Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Earlier this months, a research misconduct scandal in molecular cell biology broke out in the big news. Yoshinori Watanabe, Japanese researcher of cell division and how cells separate their replicated DNA during mitosis and meiosis, was found guilty of scientific misconduct by his University of Tokyo (read the news here and here). This followed an investigation initiated in the fall of 2016, after anonymous whistleblowers submitted to the university a report accusing 6 Tokyo research groups of data manipulation, first and foremost, Watanabe (I managed to obtain this dossier, and publish it below).

As the outcome of the University of Tokyo investigations, which concluded on May 31st 2017, misconduct was determined in 5 publications from Watanabe’s lab, which appeared between 2008 and 2015 in the elite journals like Science, Nature and Nature Cell Biology. However, the whistleblower dossier lists 7 papers, one of them a paper in Cell from 2015 with duplicated gel images, and a 2011 EMBO Reports paper which contains a western blot which was obviously digitally retouched to remove unwanted bands. Watanabe’s assistant professor Yuji Tanno was also found guilty of misconduct, and indeed his 2015 Science paper with Watanabe looks like a total train wreck of data manipulations.  Yet it seems there is a tendency to present Watanabe’s deeds as mere mistakes (though grossly inappropriate ones) by a great genius scientist, who was confused by the complexity of rules on data acquisition and incidentally broke some while producing outstanding and absolutely reliable top-level research. Some of his peers seem to be calling for leniency or at least some understanding for Watanabe. The selected evidence from the whistleblower dossier which I post below suggests that Watanabe knew perfectly well what he was doing, and he did so in order to produce desirable results which his lab experiments failed to deliver, and which he needed in order to impress the choosy elite journals.

Continue reading “Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented”

Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct

Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct

The Olivier Voinnet scandal of almost two decades-long research misconduct and data manipulations has reached its logical conclusion. The French plant pathogen researcher, and everyone who helped him manipulating and publishing dishonest (and occasionally retracted) papers was either forgiven or declared as fully reformed. The siRNA-co-discoverer Voinnet who, cynically put, was too big to fail, remained professor at ETH Zürich and kept his ERC funding. He is meanwhile back to publishing in exactly the same elite journals where he had to retract and correct papers for manipulations. Of all his “partners-in-crime”, only his dependent right-hand man (or sidekick) Patrice Dunoyer was ever investigated, and as punishment suspended for an entire month by his French employer CNRS. His lab was about to be dissolved, but the Nature Publishing Group came to rescue and accepted his paper (Incarbone et al 2017) just in the nick of time (it’s not even Dunoyer’s only recent publishing success, another one is Montavon et al 2017 in Nucleic Acids Research). The accompanying editorial in Nature Plants, written by the chief editor Chris Surridge can only be described as bizarre, and is titled: “Giving research a sporting chance“. Surridge, who apparently sees data manipulation as a professional sports in race with doping detectives, wrote:

“Dunoyer has been a long-time colleague and collaborator of Olivier Voinnert, and recently a number of their studies, three with Dunoyer as first author, have been retracted while a number more have had formal corrections published to address problems with presented data. However, these instances were investigated by the CNRS and Dunoyer served a temporary suspension as a result. We therefore treated the study we received as we would any other. It was accepted following two rounds of review, during which it was seen by four reviewers. The published paper contains substantial supplementary information (SI). Along with 10 additional figures, there are a further 12 pages presenting the raw data from which the presented figures have been assembled”.

Continue reading “Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct”

Data integrity conspiracy against German research senator Roland Lill?

Data integrity conspiracy against German research senator Roland Lill?

Roland Lill is the quiet star of German molecular biology. The 63-year old professor works at the University of Marburg, on mitochondria, using yeast as a model organism. Lill is also since 2014 member of the Senate at the German Research Foundation (DFG), re-elected just recently, where he represents the interests of German molecular biologists and decides on federal funding distribution and research policies. Since 2016, the Marburg professor is also Senator for Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Leopoldina, which is the German Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, Lill is EMBO member since 2013 and he also used to be Fellow of the Max Planck Society.

Lill’s research focus is on iron-sulfur biogenesis, and his achievements for German science are indeed strong as iron, as evident by his awards and medals (including the Leibniz Prize of €1.55 Mn in 2003), his impressive funding acquisition success and publication record. Recently however, a sulfuric smell of rotten eggs emitted from the whistleblowing platform PubPeer, tainting his legacy. Currently 9 Lill papers are affected, the evidence looks worrisome, and might indicate possible data manipulations. Mostly it is about apparently duplicated gel bands. Luckily however, most papers are 13 and more years old, nobody would expect Professor Lill to have stored the original data for so long, even if it was ever available. The despicable attack on Professor’s Lill research record will be surely thwarted by the journals’ reluctance of dealing with problems in old papers, and of course by the tremendous respect and influence this Senator enjoys in German academia. In fact, both DFG and the two research integrity Ombudspersons of the University of Marburg refused to comment on the PubPeer evidence. Leopoldina announced to me to have the “accusations” addressed by their Ombudsman; DFG mentioned to have had the PubPeer information “forwarded inside the house”.

Continue reading “Data integrity conspiracy against German research senator Roland Lill?”

Anil Sood and other questionable stars of MD Anderson

Anil Sood and other questionable stars of MD Anderson

The MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas and located in Houston, is a giant hub of huge cancer research money, even for US standards. They also do a lot of science there, which only purpose seems to be publishing in big journals in order to generate even more money. If there is any genuine interest to help cancer patients with actual research: this stands in a stark contrast with MD Anderson’s evident attitude to research reproducibility and data integrity. A number of their star researchers who published in most respectable journals papers, had their data flagged on the whistleblowing platform PubPeer as highly problematic. Yet MD Anderson apparently cannot care less. Their star cancer researcher and businessman Raghu Kalluri was never investigated for many problems in his publications, either in those with or those without his misconduct-tainted Portuguese co-author and ex-MD Anderson employee Sonia Melo. When nobody ever investigates your research practices (e.g., because your research institution is blinded by the investor money you brought in), you will per definition never be found guilty of any misconduct. This is probably exactly why the elite journal Nature recently accepted a new paper from the Kalluri lab (Kamerkar et al 2017), on the same topic of exosomes as cancer biomarkers as his irreproducible earlier masterpiece with Melo (Melo et al, Nature 2015). The new Nature paper even again features the same disgraced co-author, who lost a Nature Genetics paper (Melo et al, 2009) and her EMBO Young Investigator funding due to data manipulation.

There is more evidence for research misconduct at MD Anderson. Continue reading “Anil Sood and other questionable stars of MD Anderson”

Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held

Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held

Sweden and the international research community recently faced yet another research misconduct scandal. It was about a Science paper by Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, which in 2016 made worldwide headlines with its findings that young fish larvae (or fry), namely Eurasian perch, would eat up plastic pollution like teenagers eat fast food. It soon turned out the research was apparently never performed as described, the original data was missing (allegedly stored only on a laptop, which was then stolen from a car), the results likely made up. The Lönnstedt & Eklöv 2016 paper received an editorial expression of concern in December 2016 and was eventually retracted on May 26th 2017 following misconduct findings by the Swedish Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN), while the two Swedish whistleblowers Josefin Sundin and Fredrik Jutfelt, initially themselves stiffly criticised by the University of Uppsala, were finally exonerated (see panel verdict here and here, further documents here and here).  I also make available here the original report by the whistleblowers to the University of Uppsala and CEPN, detailing their “Key points highlighting scientific misconduct by Lönnstedt and Eklöv”. For further reference, read Martin Enserink’s reporting for Science here, here and here.

However, there was more to that Science paper than fraudulent science. Even if the results were not made up, their objective scientific value would still be very questionable, because it had very little connection to the reality of the plastic pollution in the oceans and the fish feeding behavior. The uniformly small, freshly industrially synthesized plastic balls which were fed to the fishes were not really representative of the actual plastic particles polluting our seas. But even those arbitrary chosen particles were not likely to have been eaten by the fishes voluntarily. If the fishes ever did swallow those, it was probably because they were simply made to, being at the point of death by starvation, something which rarely ever happens to actual plankton-feeding fishes in the sea. Of course one cannot expect peer reviewers to spot misconduct and data manipulation, but objectively assessing scientific methodology, result and conclusions of a manuscript is actually what the peer review is all about. One does wonder why the “highly qualified, dedicated” reviewers at Science failed to notice all these obvious scientific shortcomings, and instead decided that Lönnstedt & Eklöv work belonged indeed to “the very best in scientific research”. Was it because the socially and ecologically relevant conclusions sounded so important and welcome, that one simply had to blindly ignore the poor science behind them?

Continue reading “Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held”

Data manipulation evidence in Helin Vakifahmetoglu papers “warrants no further consideration”

Data manipulation evidence in Helin Vakifahmetoglu papers “warrants no further consideration”

The Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI) has investigated its own cell biologist and well-funded autophagy researcher Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg, following my publishing of a dossier with evidence for data manipulations in her papers. Also PubPeer evidence was considered. This was a second investigation of Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg, who was fully acquitted by KI already in 2016. While the new KI investigation progressed, one of Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg’s publications was retracted (Shen et al, Oncogene 2008), due to image duplications and unavailability of original data. With their second decision, KI again exonerated  Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg from all suspicions. One of the reasons was: since the Shen et al 2008 is retracted, it ceases to exist. Hence, all image duplications it shares with other Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg papers cease existing also. Other arguments were the author’s assertions to have reproduced more than 10 year old results faithfully (since the original data was unavailable), or her presenting evidence that similar looking images were in fact dissimilar. Unfortunately, where such original data could be recovered, it was shown only to internal investigators at KI, noone else. The case is closed, no appeal is possible. There will be no corrections even, unless journals do the unlikely thing and decide not to accept the KI decision.

Another Vakifahmetoglu paper (Imreh et al, J Cell Biol. 2011) is still under KI investigation but she has officially nothing to do with it. KI announced to follow this through with her former boss and the paper’s last author, Boris Zhivotovsky. He is under another KI investigation already, together with several of his colleagues including the  department’s prefect Ulla Stenius (see my report here), who received the KI letter about  Vakifahmetoglu whitewashing in cc.  Continue reading “Data manipulation evidence in Helin Vakifahmetoglu papers “warrants no further consideration””

German Leibniz institute director Karl Lenhard Rudolph guilty of misconduct

German Leibniz institute director Karl Lenhard Rudolph guilty of misconduct

A major misconduct finding hits German life sciences. Karl Lenhard Rudolph, stem cell and ageing researcher, director of the Fritz-Lippmann-Institute (FLI) of the Leibniz Society, was found guilty of research misconduct by an investigation of the Leibniz Society, in a decision published on June 15th. 11 papers in total were investigated, going back as far as 2001. One paper is to be retracted, seven Errata were requested. The investigation confirmed duplications of image parts, inappropriate splicing, rigged loading controls etc. No original data or lab books were available.

Just in Mai 2016, Rudolph’s FLI was raided by the police “on  suspected breaches of the animal welfare and drug law, as well as embezzlement” . All animal experimenting was stopped till present day, according to Radio Jena, other sources quoted Rudolph in May 2017 that mouse experiments were approved again, though the police investigation continued. Rudolph also admitted that his own lab was also part of the problem and that 13,000 mice were killed unnecessarily. Was Leibniz Society’s recent tough and public disciplinary action upon FLI director Rudolph the consequence?

The translated report on Rudolph’s research misconduct (my own version) is published below, the German original is here. I have not yet determined which publications from Rudolph lab were investigated, but 5 Rudolph papers were previously flagged on PubPeer. His institute, located in the Eastern German town of Jena, is now banned from Leibniz funding for 3 years, FLI now must report back to the Leibniz Executive Board until November 1st 2017 on the improvements regarding data documentation, quality control as well as tutoring and supervision of employees. Continue reading “German Leibniz institute director Karl Lenhard Rudolph guilty of misconduct”