Research integrity University Affairs

Research Integrity Fail in Austria

How I ended up charged with research misconduct in Austria.

Three Austrian professors published three papers with questionable data. Professors Rudolph Zechner, Günter Hämmerle and Robert Zimmermann (no, not Bob Dylan) and their University of Graz see no need to be concerned, they explain the manipulations to be acceptable practice, and if they aren’t: those did not affect the conclusions. However, the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity swiftly made a finding of research misconduct! Against Leonid Schneider.

At least I had some interesting email exchanges. So since nobody is interested in dealing with those papers, I will share those emails with you here.

The three papers

The first paper by Zechner and his colleagues Hämmerle and Zimmermann was flagged by an anonymous PubPeer user in February 2022:

Dagmar Kratky, Robert Zimmermann, Elke M Wagner , Juliane G Strauss , Weijun Jin , Gerhard M Kostner , Guenter Haemmerle , Daniel J Rader , Rudolf Zechner Endothelial lipase provides an alternative pathway for FFA uptake in lipoprotein lipase-deficient mouse adipose tissue Journal of Clinical Investigation (2005) doi: 10.1172/jci15972

Duplication in Fig.1 for LPL notherblot was identified; however, they originated from different mice in the figure legend. The same is true for Fig.2, lanes 2 and 3. These duplications are more visible in pseudocolor mode.

Obviously both gel figures are fake, falsified in Photoshop. Is it a bad thing? Depends. Zechner replied on PubPeer in March 2022:

In Fig. 1A we aimed to show that LPL-deficient mice with homozygous knockout alleles (L0 or L0-MCK) do not express LPL. Regrettably, this figure contains an inexplicable duplication of a Northern blotting result. […] As regrettable as the unfortunate duplication in Fig. 1A may be, the result that LPL-ko mice do not express LPL was definitively proven years in advance of our publication. Fig 1A is indeed inaccurate, but this does not change the validity of this well-established model or have any bearing on the paper’s findings.

Fig. 2 presents an RT-PCR experiment of endothelial lipase (EL) expression in liver and adipose tissue samples from wild-type and LPL-deficient mice, respectively. […] This figure insert contains a quite obvious duplication of two gel lanes, which we regretfully missed in the proofs of the manuscript. Despite this unfortunate mistake in the Northern blot we presented, our results of the RT-PCR analyses remain valid. […] This evidence in advance of our publication also rendered our inaccurate presentation of a control experiment irrelevant for the results and conclusions of our study.

Zechner also cited a long list of scientific literature (mostly his own) in support of his view that this digital data forgery is nothing to be worried about because the results were reproduced.

And you can’t argue with authority. Zechner is member of US National Academy of Science and won many awards. For all we know, he might also win a Nobel prize soon!

The other paper flagged on PubPeer in February 2022 was this:

Guenter Haemmerle, Robert Zimmermann, Juliane G. Strauss , Dagmar Kratky , Monika Riederer, Gabriele Knipping , Rudolf Zechner Hormone-sensitive lipase deficiency in mice changes the plasma lipid profile by affecting the tissue-specific expression pattern of lipoprotein lipase in adipose tissue and muscle Journal of Biological Chemistry (2002) doi: 10.1074/jbc.m108640200 

It seems that the authors repeatedly used the loading control with slightly different brightness and contrast for figure 7

Zechner explained on PubPeer:

Instead of this duplication, tissue samples from different adipose tissue depots (white fat and brown fat) should have been shown. Unfortunately, after more than 20 years and several changes of the gel documentation system, we were unable to unearth the original data […] Although this double presentation of RNA samples from the same adipose tissue represents a regrettable error, it did not affect the actual Northern blotting result (upper panel). […] Moreover, the result that HSL deficiency does not affect the expression of LPL mRNA in adipose tissue and myocardium was confirmed in a later study by the group of Z. Trajanoski (Pinent et al. Genomics. 2008, doi: 10.1016/j.ygeno. 2008.03.010).

Zehcner and Hämmerle are of course coauthors on this utterly independent confirmation study Pinent et al 2008. Anyway, I don’t think this JBC paper and its problematic Figure 7 will be even corrected, for two reasons. Reason one is Zechner being member of US National Academy of Sciences member and also of ASBMB, the society which publishes this journal.

Reason two is the sad state ASBMB and its once celebrated JBC are now in:

I contacted Zechner about the problems in his papers on 8 March 2022, our exchange was in German. Zechner issued this explanation on 30 March 2022, translated:

The irregularities you discovered in the form of data duplications in two of our published papers (Haemmerle et al. J. Biol Chem 2002 and Kratky et al. J. Clin Invest. 2005) are also understandable for us. A thorough investigation of this case has made it possible to narrow down the point in time at which the incorrect data first appeared, but it was not possible to allocate the experimental work and the production of the figures to the authors and technical assistants, not least because of the experiments took place 20th years ago. Unfortunately, after such a long time and several replacements of the gel documentation systems the original data could no longer be traced. The authors and in particular the first author and the corresponding author of the respective work naturally assume full responsibility for the inexplicable mistake and deeply regret the matter! A comprehensive description of the facts was uploaded to PubPeer and corresponding corrigenda are being sought in the journals in which the two works were published.

An intentional falsification of the data or deception of the scientific community seems highly improbable and would also be nonsensical because the parts of the data concerned were control experiments, the results of which had often already been shown in earlier work by us and other working groups. The parts of the figures in question could easily have been dispensed with in the affected publications and had no influence whatsoever on the actual results and conclusions of the work.

This is what I keep learning about research cheaters. They always forge the least relevant figures, never anything actually important. So scientifically irrelevant are the forgeries that Professor Zechner doesn’t seem to be worried that forger may have been responsible for other figures in papers and grant reports from his lab.

There was also a third paper, a newer one, but somehow the evidence was not approved by PubPeer moderators.

Nina M. Pollak , Martina Schweiger , Doris Jaeger , Dagmar Kolb , Manju Kumari , Renate Schreiber , Stephanie Kolleritsch , Philipp Markolin , Gernot F. Grabner , Christoph Heier , Kathrin A. Zierler , Thomas Rülicke , Robert Zimmermann, Achim Lass , Rudolf Zechner, Guenter Haemmerle Cardiac-specific overexpression of perilipin 5 provokes severe cardiac steatosis via the formation of a lipolytic barrier Journal of Lipid Research (2013) doi: 10.1194/jlr.m034710

PubPeer comment posted by a reader was not approved

The “LD” panel in Figure 1E is indeed strange, it is uniform coloured and lacks all background noise. One wonders where the authors have it from. But the Figure 3 is even more problematic, here a closer look:

Obviously, in both gel panels the first and last lanes were digitally spliced on. In this regard, Zechner wrote to me on 1 April 2022:

We do not follow your allegations of irregularities in the third work (Pollak et al. J. Lipid Res. 2013). In the affected figures, we cannot see any data manipulation. In both figures, the results of different western blot experiments were combined to make the overexpression of different proteins qualitatively understandable. The results are clearly described in the text and in the legend as western blot analyses. Admittedly, the composition of the Western blots could have been shown more clearly in the second figure, but there is no manipulation involved. The original 2012 data is still available and has been correctly presented and interpreted in the publication.

I hope you understood what Zeichner was saying. Yes, the Figure 3 is indeed a digital composition of several western blots. Sure, the authors hid the splicing, unlike in Figure 1 (where they used thick black lines to highlight it). But it’s OK because the figure legend says “Western blot analyses“, plural. Try to think like a lawyer, not as a scientist.

I asked Zechner to share this original data from 2012 which he says is available. He replied that there is nothing to be said more in this case.

Zechner’s co-author Hämmerle wrote to me something similar the same day (translated):

Referring to your accusation of data manipulation on the paper by Pollak NM et al. JLR 2013 my personal statement as corresponding author: I see no data falsification in Figure 3C. From the description or the legend (see appendix) for Figure 3C, it is clear that this is not a blot, but rather it shows the qualitative detection of the respective protein in the corresponding lysates. It also does not require any special enlargement/pixel analysis to see in the figure that the blots are different or that they have been pushed together. No comparison of the protein bands was shown, but it was shown that the respective protein can be seen in the transfected cells. The lysates were then used for the assays.

As a corresponding author, I will contact JLR and explain the issue and offer the following: If JLR feels that the figure is misleading, or that they prefer a different representation (with dividing lines, or the 3 separate blots), then I would use a different representation as part of an erratum.

Also Hämmerle refused to show the original data, he announced to share it only with the journal editors whose decision I was told to await. Zimmermann never replied to emails. It seems, the senior authors in Graz are not very enthusiastic in finding out who falsified the figures and why, most certainly they do not see a serious problem with any of those figures. However, Zechner previously informed me that

A detailed description of the facts was sent to the responsible offices, which you also contacted (Vice Rectorate for Research at the University of Graz and ÖAWI).

The University of Graz ignored all my emails, addressed to several senior academics in charge of research ethics there. Because they never answered, they can officially always declare to have never received my notification of suspected rehearse misconduct, therefore there is nothing for them to investigate. An old and very unoriginal trick.

Oh, by the way, here is Zechner with the former Karolinska Institutet rector Karin Dahlman-Wright, who in 2018 gave him an award to complement the many other awards Zechner already has.

The irony is that Dahlman-Wright was soon after found guilty of research misconduct by Sweden’s national research integrity authority, following my reporting and notification. Small world, huh. I wonder what the Karolinska rector and the awardee Zechner spoke about back then.

Austrian Agency for Research Desintegrity

ÖAWI is the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity, This one did reply to my email, but wait and see how.

The national authority was established in Austria around 10 years ago in the wake of the affair of the urologist Hannes Strasser and his stem cell therapies in Innsbruck (see this Lancet retraction and this coverage by SZ and by Laborjournal). Strasser was of course eventually acquitted in court, even if his medical school succeeded in getting rid of him. He now runs his own urology practice where he offers to treat you for incontinence and erectile disorders, but without stem cells this time. So this is why Austria founded ÖAWI, because its institutions failed trying to charge Strasser with fraud.

As a brief detour, here my earlier experience with ÖAWI, I take the liberty to plagiarise from my own earlier article.

It is the case of the plant scientist Ortun Mittelsten Scheid, plant science professor at the Gregor Mendel Institute (GMI) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

In March 2017, a reader of my site shared with me this evidence of some retouching activities in Figure 2A, as if someone applied a Vorwerk vacuum cleaner to the second gel lane and created a repetitive carpet pattern.

Probst AV, Fagard M, Proux F, Mourrain P, Boutet S, Earley K, Lawrence RJ, Pikaard CS, Murfett J, Furner I, Vaucheret H, Mittelsten Scheid O Arabidopsis histone deacetylase HDA6 is required for maintenance of transcriptional gene silencing and determines nuclear organization of rDNA repeats. Plant Cell (2004)  DOI: 10.1105/tpc.018754

Probst 2004
Reader’s comment: “a thin slice of background was stamped repeatedly to create an empty lane (or hide unwanted features)”

I informed Mittelsten Scheid right away, certain that she will want to investigate what happened. Instead, she was apparently more interested to find out who my source was, since she merely replied:

“The reader is welcome to contact me directly”

The journal’s then-Editor-in-Chief ignored my email. The last author’s employer, the Gregor Mendel Institute, educated me: “We have full confidence in the scientific integrity of Drs. Mittelsten Scheid […] If you have concerns about specific papers, please first contact the corresponding authors, then the journals, then the institutions involved (in that order).”

So in 2018 I notified the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity (ÖAWI), on 31 January 2019 I received this “final letter” from ÖAWI:

“A forensic analysis of the originals provided by the authors at the time of submission has not confirmed this suspicion: not only in Fig. 2, but also in Fig. 6 and 8 several blots each were merged together.

The dividing lines between the blots were presumably deliberately blurred to avoid harsh contrasts. The corresponding author, Dr. Mittelsten Scheid, has confirmed this approach.

All the experts interviewed stated that such a practice was common at the time of the submission of work (2004) and not considered scientifically incorrect. Signs for further manipulation of the blots with the aim to deceive were not found”.

The full final letter is available here:

On 11 February 2019, the ÖAWI retracted their statement that the borders were blurred deliberately:

“This second sentence is wrong: the three illustrations show no evidence of blurring, rather are the dividing lines sharply distinctive. The author of the forensic report writes: “Although a number of images include gel lanes that have been spliced together, this was common practice at the time and I do not consider it inappropriate. More to the point, there is no evidence in this assessment for any inappropriate manipulation of any of the images in the paper.”

Here is that “final final letter” in full:

I then explained to ÖAWI again that the main issue here was not lane splicing, but the Vorwerk-vacuumed second gel lane. Like, what was wrong with the signal there that it had to be removed and that now everyone refuses to even look at it?

On 28 February 2019 I received this final final final decision:

“Here again the summary of our opinion: Also Fig. 2A was the subject of the forensic report, no indications for irregularities were found there.
In our last letter, there was a misunderstanding: Dr Mittelsten Scheid only confirmed that in the said figures in each case several rows of different blots were put together. She has never testified or confirmed she or her fellow authors performed further manipulations (such as blurring of the dividing lines), she rejects this suspicion vehemently.

The cause of the fine lines observed by your reader (marked by the green arrows) cannot be clarified, since the original material remained due to a contractual obligation in the relevant former laboratory in Basel, and the plant research groups have been terminated there since a long time. Should the same guidelines apply in Basel as in Austria, nobody would be obliged there to store original data for more than 10 years.
To conclude, I repeat that the ÖAWI Commission did not find any indication of scientific misconduct.”

Here is that final final final letter:

Now you have a gist of how ÖAWI works. But they improved their tactics since, I learned it when trying to report the issues in Zechner’s and Hämmerle’s papers, observe!

First of all, Eva Korus, ÖAWI’s Commission Affairs Coordinator informed me that PubPeer links or my emails with image files were suddenly not admissible anymore. I am expected to submit everything as pdf files, accompanied with a detailed description of the allegations. A full report it seems is asked for, which I refused to write. After all, in the earlier case of Mittelsten Scheid’s paper it was enough to email one picture with a short comment (“a thin slice of background was stamped repeatedly to create an empty lane (or hide unwanted features)”), and it did result in a full and official investigation by ÖAWI (which of course ended with findings of nothing being wrong). I reminded Korus of that past case, wondering why I have to assemble a written report now and even create a postal mailbox.

Korus then replied to me, and that was her last communication:

“an investigation by the ÖAWI commission is initiated if the commission can declare itself factually and locally responsible on the basis of the appropriately submitted request – not a complaint – and if there is a sufficiently documented suspicion.

No one asked you for an investigative report, we just pointed out the correct procedure for reporting to the Commission. How to submit an inquiry applies to all whistleblowers, including you. Unless you accept the procedural requirements, no report will be made to the Commission.

We request you to refrain from false claims on your part:

…I understand that you hereby reject my complaint and the evidence already submitted“: You have not filed a complaint: Putting ÖAWI in CC and not addressing us directly does not constitute either a report or a request for investigation. You cannot file a complaint with the ÖAWI because we are not a judicial institution. Requests for advice or reports to the commission can be submitted. These inquiries and reports will be checked and feedback will be given to the person providing the information as to whether and, if so, in what form further action will be taken.

…the forged figure was simply found to be ok after consultation with the author.” You don’t just break here – again! See A2018-14 – the confidentiality, but also accuse the employees of the ÖAWI and the commission members of taking sides towards third parties and improper working practices. This must be rejected in the strongest possible terms! In your own interests and for your own protection, we would like to point out that the accusation of scientific misconduct (“…the fake figure”) against better knowledge (your assessment was refuted on the basis of an in-depth, comprehensive investigation by the commission) also counts as scientific misconduct on your part and can be reported by those accused.”

Here the original email:

Three take-home points:

  • ÖAWI rejected my evidence as not admissible
  • ÖAWI charged me with research misconduct
  • ÖAWI issued a veiled threat to sue me for libel

Well, to be fair this not the first time I was charged with research misconduct when reporting a paper with problematic figures. The Ombudsman and former rector of TU Dresden in Germany also found me guilty of research misconduct, because I disapproved of a certain practice of flow cytometry data forgery which the Ombudsman saw as perfectly correct and scientific. But this time I get the honour from a national research integrity authority!

Now imagine what would happen to some humble PhD student in Austria concerned about certain research practices, trying to report anything to their university or ÖAWI.

Dahlman-Wright, Zechner. Original photo: Twitter

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6 comments on “Research Integrity Fail in Austria

  1. I think perhaps the PubPeer moderators might have considered the third papers’ issues to be splicing that in 2013 was kind of OK.

    Like

  2. alfricabos

    Why would falsification of control experiments be improbable?? Control experiments are what matters the most in a paper!! It doesnt take a member of the US academy of science to know that….

    Like

  3. Multiplex

    “Ortun” ist aufs Schärfste zurückzuweisen! Its “Ortrun” (like “Siegrun”).

    Like

  4. Robert Capon

    Zechner (and colleagues) are well-known and (inter-)nationally very powerful, no surprise about those mafia-like research reactions to protect reputation. Note that another co-author is Strauss, now Bogner-Strauss, she did not become university professor as expected, instead – maybe as kind of compensation – suddenly top conservative politician and federal minister thanks to Kurz, another mafia boss. BTW: LJ journalist has liked to report great mafia research uncritically from the University of Graz (no surprise, wife working there). Generally, Graz is a nice Austrian mafia city of dense high society network that would have many stories to tell. For instance, Graz universities have lured university professors from abroad just in order to bully or even fire them later on (maybe as kind of international service to get rid of critical competitors and kill their scientific careers, similar mafia patterns also found in Switzerland); please report more about those severe cases against the freedom of research, see antimobbing.eu for details.

    Like

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