This is yet another nanotechnology story, this time with a whistleblowers’ account. The authors are Czech mathematicians Tomas Furst and Michal Botur from the Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, and they present below evidence of systematic research misconduct, nepotism and retaliation in their university.
The main character here is the materials scientist Radek Zboril, nanotechnology professor at the Palacký University, member of the Czech Learned Society and Czech Technology Agency board. Zboril boasts “more than 564 papers with the total impact factor over 3 588” (highlight his). He also runs the international conference NanoCon, and I wonder if Radek gets the pun here. Because one of these 564 papers, Hermanek et al 2007, published in the elite chemistry journal JACS, has been retracted after the university’s ethics commission found Zboril and his first PhD student Martin Hermanek guilty of research misconduct.
But the December 2019 retraction notice says merely:
“The authors retract this Article due to inaccuracies in Figure 2. The original Article was published on August 11, 2007, and retracted on December 17, 2019.”
The whistleblowers found more evidence of data fabrication in other Zboril papers, primarily in the Tucek et al Nature Communications 2016 study. The first author Jiri Tucek is coauthor on all other suspicious publications from Zboril’s lab, which earned him a faculty position at the Experimental Physics department. A professorship which was somehow passed on to the new science faculty Dean Martin Kubala, after Tucek suffered hospitalisation and resigned in the wake of the misconduct investigation.
Zboril however still enjoys unconditional support at the very top. The rector of the Palacky University, Jaroslav Miller, has slammed his fist and put his foot down to disagree with the ethics commission’s misconduct ruling. He was quoted:
“According to Miller, it was not possible to identify who specifically modified the data. He considers the conclusion that Zbořil caused the adjustment to be unproven. “It would require a deeper expert investigation into the whole matter,” he said.“
Zboril himself turned around and accused the whistleblowers of research fraud:
“The conclusions of the ethics committee are based on the impressions, feelings and testimonies of former UP employees, with whom I had serious disputes over the ethics of their scientific work.”
Rector Miller then viciously retaliated against the whistleblowers and the investigators, in a manner highly reminiscent of his counterpart at the University of Ferrara, the key difference here being is that the Italian rector Giorgio Zauli was himself investigated by his university’s ethics commission for research fraud.
The original whistleblower was Zboril’s PhD student Cenek Gregor, who rang the alarm already in 2012. For that, Gregor was denied graduation twice. His PhD thesis was submitted in January 2012, its defence recorded as having happened in May 2012. The dissertation is available online, with full-text pdf, which proves Palacky University stands behind the research presented there. But while approving Gregor’s thesis, they still denied him a graduation, which might be a form of academic misconduct by the university leadership. Without a hope to graduate, Gregor dropped out and went to work in the private sector. He was quoted in a 2019 newspaper report:
“When I didn’t get a big doctorate, the way to continuing my work in the academic sphere, which I enjoyed, was closed to me. I doubt I could build on it“.
The new career did not last: that Czech pharma company Farmak openly took Zboril’s side, sued a former faculty dean, and sacked Gregor. Zboril himself seems to have emerged unscathed from an affair which made nation-wide Czech news. His friends recently put him on papers in Angewandte Chemie and Nature Nanotechnology, and of course it is Professor Zboril who is now at the forefront, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Only thanks to him will mass-testing for the coronavirus be possible in Europe:
“The development of magnetic nanoparticles for test kits began in Olomouc at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic. At that time, there was basically a worldwide shortage of tests. Now, scientists are ready to produce material for up to a million tests a day, if needed. “We were approached with a request for the development of magnetic particles that would provide a relatively important part of the testing process, which is the isolation of viral RNA,” Radek Zbořil, head of the research team at the UP Olomouc Regional Center for Advanced Technologies and Materials, told CNN Prima NEWS.“
If you are still in doubt, this is what Zboril wrote about himself, highlights his:
“In 2011, he was awarded by the Czech Republic’s Minister of Education for extraordinary results achieved in the field of research, experimental development and innovations.”
Well, Zboril’s nano-con results were even more extraordinary that the Czech minister could ever dare to hope. This is what this guest post is about.
A massive scientific misconduct affair in the Czech Republic
By Tomas Fürst and Michal Botur
In the past year, we have been dealing with a scientific misconduct case at the Palacky University in the Czech Republic. The case may develop into the largest affair of its kind in our country since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. While the Faculty of Science Dean Martin Kubala, and faculty bodies face the unpleasant situation openly and attempt to solve the issue transparently on the level of the high standards common in the western world, incredibly, the Rector’s office is on board with the wrong-doers and we are struggling to push investigation forward. The story has already many vicissitudes, so let us try to outline the main facts:
The true reason for the retraction is, however, very different from the one stated on the journal website. The alleged “inaccuracies in Figure 2” is a euphemism for a deliberate falsification of experimental data supporting the catching story of nanocrystallinity. The original graph contained additional peaks in the XRD spectrum, which indicated presence of precursor residuals. They were erased in order to eliminate alternative, quite trivial, explanation of the observed effects.
There was an investigation regarding this issue and the Ethics Committee of the University gave a clear opinion that the first author Martin Hermanek, and corresponding author Prof. Radek Zboril, violated the Code of Ethics of the University. A detailed description in Czech can be found here, archived copy here (English version is here, archived copy is here).
However, it is neither beginning nor the end of the story. After the release of the Ethics Committee decision, the Rector grossly deformed its conclusions in favour of Mr. Zboril in a press release.
Further, the chair of the Ethics Committee – prof. Karel Indrak – was exposed to heavy personal attacks by Mr. Zboril and his colleagues, and eventually, he resigned quoting a lack of support from the Rector.
This paralyzed the Ethics Committee for a couple of months. The Dean was also called by the Rector to step down, which he declined. Since then, the Dean has been a target of permanent attacks from Mr. Zboril and his colleagues, supported by the Rector’s office.
The first acts of this case attracted considerable attention in the Czech academia. The discrepancies in the JACS article were first noted already in 2013 (possibly even 2012) by Cenek Gregor, a doctoral student of Mr. Zboril. When continuing the work on the topic, he identified the residuals of the precursor in the sample, and his additional experiments revealed that they can indeed explain all the observed effects. Moreover, he also found the original graph. In other words, the whole story about the effects of nanocrystallinity was very likely fake. After that, Mr. Zboril and his powerful colleagues made Mr. Gregor twice fail his Ph.D. thesis defence, and thus, kicked him out of the University.
A subsequent case of the same corresponding author Zboril concerns the article of Tucek et al Nature Communications 2016. Again, it is a catching story about a novel nanomaterial, which is claimed to be air-stable. However, the only experiment demonstrating the stability could be found in the supplement. The figure of interest is Figure 6 with three panels (at t=0 and two other time points) demonstrating the stability of the sample. A closer inspection reveals, however, that the presented Moessbauer spectra were not similar, but completely identical.
Coauthor Kateřina Holá on PubPeer: “Unfortunately, the Mössbauer spectrum of the fresh sample (panel a) was inserted instead of the Mössbauer spectra of the samples stored in air (panel b) and stored in the physiological solution (panel c). Thus, three completely identical Mössbauer spectra appeared by mistake. None of the authors identified this error during the final checking and proofreading of the manuscript, most probably due to a significant similarity of the respective Mössbauer spectra (2% difference in the composition). The correct spectra, which do not affect any of the conclusions of the work, have been sent together with the correction.“
After the Dean established a committee to investigate the case, the authors explained the issue to be a simple technical mistake and quickly sent a corrigendum to the journal, which got published soon.
However, an inspection of the novel graphs revealed that even they are highly suspicious due to incredibly low noise, far below what should be possible according to fundamental laws of physics! Later, a few more figures (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3) in the paper became suspicious as well for the same reason. The authors have ignored all requests to provide the original raw data although the paper contains an explicit statement that “[t]he data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request”. Also, they are unable to explain the “magic” procedure that yields the published spectra with such a low noise level. The investigation in this matter by Ethics committee is still proceeding.
“The suspicion has increased when it turned out that the same data point distribution occurs also in Fig. 2a of the main text of the paper. In this case, however, the transmittance drop is displayed as about 0.7% (from 100% to about 99.3%) in contrast to what is in the ﬁgures supplied by R. Zboril and by J. Tucek where the transmittance drop is below 0.2% only“
The attached document contains an overview of the case and detailed arguments why the incriminated figures were probably not produced by a legitimate scientific procedure. For example:
“The authors were asked for the original raw data of the Moessbauer experiments. Dr. Tucek gave the committee the printed spectra and promised to deliver the original ﬁles with raw measured data gathered directly from the spectrometer. But in the following days he stopped communication referring to health issues. He has not provided any data and ultimately left academia.
The corresponding author R. Zboril claimed that all what is left from the original data relatedto Fig. 6 of the Supplementary Information are ﬁgures with the so called “ﬁltered data”. […] Concerns were raised about the unavailability of the original unﬁltered data. Although data of the Moessbauer experiments are routinely stored, data related to this experiment could not be found. The corresponding author did not communicate in discussions about the data, but people from the lab admitted that some data might have been erased from the database by accident.“
The journal was informed, released an Editor’s Note informing about the ongoing investigation:
“Editor’s Note: The Journal has been alerted to concerns regarding the reliability of data presented in this manuscript. The journal will work with the authors and their respective institutions to investigate the matter. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.”
The retraction of the Tucek et al 2019 article is – one may hope – on its way.
“the amplitude of the ﬁt curve is the same within the precision of data reading from the ﬁgures. On the other hand, the eﬀect has dropped from 0.191% of J. Tucek to 0.180% of R. Zboril,i.e., relatively by about 6%. This is the same as if the data points were shifted manually by 2,648,800 counts upwards rather than what would correspond to additional measurements which would not
change the magnitude of the eﬀect.“
Since then, seven other papers have emerged that contain equally suspicious figures of Moessbauer spectra with unrealistically low noise (see below). Again, the authors ignore all requests to provide raw data (we invite readers to try their own inquiry). Mr. Zboril claims to have sent some data to the Rector’s office and, incredibly, the Rector’s office produced a lengthy legal document (17 pages) to explain why the University will not hand the data over to anyone – an academic chutzpah par excellence.
Enhancement of photoactivity
Recently, another paper with the same corresponding author Zboril (and two others) has emerged, which contains a highly suspicious figure concerning photoelectrochemistry of a novel nanomaterial. The three curves in Figure 5d do not seem to show three sets of experimental data, but three copies of a single measurement deliberately rescaled to show the alleged effect. Again, this case is under investigation of the faculty bodies and the editorial office.
That makes 10 papers raising suspicion of severe scientific misconduct – some already proven, some under investigation, some obvious, some more sophisticated. Incredibly, Mr. Zboril as corresponding author of all the papers, never acknowledged any responsibility, and despite the evidence, he claims all the cases to be either fabricated or (when this position becomes untenable) perpetuated by one of the co-authors. More incredibly, the Rector’s office holds the same line. Even more incredibly, the Academic Senate of the University has several times postponed dealing with these ethical issues and, instead, established a research institute directly responsible to the Rector’s office, where the wrong-doers may hide from any investigation at the faculty. None of the Czech official authorities (the Ministry of Education, grant agencies, the Academy of Sciences, etc.) have shown any interest in the growing affair so far.
The Empire strikes back
We seem to be running out of options in this network of scientific misconduct cases, which threatens the existence of the University and integrity of Czech academic research. The situation is very demotivating for the majority of employees, and in particular, for students, who see a powerful professor get away with behaviour that would not be tolerated in their case. Even the academic self-government, represented by the Academic Senate of the University, has failed the community it should serve and turned a blind eye on the cases.
Moreover, several people involved in the investigation have been a target of persecution. Mr. Gregor, who first mentioned the fake graph in JACS, was kicked out of the dissertation defense twice. Thus, he never finished his PhD and left Academia without the Ph.D. title. After he had testified in the current investigation, he even lost his job at Farmak – a chemical company in Olomouc, which is directed by friends of the colleagues against whom he testified.
The chair of the Ethics Committee Prof. Indrak found himself under heavy personal attacks which included an accusation of autoplagiarism. Despite this accusation quickly turned out to be unjust, he eventually resigned, referring to the lack of support from the Rector.
One of the authors of this text (TF) was interrogated by the criminal police for an alleged ‘libel’ (the case did not proceed to court) and the Ethics Committee of the University opined that he breached the code of ethics (more here, in Czech) by publishing information on the misconduct of his colleagues. He resigned from the Academic senate of the faculty but won this position back in the last election.
Prof. Tomas Opatrny – the author of the computation that shows the impossibility of a legitimate origin of the figures in Nat. Comm. – was under investigation, too. Prof. Zboril and his seventeen friends filed a long complaint against Prof. Opatrny which contained allegations of bossing, stalking, and discrimination! The rector, predictably, passed the complaint to the Ethics Committee, which, however, dismissed the case, found no breach of the Code of Ethics by Mr. Opatrny, and even described some of the allegations as “absurd” (more here, in Czech).
The Dean, who allowed investigating the misconduct affairs, has been under permanent attacks. He was interrogated by the criminal police together with TF, he was a subject of a thorough control of the Labour Inspectorate regarding bossing, mobbing and discrimination (all with a negative result). In one of the most bizarre attacks, his private conversation in coffee-bar was secretly recorded and the record was provided to Mr. Zboril. The transcript of out-of-context picked short excerpts (altogether less than 2 min out of 90-min record) served as a basis for the request of Mr. Zboril’s friends to interrogate the Dean for inappropriate behaviour. The Rector even summoned the Academic Senate on an exceptional meeting to deal with this secret record! This absurd drama at the Academic Senate had no tangible result but it illustrates nicely how far the camp of Mr. Zboril – backed by the Rector’s office – is willing to go to get rid of the Dean.
List of articles with suspicious figures of Moessbauer spectra
- M Hermanek, R Zboril, I Medrik, J Pechousek, C Gregor “Catalytic Efficiency of Iron(III) Oxides in Decomposition of Hydrogen Peroxide: Competition between the Surface Area and Crystallinity of Nanoparticles” J. Am. Chem. Soc. (2007) doi: 10.1021/ja072918x. Retracted 17 Dec 2019.
- J Tuček, Z Sofer, D Bouša, M Pumera, K Holá, A Malá, K Poláková, M Havrdová, K Čépe, O Tomanec, R Zbořil “Air-stable superparamagnetic metal nanoparticles entrapped in graphene oxide matrix”. Nature Communications (2016). doi: 10.1038/ncomms12879 Corrected, expression of concern
- MB. Gawande, AK. Rathi, J Tucek, K Safarova, N Bundaleski, OM.N.D. Teodoro, L Kvitek, RS. Varma, R Zboril “Magnetic gold nanocatalyst (nanocat-Fe–Au): catalytic applications for the oxidative esterification and hydrogen transfer reactions” Green Chemistry (2014) doi: 10.1039/c4gc00774c
- R Prucek, J Tuček, J Kolařík, I Hušková, J Filip, RS. Varma, VK. Sharma, R Zbořil “Ferrate(VI)-prompted removal of metals in aqueous media: mechanistic delineation of enhanced efficiency via metal entrenchment in magnetic oxides” Environmental Science & Technology (2015) doi: 10.1021/es5048683
- Kralchevska RP, Prucek R, Kolařík J, Tuček J, Machala L, Filip J, Sharma VK, Zbořil R “Remarkable efficiency of phosphate removal: Ferrate(VI)-induced in situ sorption on core-shell nanoparticles.” Water Research (2016) DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2016.07.021
- TM. Lima, CGS. Lima, AK. Rathi, MB. Gawande, J Tucek, EA. Urquieta-González, R Zbořil , MW. Paixão, RS. Varma “Magnetic ZSM-5 zeolite: a selective catalyst for the valorization of furfuryl alcohol to γ-valerolactone, alkyl levulinates or levulinic acid” Green Chemistry (2016) doi: 10.1039/c6gc01296e
- VB. Gade, AK. Rathi, SB. Bhalekar, J Tucek, O Tomanec, RS. Varma, R Zboril, SN. Shelke, MB. Gawande “Iron-Oxide-Supported Ultrasmall ZnO Nanoparticles: Applications for Transesterification, Amidation, and O-Acylation Reactions” ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering (2017) doi: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.6b03167
- J Tuček, R Prucek, J Kolařík, G Zoppellaro, M Petr, J Filip, VK. Sharma, R Zbořil “Zero-Valent Iron Nanoparticles Reduce Arsenites and Arsenates to As(0) Firmly Embedded in Core–Shell Superstructure: Challenging Strategy of Arsenic Treatment under Anoxic Conditions” ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering (2017) doi: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.6b02698
- J Kolařík, R Prucek, J Tuček, J Filip, VK. Sharma, R Zbořil “Impact of inorganic ions and natural organic matter on arsenates removal by ferrate(VI): Understanding a complex effect of phosphates ions” Water Research (2018) doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2018.05.024
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