The University of Oslo in Norway had a major case of research fraud, which has now been investigated, some of the requested retractions already happened.
The person in the centre of the research misconduct findings is the cancer researcher Zhenhe Suo, formerly associate professor at the Institute for Clinical Medicine at the University of Oslo’s medical school. Suo has now been banned from research and sent off to some office job, while the university investigation distributes blame to itself and the academic system, for failing to train scientists in research integrity.
I obtained the full investigative reports, which are available for download here:
A story about the Suo affair was published by the Magazine of the Norwegian Ethics Committee a few days ago, without naming the culprit. Trond Stokke, a senior scientist at Oslo University Hospital (OUS), found his name on PubPeer, the last author of the now retracted paper Ma et al 2011 was Suo. Stokke then found out that Suo had more (currently 18) papers flagged on PubPeer, first evidence was posted in January 2018. An investigation followed Stokke’s notification, several Suo publications were corrected, 3 were retracted (all by PLOS One), several others were slotted for retraction but the journal Oncotarget disagreed.
The Ethics Committee Magazine quotes John-Torgils Vaage, department head at the Institute for Clinical Medicine:
“This is a serious matter with a lack of control over research activity in one’s own group. The person in question was completely excluded from research work and therefore also ended his / her assistant position at the university”
The article also quotes the OUS Director of Research, Innovation and Education Erlend Smeland, who
“explains that the person in question has transferred to another type of position at OUS. Magasinet Forskningsetikk was not able to get in touch with the former group leader, but according to the report from the committee, he took responsibility for the errors that emerged. He regretted that the problems were not discovered earlier. At the same time, he claimed to have had sufficient routines to prevent irregularities in research. Changes were also made regarding the research group. In the first phase, it was under administration. This meant that the management of the department had conversations with all the researchers in the group, and further research and publication had to be clarified with the research leader at the department, according to Vaage.“
Suo is Chinese citizen, and has another faculty appointment at the Zhengzhou University in China. As Tiger BB8 informed me, Suo used to run a Chinese-Norwegian doctorate programme, Chinese universities sent their people to train under him in Oslo (e.g., here and here). When Suo visited his homeland, he brought his Oslo colleagues in tow:
That likely changed after the misconduct findings in Oslo, and I am informed Chinese internet is being scrubbed of the past Suo reporting. Online databases show he has 72 publications, of which 61 are papers in peer reviewed journals.
No more lone wolfs
It was not the first fraud scandal in Oslo.
In 2006, the same Oslo University Hospital, Norway and the world were shaken by a giant fraud case of the dentist Jon Sudbø. An entire clinical trial with 900 patients, claiming a cure against smoking-induced lung cancer and published the year before in The Lancet, proved to have been fabricated. This and other 11 Sudbo papers were retracted, 15 papers in total were declared fraudulent including two in NEJM. Sudbo also lost his doctorate because the dissertation was proven as fraudulent, too. He was banned from research and barely managed to keep a licence as assistant dentist. The Oslo investigation declared:
“One explanation of this catastrophe was that Sudbø was a lone wolf. Few or anyone had insight into his work“.
All his co-authors, which included Sudbo’s wife and his twin brother, were absolved, and in particular free from blame were Sudbo’s mentor in Oslo, Albrecht Reith, and the American last author of that Lancet paper and professor at the Weill Cornell Medical School in New York, Andrew Dannenberg. Since then, Dannenberg retracted 9 more papers, all for data fakery, all in one go and all in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and none of these has Sudbo as co-author. There are 18 more Dannenberg’s papers on PubPeer with fake data, most are from his own lab. Not that Weill Cornell cares, they have more professors like this and worse, past and present, starting with the school’s dean. In America, it only matters how much money your science brings, not how you achieve it. Fraud is what US universities and elite research institutions actually seem to expect from their scientists, in order to outrun the competition in the money-grabbing game.
Other countries are not much better, or even worse. China became global leader not only in research papers, but also in research fraud, a huge nationwide paper mill industry churns out utterly fabricated pseudoscience to fill the pages of international science journals. A modest investment into a fake paper from the mill translates into individual promotion or pay rise and state funding to the university or hospital.
What did The Lancet and NEJM learn from the Sudbo’s utterly made-up clinical trials which passed peer review without anyone raising an eyebrow? Nothing, this is why last year exactly same thing happened, in the hydroxychloroquine affair.
This is probably why the Oslo instigators decided to go in the opposite direction with the Suo case. Instead of fingering a lone wolf fraudster, this new misconduct report distributes guilt and blames the system, in a very Scandinavian way. It may sound ridiculous, but I think they have a point. Much of Suo’s research was fabricated in China, his Norwegian co-authors, especially the head of pathology at Oslo University Hospital Jahn Nesland, were all too willing to put their names on it.
These are the report’s conclusions, Google-translated:
“The formal group leader responsibility has been with Jahn M Nesland according to the committee’s knowledge. Suo has however, at least after Nesland retired, he was a de facto group leader. Suo himself has pointed out that he believes he has had good routines for training and he has used the Sudbø case as example […]
However, the Committee believes that when carelessness or scientific dishonesty can be found in so many articles with so many different authors in question, there must be a lack of training and / or lack of control over data handling. The committee therefore believes that it is qualified probability that there has been an institutional system error when it comes to training. The committee believes that good routines for training are a line responsibility and can not only be attributed to group or project manager.
In its investigation and conversations with Suo, the committee has made it clear that for several articles – including those published less than ten years ago – original data cannot be presented. The sample has been handed over laboratory protocols from Suo, but it has not been possible to link records and data in the protocols to the published results. For several of the works, there are obviously data and results that the individual research fellow / researcher has on their PC, on a stick or on an external hard drive and some of this is located in China. The committee therefore has reason to believe that corrected results can be sent to the journals for several of the articles. However, the Committee believes that it must be considered a system error that basic data and processed results are not found on OUS or are stored in a secure manner, however so that they are available as documentation that published results are correct.
The committee believes that there is a great responsibility on the group or project manager to ensure that such data storage is routine. The committee further believes that it is an institutional system error that the use of standardized laboratory protocols is not put in place and / or that the researchers have available IT tools for collecting and storing laboratory data. The committee believes this is a line responsibility.“
In most investigated papers, research misconduct, gross negligence or bad science was found. Suo got the blame in almost all cases, except where he was just one of less relevant middle authors (probably a gift authorship anyway):
Recommended for correction for retraction, then retracted by the journal:
All three retraction so far happened at PLOS One.
Yuanyuan Ma, Dongming Liang, Jian Liu, Karol Axcrona, Gunnar Kvalheim, Trond Stokke, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo Prostate cancer cell lines under hypoxia exhibit greater stem-like properties PLoS ONE (2011) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029170
From the report:
“The article is part of Yuanyuan Ma’s doctorate. The committee sees that in the meeting on 12 February 2018 it was said that co-author on other articles in the doctoral degree of Ma (Zhiqian Zhang) was 1st opponent at the dissertation on 8 November 2012. The Committee notes that in that case this may not have been in accordance with doctoral degree regulations and probity rules. The committee believes that the manipulation in Fig. 2A is a serious breach of recognized research ethics norms and that there is a qualified probability that it was done intentionally. This is therefore scientifically fraudulent.“
That paper and the next one were caught with recycled gels and microscopy images.
Yuanyuan Ma, Dongming Liang, Jian Liu, Jian-Guo Wen, Einar Servoll, Gudmund Waaler, Thorstein Sæter, Karol Axcrona, Ljiljana Vlatkovic, Ulrika Axcrona, Elisabeth Paus, Yue Yang, Zhiqian Zhang, Gunnar Kvalheim, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo SHBG is an important factor in stemness induction of cells by DHT in vitro and associated with poor clinical features of prostate carcinomas PLoS ONE (2013) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070558
From the report:
“Suo writes in his note that all original data exists. It is uncertain whether there has been intentional manipulation of western blot data (Fig. 3A) and it can be careless that the same figure is used to show different experiments (Fig. 5A). This is, however a serious breach of recognized research ethics norms and it is grossly negligent. The commission therefore concludes that this is scientific dishonesty.“
Ping Wang, Quanli Gao, Zhenhe Suo , Else Munthe, Steinar Solberg, Liwei Ma, Mengyu Wang, Nomdo Anton Christiaan Westerdaal, Gunnar Kvalheim , Gustav Gaudernack Identification and Characterization of Cells with Cancer Stem Cell Properties in Human Primary Lung Cancer Cell Lines PLoS ONE (2013) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057020
From the report:
“The committee believes that the image duplication in Figure 3 is a serious breach of recognized research ethics norms and that there is a qualified probability that it was done intentionally. This is therefore scientifically fraudulent. Based on the material received from Gustav Gaudernack, the committee expects that PlosOne will accept a correction. Otherwise, the article must be withdrawn.“
The authors faked Figure 3 by recycling flow cytometry data and modifying it with image manipulation software.
Recommended for retraction, but nothing happened:
A special investigation was done for 3 Oncotarget papers, which were all found fraudulent and retraction ordered. the journal didn’t bother.
This was the conclusion from the extra investigation:
“With regard to co-author responsibility, the first authors Yaqin Li and Dandan Yu as well as the last author Zhenhe Suo bear a clear main responsibility for all content in all three publications, in accordance with the fourth point of the Vancouver Recommendation. The other co-authors have a special responsibility for their contributions, but cannot simply be blamed for not having revealed errors they have not had the professional prerequisites to understand. However, the committee assumes that they have had actual preconditions for uncovering a number of errors of a more general nature (e.g. reuse of figures), errors that should also have been uncovered by the journal in a peer review. The co-authors must be criticized for not having revealed such matters.
With regard to the system responsibility, the publications are based on several institutions. There are three main institutions involved. These are Oslo University Hospital, Zhengzhou University, and the University of Oslo. It is obvious that the researchers have not complied with basic research ethics norms and good laboratory practice as well as routines for establishing agreements with partners. It also seems clear that the researchers have not used adequate tools / IT solutions especially for data storage, but also data management. The committee believes that it is reprehensible that the institutions involved have not exercised their system responsibility with regard to quality assurance, infrastructure and training in a
It is the committee’s opinion that the articles cannot be corrected. All three articles should therefore be withdrawn. “
This were the three Oncotarget papers:
Yaqing Li, Xiaoran Li, Quancheng Kan, Mingzhi Zhang, Xiaoli Li, Ruiping Xu, Junsheng Wang, Dandan Yu, Mariusz Adam Goscinski, Jian-Guo Wen, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo Mitochondrial pyruvate carrier function is negatively linked to Warburg phenotype in vitro and malignant features in esophageal squamous cell carcinomas Oncotarget (2017) doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.13717
From the report:
“Suo has thus not contributed to experiments, data analysis or writing, but has approved the manuscript. However, he is the last and corresponding author responsible for all parts of the article. Based on the letter from first author Yaquing Li, it may look like at least some original data exists and that the experiments were done as described in the article. Suo also claims that he has seen everyone’s data during the work on the project. However, the original data is on an external disk (Seagate Expansion Drive) in China with Yaquing Li and based on her email it is unclear whether correct figures can be reconstructed.“
The paper contained falsified flow cytometry plots. Measurements were recycled in different experimental context.
Yaqing Li, Xiaoran Li, Xiaoli Li, Yali Zhong, Yasai Ji, Dandan Yu, Mingzhi Zhang, Jian-Guo Wen, Hongquan Zhang, Mariusz Adam Goscinski, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo PDHA1 gene knockout in prostate cancer cells results in metabolic reprogramming towards greater glutamine dependence Oncotarget (2016) doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.10782
From the report:
“Due to the fact that there is scientific dishonesty and many errors in the article as can hardly be corrected, it should be withdrawn. The committee has specifically considered the lack of documentation in itself is a sufficient basis for retraction. “
The investigators found even more issues in that paper that recycled cell pictures. The western blot proved completely untrustworthy.
Dandan Yu, Yali Zhong, Xiaoran Li, Yaqing Li, Xiaoli Li, Jing Cao, Huijie Fan, Yuan Yuan, Zhenyu Ji, Baoping Qiao, Jian-Guo Wen, Mingzhi Zhang, Gunnar Kvalheim, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo ILs-3, 6 and 11 increase, but ILs-10 and 24 decrease stemness of human prostate cancer cells in vitro Oncotarget (2015) doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.5883
From the report:
“Suo is responsible for all parts of the article. The Committee believes that repeated use of the same data or images in three figures (Figures 3, 4 and 5) to illustrate results from different experimental conditions is a serious violation of recognized research ethics norms. There is a qualified probability that this has been done intentionally. This is scientifically fraudulent. It is doubtful whether so many errors can be corrected even if basic data were available.“
Recycled microscopy and flow cytometry data, again. So far, the journal Oncotarget was unimpressed by the Oslo investigations, publishing fraudulent papers seems to be their business model, Oncotarget‘s editorial board members themselves show the way. Why should they accept opinions and requests from anyone, here a lawyer warning against criticism of this journal.
These papers were slotted for retraction already in the first round of investigation, except that they were not retracted to date. One of them is yet another Oncotarget paper:
Dandan Yu, Yali Zhong, Xiaoran Li, Yaqing Li, Xiaoli Li, Jing Cao, Zhirui Fan, Huijie Fan, Long Yuan, Benling Xu, Yuan Yuan, Hongquan Zhang, Zhenyu Ji, Jian-Guo Wen, Mingzhi Zhang, Jahn M. Nesland, Zhenhe Suo Generation of TALEN-mediated FH knockout rat model Oncotarget (2016)
The investigators found more than a spliced western blot, the whole paper about gene-modified rats made scientifically no sense whatsoever:
“The weighing of the rats was done in the laboratory in China and it is striking that the male rats in the control group show abnormally low weight development and are not heavier than the female controls. The conclusion that “the FH +/– KO male rats showed significantly higher body weight in the 16-week observation period“ rests therefore on incorrect basis. Stig Linder describes this as “research cheating”.“
The rat data must have been fake:
“The committee agrees with Stig Linder. This is either fabrication of data or other gross violation research ethics norms. There is a qualified probability that the manipulation with control stripes in Fig. 4 are made intentionally. It is therefore scientifically fraudulent. When it comes to weighing of rats and presentation of the results in Fig. 5B it is difficult to take a stand on the question of intent. However, it is negligent that the authors have not seen that this data is unreasonable. It is unlikely that there is data that can be used to correct Figures 4 and 5B. The article should be withdrawn.”
The last paper which was supposed to be retracted was published by Anticancer Research, a small independent journal which still proudly lists the long-disgraced fraudster legend Bharat Aggarwal as its 2021 editorial board member.
Feng Xu, Wang Zhong, Jichang Li, Zhang Shanshen, Jianguo Cui, Jahn M Nesland, Zhenhe Suo Predictive value of EphA2 and EphrinA-1 expression in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma Anticancer Research (2005) 25 (4) 2943-2950
From the report:
“Unfortunately, it has not been possible to get hold of the original images. The selection has therefore had to rely on the published pdf version. […]
The gels were faked in Photoshop.
“The committee believes that there is a qualified probability that Figures 2 and 3 are intentionally fabricated and that it there is a gross image manipulation. Even if the images are just examples, this does not mean one can rely on the results in the article even if it is the histochemistry results and not rt-PCR that are the main findings. It is therefore a matter of scientific dishonesty. The article should be retracted.“
Recommended for Correction, but nothing happened:
Qi Wang, Wei He, Changdong Lu, Zhong Wang, Junsheng Wang, Karl Erik Giercksky, Jahn M Nesland, Zhenhe Suo Oct3/4 and Sox2 are significantly associated with an unfavorable clinical outcome in human esophageal squamous cell carcinoma Anticancer Research (2009)
The authors changed the brightness of the image when re-using it, not an accident. From the report:
“The committee believes that duplication of an image (Figure 3) is reprehensible and not in accordance with good research practice. It can not be concluded with gross negligence. It is reprehensible and not in in accordance with good research practice that the material has been discarded. A correction should be sent to the journal to clarify that this does not change the conclusion of the article.”
Well, that was Anticancer Research again, so what do you expect. The next paper was actually supposed to be either corrected or retracted. But nothing at all happened.
Yaqing Li, Xiaoli Li, Huijie Fan, Xiaoran Li, Yali Zhong, Jing Cao, Dandan Yu, Mingzhi Zhang, Jian-Guo Wen, Li Geng , Zhenhe Suo Age-dependent sex hormone-binding globulin expression in male rat Ultrastructural Pathology (2015) doi: 10.3109/01913123.2015.1009222
The investigators found more duplications beyond the PubPeer evidence.
From the report:
“The committee agrees with Stig Linder that the results presented in Figure 1A and in Figure 2B are not reliable, and therefore represents a serious violation of recognized research ethics norms. The committee has assessed whether there is a qualified probability of the manipulation of images, especially Fig. 2B, is done with intent. It can not be ruled out, but in any case it is grossly negligent. This is scientifically fraudulent. If a correction can not be submitted with the correct data, the article must be withdrawn.“
Recommended for correction or retraction, then corrected.
Some retractions already were done.
Ji-Hua Shi, Henrik S. Huitfeldt, Zhen-He Suo, Pål-Dag Line Growth of hepatocellular carcinoma in the regenerating liver Liver transplantation (2011) doi: 10.1002/lt.22325
From the report:
“The manipulation of the images in Figure 1D is a violation of good research practice, but can not characterized as gross negligence. A correction should be published. If this is not possible, the article should be withdrawn.“
Immunohistochemistry microscopy images were recycled after some zooming, to hide similarities. You decide if you still trust this and the next corrected paper.
Zhenyu Ji, Guanrui Yang, Susan Shahzidi, Kinga Tkacz-Stachowska, Zhenhe Suo, Jahn M. Nesland, Qian Peng Induction of hypoxia-inducible factor-1alpha overexpression by cobalt chloride enhances cellular resistance to photodynamic therapy Cancer Letters (2006) doi: 10.1016/j.canlet.2005.12.010
“The committee believes that the use of the same control strip in two different western blots is a serious violation recognized research ethics norms and that there is a qualified probability that it has been done with continue. This is scientifically fraudulent. If a correction can not be sent, the article should withdrawn.”
Some more corrections and retractions are waiting to happen. Suo is still listed as associate professor at the Prostate Cancer Research Group of Oslo University Hospital.
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