Bullying in academia is great fun. Driving your lab members like slaves and treating them like replaceable objects is what successfully led our scientists to cure cancer, brain diseases and diabetes, abolish old age or grow organs in the lab. Not really, they just published irreproducible or even fraudulent papers on those topics. Yet until very recently, bullying by principal investigators (PIs) was seen as the quality signature of strong leadership, scientific dedication and virile dominance. Maybe this is why women sometimes get in trouble for bullying, where men mostly get rewarded. In fact, like David Argyle of University of Edinburgh was. The bullying victims who complain are still seen as pathetic losers who have no place in science.
But times are changing, and now even male scientists, like the highly litigious senescence researcher Jan van Deursen, lose their jobs over bullying allegations, in his case raised even by pregnant lab members. Universities and research institutions worry these days about victims of bullying and harassment suing them for damages, and when it gets critical, the bully PI is made to resign “voluntarily” and quietly passed on to the next employer (van Deursen almost went to UT San Antonio, but decided to keep searching for a new job, while suing me in German court). As it happened, van Deursen’s preclinical research failed in clinical trial as his own company openly admitted. Some of his papers have data integrity issues. Was bullying maybe a problem there?
What the scientific authorities have not realised yet, is the connection between bullying and bad science. Humiliating your lab members, denying them scientific credit, vacation and other free time, even maternity leave, threatening them with a failed graduation, negative recommendation letters, loss of job or even of the immigration visa, guarantees to deliver only one thing: research misconduct. You will get those scientific results you wanted eventually, but they will be fake. Once the paper with falsified data is published, it is unlikely the bullying PI will voluntarily retract it: that would be admitting their own failure, absolutely not an option for a bully.
On my site alone there are several examples for bullying and bad science. There are cases where the PI is simultaneously a cheater and a bully, like Abderrahmane Kaidi who was sacked for both bullying and fraud before he obtained a professorship tenure, his top-journal papers were retracted. And of course also the former cancer researcher Jasti Rao is such a case, surreally excessive in both fraud and bullying department. Umut Ozcan was accused of both bullying and fraud, but the Harvard Medical School acquitted him in full. But in general, it is more complicated. The big American labs of the 1980ies were a bully’s paradise, maybe this is how the culture of the tough driving PI was established all over the world.
From those golden 1980ies, the US virologist Robert Gallo was known to be a manipulative lying bully, and he is now famous for literally stealing the HIV virus to claim credit and to enrich himself with a faulty AIDS blood test. Another American titan from the 1980ies is the cancer researcher Stuart Aaronson, whom lab members and even own children were afraid of, and Aaronson has several papers on PubPeer.
The next generation of bullying titans gives you the British cancer researcher Richard Marais, first embroiled in a research misconduct case in his own lab, then accused by past associates of excessive bullying in my site’s comment section. Pier Paolo Pandolfi was forced to resign by Harvard University over sexual harassment charges, and then lost his new job in Italy before he even started, because my site revealed not just the harassment charges, but also reminded of Pandolfi’s bad science on PubPeer.
And then of course, Didier Raoult in France is a known as a psychopathic tyrant and misogynous bully, and guess what kind of science his Marseille people have published. Now the world is still wasting enormous resources to debunk his chloroquine quackery in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
David Argyle and Trial by Media
Now, to a recent case in Scotland, at the University of Edinburgh, which my readers might recall in regard to the Irina Stancheva fraud case.
Meet David Argyle, cancer researcher, veterinary medicine professor and since 2011 head of veterinary faculty at the University of Edinburgh, or as they say there, Dick Vet School. For the last 5 years, Argyle was accused of bullying by his staff and colleagues. We know it from The Times, as revealed on 4 October 2020:
“An investigation by the University and College Union (UCU) described “shocking levels of harassment” at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
Sources claim that about 20 staff left amid conflicts with Professor David Argyle, dean of the vet school and head of the world-famous Roslin Institute since 2011. In June, he was elected as junior vice-president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
The UCU’s findings were broadly supported by Intersol, an agency hired by the university to examine bullying claims. Both reviews concluded earlier this year and took evidence from dozens of staff who described being victimised, shouted at and threatened with their jobs.”
The bullying allegations started already in 2015, the UCU investigation, done by external agency Intersol Global, concluded:
“An intolerable breach of basic health and safety standards in aggressive and abusive language and physical behaviour, particularly from a particular [member of] staff that we shall not name in this communication; shocking levels of harassment leading to many staff taking leave due to stress; long-term members of staff leaving due to feeling marginalised, harassed and eventually bullied out of their jobs.”
23 staff members who suffered from Argyle’s leadership approach were interviewed. The Times reports:
“Just over a third (38%) told how long-term staff members left as a result of feeling marginalised and harassed, while the same proportion described how disciplinary procedures were used “against those labelled troublemakers, or those who question inappropriate behaviour of management”.
The Intersol-UCU report was submitted to the University of Edinburgh in March/April 2020. On 15 October 2020, BMJ brought the detailed list of allegations recorded by Intersol, the article was published on behalf of the British Veterinary Association. Quote:
- An ‘intolerable breach of basic health and safety standards’ in terms of aggressive and abusive language and physical behaviour by the head of school (among others).
- ‘Shocking levels of harassment’, leading to many staff taking sick leave due to stress.
- Long-term members of staff leaving due to feeling marginalised, harassed and eventually bullied out of their jobs.
- Unacceptably high workloads.
- Negligible faith in the impartiality of human resources when dealing with staff complaints.
- Negligible faith in the impartiality of recruitment and promotion processes.
- A culture of extreme fear of being labelled as a troublemaker.
- Use of disciplinary procedures, marginalisation and unprofessional conduct against those who question inappropriate behaviour of management.
Argyle was also accused of “cronyism” and deploying “aggressive and abusive language as well as physical behaviour” as part of his bullying. Also in October, a petition was set up by Kathy Sparkle, “calling for the RCVS to require that David Argyle steps down from his role as JVP of the RCVS, on the basis that allegations of this scale are wholly incompatible with a position of leadership within the profession.” Almost 300 people signed, some shared comments about having witnessed Argyle’s bullying themselves.
Yet the University of Edinburgh, who previously rejected all staff complaints submitted between 2015 and 2020, reassured The Times readers that their internal review had “fully and robustly investigated these claims of bullying and found no evidence of misconduct“. The review report remains secret. Instead, the university asserted there was no need at all to interview staff for bullying allegations, proposed some voluntary anti-bullying and harassment training, and offered staff members to meet Argyle in person so he can explain his leadership vision to them. You know what else the university did? Tried to coerce staff (including “clinicians, receptionists and even yard workers in the equine unit“) to support Argyle, as The Times Reported in November 2020:
“whistleblower stated that a senior staff member, Richard Mellanby, had “summoned colleagues and, most notably, staff under his direct management in his office for short face-to-face, one-to-one meetings to ‘ask’ them to be included in a letter in support of Argyle”.
The University of Edinburgh explained that campaign was not mandatory, but an utterly voluntary invitation to alleviate the “distress among staff” caused by the evil lying media and that tiny minority of troublemakers.
On 23 October 2020, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons denounced a “trial by media“, proclaimed their Junior Vice President (JVP) Argyle an innocent victim of persecution and reaffirmed their intent to appoint him as RCVS President in 2021. RCVS referred to Edinburgh’s internal investigation, which they say was independent:
“the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies launched an independent investigation into the allegations, which concluded no evidence existed of misconduct. This conclusion was upheld after an appeal.”
Yet on 28 October, RCVS started to back-pedal and invited Argyle to make “a statement to Council at its next scheduled meeting on 5 November 2020“. And right on 5 November, the RCVS Council suddenly announced to be investigating the Argyle case, despite the previous Edinburgh investigation which found him innocent. The public was informed that
“Professor Argyle told Council that in light of the concern being raised against him with the RCVS, he had made the personal decision to step aside from his JVP and Council duties until the concern was investigated and concluded.
The Council did not request this course of action, but acknowledged that this was Professor Argyle’s personal choice, made for personal reasons.”
Since then, no news. But Cheshire (who alerted me to these developments) had a look at Argyle’s papers, and now we are back discussing how bullying might result in bad science. Something RCVS and University of Edinburgh might additionally consider before rallying in support of Argyle.
The papers are rather recent, so their raw data might be still around. Although that being veterinary school, expect Argyle’s explanation that a pig ate his data. A two-year-old paper, with a duplicated image:
Y Capodanno, F O Buishand, L Y Pang, J Kirpensteijn, J A Mol, D J Argyle Notch pathway inhibition targets chemoresistant insulinoma cancer stem cells Endocrine Related Cancer (2018) doi: 10.1530/erc-17-0415
Maybe this duplication was a mistake of oversight, but here is a similar mistake, from an earlier paper:
Breno C.B. Beirão, Teresa Raposo, Lisa Y. Pang, David J. Argyle Canine mammary cancer cells direct macrophages toward an intermediate activation state between M1/M2 BMC Veterinary Research (2015) doi: 10.1186/s12917-015-0473-y
Strange is that the second image in Figure 4B(i) was not just duplicated, but stretched for no particular reason. Another mistake? Also happened in 2013:
Manikhandan A. V. Mudaliar, Ross D. Haggart, Gino Miele, Grant Sellar, Karen A. L. Tan, John R. Goodlad, Elspeth Milne, David M. Vail, Ilene Kurzman, Daniel Crowther, David J. Argyle Comparative gene expression profiling identifies common molecular signatures of NF-κB activation in canine and human diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL) PLoS ONE (2013) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072591
There is more that accidentally copied pictures of tissues or cell cultures. Someone was stitching empty lanes onto gels to prove something negative:
Lisa Y. Pang, Lauren Saunders, David J. Argyle Epidermal growth factor receptor activity is elevated in glioma cancer stem cells and is required to maintain chemotherapy and radiation resistance Oncotarget (2017) doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.19868
To be fair, for Oncotarget it might be an editorial expectation to submit manipulated data, that journal must maintain its reputation after all. Maybe they reject all manuscripts which lack data manipulation? Who can blame the Argyle lab here?
The next case is a bit more complicated:
Mark Gray, Arran K. Turnbull, James Meehan, Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Charlene Kay, Lisa Y. Pang, David J. Argyle Comparative Analysis of the Development of Acquired Radioresistance in Canine and Human Mammary Cancer Cell Lines Frontiers in Veterinary Science (2020) doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.00439
There is a splice edge indicated by an arrow. Unlike other ERK lanes, the shapes of the bands in this third row do not match between the total ERK and phospho-ERK signals. The other bands in this ERK panel seems to match, which they also should since the western blot figure purports to show the same gel. Seems the third phospho-ERK lane was digitally replaced by someone, hence the splice edge. Who and why does that, we can’t say but it is naughty. In this regard, there might also be issues with the AKT panel, surely Professor Argyle will find the raw data from this 2020 Frontiers paper? Or did a pig eat it already?
The last paper I wish to show was also flagged on PubPeer, but for what I see a non-issue. What is worrisome indeed, is that every single panel of this Figure 1G shows a physically different gel, judging from band shapes. Yet it purports to show one single gel probed with various antibody including b-actin loading control.
Lisa Y. Pang, Emma L. Gatenby, Ayako Kamida, Bruce A. Whitelaw, Ted R. Hupp, David J. Argyle Global gene expression analysis of canine osteosarcoma stem cells reveals a novel role for COX-2 in tumour initiation PLoS ONE (2014) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083144
Is this how science is done in the Argyle lab? Not very reassuring, maybe he should learn some research ethics next to his anti-bullying training, and be nicer to his people.
A reader sent me the VetRecord articles from October 2020, which are unfortunately paywalled. One is an editorial, another presents several whistleblower accounts. The first story is of a female scientist whom Argyle tried to sack after 10 years for no obvious reason. She writes:
“I see Argyle as the Donald Trump of the vet world – he thinks he can behave in any way he wants, even be found out, reported in the national press, and continue to be the head of school. He should be sacked and in my opinion, he is not fit to be the next RCVS president.”
The irony that Argyle, publisher of questionable data, who even managed to faithfully reproduce the fake results of non-existent heart stem cells by Piero Anversa, argued for the whistleblower’s dismissal like this:
“he said my research was more about quantity than quality and that it was
essentially worthless to the university.”
A senior veterinarian was quoted:
“One clinician who was an expert in a specialised field was called to Argyle’s office. He accused her of ‘defrauding’ the university. She worked part-time on clinics which meant, when she was not there, the hospital had to refer specialised work elsewhere and he didn’t like paying for that. He said she needed to perform all of this specialised work. She left his office very distressed and became ill. To this day she is still quite traumatised by the way he treated her.
A pattern of bullying behaviour was present all along, especially to female vets. Argyle treated one pregnant vet very badly, calling her into his office and accusing her of abusing her colleagues by not working over Christmas. She had fully negotiated her leave with her line manager but that didn’t matter. He told her she was ‘swinging the lead’. And when she told him she felt bullied by him, he forced her to withdraw that ‘serious allegation’ and she left his office crying.
He has screamed at staff in front of students. Another time he criticised a whole department for going feral – for not abiding by his will (they did not select an appointee of his choice for a position). Very high numbers of small animal hospital staff have been paid off and made to go and made to sign non-disclosure
Another senior academic confirmed the above and added:
“In all the time I worked there, I only spoke to Argyle twice. The first time was a brief corridor conversation about some courses I was planning to do. The second time, I was called into his office and began to shout at me. He told me: ‘I pay your salary. Shut up, shut up and listen to me’.“
A female researcher confirmed bullying and sexual discrimination and said:
“If you were in David’s gang you are looked after , you are well looked after , you’d
get promotion. If you were on his radar, he’d ‘push you off the bus’“.
That term was used by Argyle himself. The whistleblower declared to have “only survived by keeping out of the way. I’ve taken maternity leave“. One of the around 30 staff members who lodged a complaint against Argyle is quoted with:
“he says things like ‘heavy is the head who wears the crown’ in meetings. He decides that you are either on his ship or not and, if you are not, he’ll set out to destroy your career. […]
Argyle also makes a point of saying ‘veterinary is a small profession. I will find you; I will destroy you’.
After the previous head Elaine Watson left, Argyle used to put up a picture of her on a broom and referred to her explicitly as a witch – this would be in open, monthly school meetings.“
Yet another scientist is quoted:
“The vet school is rife with nepotism. Spouses get jobs and then get promoted very quickly. If you question it, you are slammed. Bullying is commonplace and people are so scared to say anything. […]
David Argyle says there are a couple of people with a grudge or vendetta against him. The man is deluded and unfortunately he is getting protected from above. Twenty-five to thirty people can’t all be wrong – and that’s not including colleagues who left a while ago. Sadly he is not the only bully in the vet school.“
The University of Edinburgh protected Argyle for seven years, successfully suppressed and dismissed all complaints, and helped the bully sack and destroy the troublemakers. The university probably would love to support Argyle again, because to their minds he probably is a genius who does excellent science, and the whistleblowers are rats to be drowned.
What changed now, is that the bullying affair became public because the whistleblowers, disappointed by their university, approached some journalists. Also too many employees have left, dozens of them, all traumatised by the bullying, and this never looks good on an employer. Now the University of Edinburgh is in a pickle. Serves them right.
Some might protest and say, Argyle can’t be a women-hating bully, look he published several papers about the real existence of Anversa’s fake heart stem cells with a female senior lecturer in veterinary pharmacology and therapeutics at the Dick Vet School in Edinburgh! A man who does support Women in STEM!
As VetTimes reported today, Argyle resigned from the RCVS council completely. It seems he did so to pre-empt the bullying investigation, which was now dropped:
“The preliminary investigation committee (PIC) of the RCVS had decided to close the case involving Prof Argyle, but he has announced his personal decision to resign from RCVS council with immediate effect. In doing so, he relinquishes his position as the council’s JVP. [..]
Prof Argyle, who had stepped aside from his council and JVP duties while the concern was investigated, said: “Despite this outcome from the PIC discussions, I have now made the challenging decision to stand down from my position at the RCVS. This is to ensure there is no further distraction to the college’s important work and activities, and that whoever becomes the next JVP has the full support of council and RCVS members. “It is also to reduce the toll this situation has taken on my family, colleagues and students, and on me personally.”
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