A Brexit cautionary tale the like of which Nigel Farage could be telling on BBC. Bulgarian women sneak into the UK in order to ensnare Edinburgh men and make them publish fraudulent research!
This is the story of Bulgarian geneticist and data fabricator Irina Stancheva, and the innocent British lads who fell for her evil Photoshop charms are none other than the almost-Nobelist and genetics professor Sir Adrian Bird and his mentees, first and foremost the professor of Human Genetics Richard Meehan. Later these two gentlemen, mesmerized by Stancheva’s seductive Photoshoppery, installed her as a senior lecturer in Edinburgh. The immigrant succubus was expelled 2 years ago, boys’ academic careers and research grants protected, as their University of Edinburgh did its best to prevent unsightly retractions. But my reporting seems to have spoiled things a bit.
Or you can see this as a story of institutional nepotism, racism, with a whiff of sexism, where the University of Edinburgh first knowingly protected a research fraudster for years to get thieir hands on more dishonestly acquired grant money (first Stancheva investigation took place in 2009/2010, at least one retraction was decided upon, yet nothing happened although 10 years passed). When I started to stick my nose in, Edinburgh quietly sacked the female Bulgarian perpetrator, removed all online traces of her, gagged the national media and re-distributed her funds among loyal colleagues. All that after having orchestrated another biased misconduct investigation where Meehan and other lads acentrally responsible for publishing fabricated data served merely as “witnesses”, clueless and hapless victims of abuse perpetrated upon them by a conniving Bulgarian woman. Not even a reprimand they got, instead numerous instances of blatant data fakery were dismissed outright in order to protect Meehan and others. The university even went as far as to lie under the Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Are they really doing all that for the hope of Nobel for Sir Adrian? Or is there more hidden?
The FOI case is closed now, as I received on 29.03.2019 the final decision by the Scottish Information Commissioner and, on 9.05.2019 right before the imposed deadline expired, from the University of Edinburgh a censored list of papers to be retracted or corrected. The rest of my Freedom of Information (FOI) request was rejected outright by the Information Commissioner, because Edinburgh’s Stancheva shame must be given its privacy and because whether Meehan was investigated or not, is only his personal business, it suffices to know he was found an innocent witness anyway. It took me over 1.5 years since October 2017 to get this sad and censored bit of information from Edinburgh:
It is basically the same list I received from the University of Edinburgh already a year ago (see this article), only that back then the university official lied under FOI, by omitting one more article set for retraction: the following paper in EMBO Journal. The lie will have no consequences whatsoever for the university officials, as the Edinburgh data protection officer Rena Gertz proudly declared to me by producing this letter from Information Commissioner, which confirmed the file closed. The letter was dated 13.05.2019, meaning it was sent by Information Commissioner after I lodged my protest about having been lied to by Edinburgh. Gertz also wrote to me:
“I will enter into no further correspondence with you in this matter. “
Now, this is the paper Edinburgh forgot they decided to retract already 10 years ago:
Matthew J Lyst, Xinsheng Nan, Irina Stancheva
Regulation of MBD1-mediated transcriptional repression by SUMO and PIAS proteins
EMBO Journal (2006) doi: 10.1038/sj.emboj.7601404
That paper is being officially retracted not for data manipulations flagged on PubPeer, but because of the non-specific antibody.
The first author Matthew Lyst is namely postdoc in the lab of Adrian Bird, likely groomed to become a PI soon, and another one of these innocent British males bewitched by Stancheva’s evil Eastern European sorcery. Last thing poor lad and Sir Adrian needed was another retraction for fraud. Hence, instead of the usual sacrificial PhD student, an inanimate antibody is being thrown under the bus. How many other papers by Meehan, Bird and Stancheva used that faulty reagent? Who cares.
About that forgotten paper, we learn this from the Information Commissioner’s decision letter:
“The University provided Dr Schneider with a list of the affected journal articles during the Commissioner’s investigation, but this list was incomplete. The Commissioner asked the University why it had omitted details of one of the discredited articles from the list provided to Dr Schneider. In response, the University explained that this particular publication was previously investigated in 2009/10; although it fell outside the remit of the investigation panel it had been taken into account during the misconduct investigation.
The University could offer no satisfactory explanation as to why it had not taken action to retract this article at the time of the original investigation (2009/10). It acknowledged that it was unfortunate that, having identified the original lack of action, it has yet to be addressed. The University stated that it would ensure that the intent to retract this article was disclosed to Dr Schneider as soon as it completed the initial engagement with the authors and the journal editor.”
There is more, this is really too funny how Edinburgh tried to save that paper from a retraction they actually initially intended to pull through, but then changed their minds:
” However, with regard to page 10 of the report (which contained details of the single journal article that was not previously provided to Dr Schneider), the University submitted that disclosure would be contrary to section 38(1)(b) of FOISA, as amended. The University noted that discussions with the Journal Editor of that specific publication had been initiated but they had not yet been concluded; it stated that it was chasing a response from the publication. The University submitted that it intends to provide the information to Dr Schneider as soon as it is able to confirm to the non-implicated authors the agreed approach to retraction.”
EMBO press is actually still “wrapping up a careful due diligence process” about that paper, as well as about another Stancheva publication, as Editor-in-Chief Bernd Pulverer told me. The second paper was namely supposed to be fixed by “partial retraction”, basically a correction where fraudulent data is purged without further trouble for the authors.
Loss of the maintenance methyltransferase, xDnmt1, induces apoptosis in Xenopus embryos
EMBO Journal (2001) doi: 10.1093/emboj/20.8.1963
The above are just some examples from PubPeer, and the only corresponding author on this Photoshop masterpiece is Meehan. But he is not responsible for anything naughty he ever published, as the investigation decreed in total secrecy. he was not even whitewashed: Meehan was officially merely an innocent witness on the investigation into his own papers as the corresponding author. You can’t make such rotten stuff up:
“The University submitted that the withheld information concerns allegations into research misconduct by a named member of staff, and whether they were founded or unfounded. It argued that the investigation report contains not only the personal data of the person under investigation, but also those of witnesses. The University submitted that disclosing the investigation report would disclose information ‘relating to’ and ‘obviously about’ the named member of staff as well as the witnesses. It concluded that all of the information contained in the report is the personal data of the named member of staff: they and their actions are at the heart of the report.”
The Decision letter by Information Commissioner contains more hints that the University of Edinburgh was trying everything to avoid any retractions or corrections, but my activities spoiled that (to a degree):
“The University suggested that it could not disclose information about the retracted journal articles until it had contacted all relevant parties. The University contacted the affected journals on 27 October 2017, more than three months before the date when Dr Schneider submitted his requirement for review. By the date of the review, the journals had not yet published retractions of the affected articles (and, indeed, had not done so by May 2018).”
And some pages further on:
“During the Commissioner’s investigation, the University explained that it did not begin the process for retracting the affected journal articles until the disciplinary process was completely concluded.
The Commissioner notes that Dr Schneider made his information request on 13 October 2017 and his request for review was made on 5 February 2018. At the time of Dr Schneider’s request for review, some four months had passed since the conclusion of the disciplinary process. The Commissioner considers that this was sufficient time for the University to have initiated retraction proceedings (indeed the University confirmed that it contacted all but one of the affected journals on 27 October 2017)”
Stancheva came to Edinburgh in 1997 as a postdoc and was sacked as a senior lecturer in the summer of 2017, in utter secrecy. Nobody knew of that, except faculty colleagues, who were informed by the Head of Department David Gray (I received his leaked email on 11.10.2017). Apparently, my previous inquiries set off another investigative process in motion, as I learned it was supported by an external data integrity expert analysis commissioned by the University of Edinburgh. Only evidence already posted on Pubpeer was investigated, 5 papers found problematic, further concerns were all dismissed by the university:
“Other papers investigated were not found to have any image manipulation.”
If you look at those overruled concerns like in Burrage et al J Cell Science 2012, you do wonder how come all that was decided to be NOT image manipulation. Maybe this is what nepotism and academic incest inside a faculty do to one’s thinking.
As soon as I was alerted to the sacking, I contacted the University and saw quasi in real time how all Stancheva-related information was wiped out from the university website and even social media. I published the information on my site on 13.10.2017, and 2 weeks later, the university claims to have approached the journals with requests for retractions and corrections. In June 2018, the University of Edinburgh gave me the list of papers (two retractions, 3 corrections, the Lyst et al 2006 paper omitted), which prompted me to publish my next story on 18.06.2018. An article in Times Higher Education inspired by my reporting appeared in July 2018, it was then quoted as the original source by The Scientist.
Unlike the Information Commissioner was made to believe, meanwhile two papers slotted for retraction were retracted, already on 7 March 2019, both in Molecular Cell. Both these papers were very, very fraudulent. However, would these two retractions have happened without my reporting?
Shireen A. Sarraf, Irina Stancheva
Methyl-CpG Binding Protein MBD1 Couples Histone H3 Methylation at Lysine 9 by SETDB1 to DNA Replication and Chromatin Assembly
Molecular Cell (2004) doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2004.06.043
This retraction notice appeared on 7.03.2019:
“Molecular Cell is retracting this paper following an investigation by the University of Edinburgh into the work of Dr. Irina Stancheva. The investigation found multiple examples of inappropriate image manipulation in Figures 1A, 3A–3C, 4C–4F, 5C, 5D, 6A, and 6B. Given these issues, the figures do not accurately represent the data as obtained, so we are retracting the paper. Dr. Sarraf agrees to the retraction.”
Shireen Sarraf used to be Stancheva’s PhD student and now postdoc with Harvard and NIH. The second retracted paper had Meehan as the corresponding author:
Irina Stancheva, Anne L Collins, Ingatia B Van Den Veyver, Huda Zoghbi, Richard R Meehan
A mutant form of MeCP2 protein associated with human Rett syndrome cannot be displaced from methylated DNA by notch in Xenopus embryos
Molecular Cell (2003), doi: 10.1016/S1097-2765(03)00276-4 .
This was the retraction notice:
“Molecular Cell is retracting this paper following an investigation by the University of Edinburgh into the work of Dr. Irina Stancheva. The investigation found several examples of image manipulation involving duplicated and spliced images, including images that had been compressed, stretched, or flipped. The figures affected are Figures 1A, 3B, 3C, 4F, 4G, 4H, and 4I. Given these issues, the figures do not accurately represent the data as obtained, so we are retracting the paper. Dr. Zoghbi, Dr. Collins, and Dr. Van den Veyver agree to the retraction.”
Note who didn’t agree: Meehan. Like a child crying when a toy he stole at the playground is being taken away from him. On the plus side, it seems to have been the deal that one particularly fraudulent paper Meehan published as the corresponding author gets retracted, and he gets to keep all other dishonest papers he published. Grandpa Bird solved the case beautifully and protected all his lads. For example, this Genes & Development paper is still pristine, untouched by corrections or anything. So what if gel bands are duplicated or as here, three gels show same DNA weight marker spliced on:
Irina Stancheva, Richard R Meehan
Transient depletion of xDnmt1 leads to premature gene activation in Xenopus embryos
Genes & Development (2000) doi: 10.1101/gad.14.3.313
Or how about this other Molecular Cell paper which was saved beyond expectations: editors decided to do diddly-squat when asked by Edinburgh to decide about appropriate action. Not the first time Molecular Cell actively covers up fraud. Also, note who is the last and corresponding author here:
Robert J. Klose, Shireen A. Sarraf, Lars Schmiedeberg, Suzanne M. McDermott, Irina Stancheva, Adrian P. Bird
DNA binding selectivity of MeCP2 due to a requirement for A/T sequences adjacent to methyl-CpG
Molecular Cell (2005) doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2005.07.021
Shown above are just some examples from that problematic paper, and yet: not even a measly correction, nothing. The first author, the Canadian Rob Klose is Bird’s former PhD student and now a professor in Oxford, funded by ERC, EMBO and Wellcome Trust. He even has a nicely curated Wikipedia page, this is how important he is. Stancheva is never mentioned there, why indeed would Professor Klose need a retraction? Perish the thought.
There are more Bird students who won’t have to worry about inconvenient retractions to their CVs. Thomas Clouaire (now tenured INSERM researcher back in France) chose not to get involved with Stancheva into a dispute about his paper Clouaire et al NAR 2010, while Kevin Myant published in Myant & Stancheva Molecular Cell Biology 2007 this photoshopped Figure 6:
This Bird student is namely now Cancer Research UK-funded group leader in Edinburgh and ERC awardee since 2017 (GBP 1.3 mn). Myant is also a coauthor on the above discussed Burrage et al J Cell Science 2012, one more reason to have declared this paper as scientifically pure and unassailable.
Sir Adrian apparently permanently suffered from the corrupting influence of the Photoshop fraudster Stancheva. Here he is, embracing Laurence Zitvogel and her partner Guido Kroemer, two celebrity Photoshop artists from Paris. Poor man, who is producing all that research in his lab these days, now that Irina Stancheva is gone?
The Lyst et al EMBO J 2006 paper has been now retracted, due to an unreliable antibody and digital data manipulation. A first-hand source who doesn’t want to be named informed me:
“The University of Edinburgh knew from 2009 that the antibody in the middle of two major Stancheva publications was non-specific (every other panel in Lyst et al paper and Sarraf and Stancheva, 2004 uses this MBD1 antibody) but they didn’t insist she retract or correct the work. Pity it took so long (only after pubpeer, press coverage, untold wasted resources, etc) for them to decide to correct the literature.”
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