mobile phone the account is registered with. The new account goes as “unofficial “, the university now threatens the sack for anyone communicating with journalists. The guerrilla told me:
“We’ve been asked to refer any requests for information to Anne Ridley Head of School and to the University’s legal office and not to engage with anyone otherwise it will be deemed “gross misconduct” and subject to disciplinary action that could lead to dismissal”
Otherwise, Bristol now tries emotional blackmail. Which brings us to the second peculiar chain of events.
Right after my article appeared, the Bristol student newspaper Epigram published their own article about Kaidi’s departure, it made reference to these same documents I publish here now. It seems the article was held in store, ready to go for some time, and was released on the occasion. It even used the same cover photo I chose, of Kaidi together with Jackson. The Epigram article was however removed right away, while the editors insist not to have been pressured by Bristol University. I was also contacted by a Bristol administrative assistant, and even one of Kaidi’s former students, asking me to remove my article because it caused severe distress to certain parties involved.
I have secured the records of full text of that Epigram report thanks to a Twitter follower of mine. Here excerpt:
“Sources within the school told Epigrom that they were informed that Dr Kaidi ‘admitted‘ to having fabricated research data ‘absolutely’ for the reason of research grant applications. It is alleged that he sent fabricated data to a collaborator in another institution to convince them that certain experiments had taken place when they had not.
It has been learned that he accepted sole responsibility for his actions and the funding grants and paper implicated during the investigation have since been revoked.
The investigation into Dr Kaidi‘s research misconduct ended the day before
his resignation, finding only that there was a ‘case to answer’, never
proceeding to a formal hearing. Investigations into bullying allegations
raised by his students were found inconclusive as he resigned before such
One source from within the school told Epigrom that Dr Kaidi ‘wanted to
create results rather than observe against his hypothesis’ and that most of
his grant applications were ‘very dodgy’.”
The Epigram article goes to cite from the letter to Pro Vice-Chancellor Canagarajah which I presented in full above. My source indicated that the article was removed after the student newspaper was informed by Bristol University officials “that students and staff were suffering from mental health issues“.
It is not clear what exactly Bristol has been trying to contain. As a friend said, one cannot un-ring a bell. Those aggressive attacks by Bristol officials on the Twitter guerrilla actually drew extra attention to the case. Even BBC reported already, on 13 September, though the journalist later informed me that BBC decided to give no reference to my site after all.
After @CMMBristol account was re-captured by the guerrilla, the full article was tweeted again:
Research Misconduct Investigation – Dr Abderrahmane Kaidi
Thank you for taking part in this investigation and for supporting the individuals involved while the enquiry was in progress.
I have now received the panel’s confidential report of the investigation setting out their findings and recommendations. I have accepted a finding in relation to Dr Kaidi of serious research misconduct by way of fabrication of research data. This finding will be referred to HR to be considered under the staff conduct procedures alongside the existing investigation into his behaviour towards members of his research group.
The panel recommended that further investigations be carried out into Dr Kaidi’s published research and grant applications as a member of the University of Bristol. At this stage I am inclined to the view that there is sufficient evidence to justify staff conduct procedures without a further investigation into Dr Kaidi’s published research. As for his grant applications, it is my understanding that at the time of the report, none had been successful. I do not consider it necessary to investigate any unsuccessful grant applications. However, you have recently brought to my attention that concerns have been raised about a more recent (and successful) application for grant funding and these concerns will be followed up.
In view of issues raised during the interviews with members of the research group, the panel recommended a Finance Office audit of Dr Kaidi’s grant funding records to ensure that there has been compliance with grant funding requirements and University financial regulations. I have accepted this recommendation.
I have written to Dr Kaidi to inform him of the outcome of the investigation. I will also be
contacting his research funders, previous academic institutions and his collaborator in Germany.
During the investigation, further allegations were made about Dr Kaidi’s published research in the prestigious journals Science and Nature while at the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge University. These allegations have not been put to Dr Kaidi as part of the investigation, but I am satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to justify informing Cambridge of the allegations so that they can be investigated by Cambridge. I also consider that there is sufficient evidence of irregularities in the Science and Nature papers to warrant notifying the journal editors and will make it clear to Cambridge that if they do not confirm their intention to contact the editors by a specified deadline,
I will do so on behalf of the University of Bristol.
I will be writing to the members of the research group with brief information about the outcome of the investigation and to thank them for their participation.
Finally, the panel raised several concerns with me about the handling of this matter within the School and Faculty prior to the research group’s decision to report the issues formally. These concerns are set out in a letter from the Chair of the panel, which I will send to you separately.
I am happy for you to share the contents of this letter with the Head of School.
Professor Nishan Canagarajah
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise)”
The “more recent (and successful)” grant mentioned above is connected to that unnamed German collaborator. It is the a $1mn research grant from Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) awarded to Kaidi and his collaborator in Marburg, the pharmacologist Robert Grosse, in 2016. HFSP confirmed to me to be “aware of the finding of research misconduct by Dr. Kaidi”, yet they were surprised to hear that Kaidi’s Cambridge publication with Jackson were under suspicion. The future of that HFSP grant seems to play a key role in how the Kaidi affair was handled so far, and the attempts to remove it from the news now.
The problematic Nature and Science papers mentioned are these two, from the lab of the Cambridge star scientist, Stephen Jackson:
Kaidi A, Jackson SP. KAT5 tyrosine phosphorylation couples chromatin sensing to ATM signalling.
Kaidi A, Weinert BT, Choudhary C, Jackson SP. Human SIRT6 promotes DNA end resection through CtIP deacetylation.
Science. 2010 Sep 10;329(5997):1348-53. doi: 10.1126/science.1192049.
Kaidi is not even the first recent problem case at Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Former Bristol professor, the geneticist Neil Perkins had four retractions, on Retraction Watch his postdoc Benjamin Barré accepted the entire blame fro data manipulations. Perkins, who used to be at Dundee before he came to Bristol, now moved his lab once again, to Newcastle University. Is he being passed on like a “hot potato”? Not all papers from Perkins’ lab which are flagged on PubPeer have Barre as coauthor.
The Abder Kaidi affair is bigger than what it initially seemed to be, and that was quite big already.
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