Archive for the 'Scientific Misconduct' category

University attempts to rescind PhD awarded to alleged cheater

Mar 24 2016 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

at RetractionWatch:

After the University of Texas postponed a hearing to determine whether it should revoke a chemist’s PhD, her lawyer has filed a motion to stop the proceedings, and requested the school pay her $95,099 in lawyer fees and expenses.

We have discussed individuals convicted of scientific fraud in the course of doctoral studies before and wondered if a University could or would attempt to retract the doctoral award. Well, looks like this is one of those cases.

The Austin Statesman reports:

In Orr’s case, UT administrators moved to revoke her degree after finding that “scientific misconduct occurred in the production of your dissertation,” according to a letter to Orr from Judith Langlois, senior vice provost and dean of graduate studies.

The dissertation committee concluded that work related to “falsified and misreported data cannot be included in a dissertation and that the remaining work described in the dissertation is insufficient to support the award” of a Ph.D.,” Langlois wrote. Orr was invited to submit a new thesis summarizing other work to earn a master’s degree.

This is interesting because the justification is not that she is being punished for being a faker, otherwise why would they invite her to submit a master's thesis? The justification is that ignoring the allegedly falsified work leaves her short of a minimum qualification for the doctorate. Given the flexibility involved with doctoral committee requirements and the sheer scope of data usually involved in a thesis, my eyebrows are raising at this. Back to the RetractionWatch piece:

The motion for final summary judgment includes an affidavit from Phillip Magnus, a chemistry professor at UT, who argues that...

her dissertation consisted of two branches of work towards alkaloid natural products and a methodology project to generate novel structures. She characterized about 100 organic compounds in her dissertation. Even without completed syntheses of natural products, her research towards the natural products was significant, and provided her the training to become a skillful and passionate scientist. Being correct or incorrect is part of scientific research. Being correct, or synthesizing a particular molecule are not requirements for passing a course at the University, or obtaining a Ph D degree. Furthermore, the possibility of being wrong is not a justifiable reason to rescind a former student’s degree.

Yeah, this certainly points at a usual sticking point between the RetractionWatch types and me.

It is ESSENTIAL to differentiate between merely being wrong or mistaken (or even sloppy) and intentional fraud.

The Austin Statesman piece goes on to detail how the supervising PI and a subsequent postdoc wanted to build on Dr. Orr's work and she told them to re-do certain work. They didn't, published a paper (with her as author) and it was subsequently retracted for a chemical step being non-reproducible. Was her warning due to knowing she'd faked some results? Or was it due to her gut feeling that it just wasn't as nailed down as some other results and she'd like to see it replicated before publishing? Did her own subsequent work cast doubt on her prior (valid but perhaps mistaken) work? Etc.

23 responses so far


I am working up a serious antipathy to the notion of scientific priority, spurred most recently by the #ASAPbio conference and the associated fervent promotion of pre-print deposit of scientific manuscripts.

In science, the concept of priority refers to the fact that we think of the first person to [think up, discover, demonstrate, support, prove, find, establish] something as somehow special and deserving of credit.

For example, the first paleontologist to show that this odd collection of fossils over here belonged to a species of Megatyrannoteethdeath* not previously known to us gets a lot of street cred for a new discovery.

Watson and Crick, similarly, are famed for working out the double helical structure of DNA** because they provided the scientific community with convincing amounts of rationale and evidence first.


Typically the most special thing about the scientists being respected is that they got there first. Someone else could have stumbled across the right bits of fossil. Many someones were hotly trying to determine how DNA was structured and how it worked.

This is the case for much of modern bioscience. There are typically many someones that have at least thought about a given issue, problem or puzzle. Many who have spent more than just a tiny bit of thought on it. Sometimes multiple scientists (or scientific groups, typically) are independently working on a given idea, concept, biological system, puzzle or whathaveyou.

As in much of life, to the victor go the spoils. Meaning the Nobel prize in some cases. Meaning critical grant funding in other cases- funding that not only pays the salary of the scientists with priority but that goes to support their pursuit of other "first" discoveries. Remember in the Jurassic Park movies how the sober paleontology work was so desperately in need of research funds? That. In addition, the priority of a finding might dictate which junior scientists get Professorial rank jobs, the all-important credit for publication in a desired rank of scientific journal and ultimately the incremental accumulation of citations to that paper. Finally, if there ends up being a commercial value angle, the ones who have this priority may profit from that fact.

It's all very American, right? Get there first, do something someone else has not done and you should profit from that accomplishment. yeeehaw***.

Problem is......****

The pursuit of priority holds back the progress of science in many ways. It keeps people from working on a topic because they figure that some other lab is way ahead of them and will beat them to the punch (science always can use a different take, no two labs come up with the exact same constellation of evidence). It unfairly keeps people from being able to get rewarded for their work (in a multi-year, multi-person, expensive pursuit of the same thing does it make sense that a 2 week difference in when a manuscript is submitted is all-critical to the credit?). It keeps people from collaborating or sharing their ideas lest someone else swoop in and score the credit by publishing first. It can fuel the inability to replicate findings (what if the group with priority was wrong and nobody else bothered to put the effort in because they couldn't get enough credit?).

These are the things I am pondering as we rush forward with the idea that pre-publication manuscripts should be publicized in a pre-print archive. One of the universally promoted reasons for this need is, in fact, scientific priority. Which has a very, very large downside to it.
*I made that Genus up but if anyone wants to use it, feel free

**no, not for being dicks. that came later.



45 responses so far

Story boarding

When you "storyboard" the way a figure or figures for a scientific manuscript should look, or need to look, to make your point, you are on a very slippery slope.

It sets up a situation where you need the data to come out a particular way to fit the story you want to tell.

This leads to all kinds of bad shenanigans. From outright fakery to re-running experiments until you get it to look the way you want. 

Story boarding is for telling fictional stories. 

Science is for telling non-fiction stories. 

These are created after the fact. After the data are collected. With no need for storyboarding the narrative in advance.

32 responses so far

Placeholder figures

Honest scientists do not use "placeholder" images when creating manuscript figures. Period. 

See this nonsense from Cell

22 responses so far

Aha! It was about data faking after all.

I wrote a prior post about the bizarre disappearance of an Editor in Chief of a journal I suspected of being predatory.

The bio lists Raphael Pinaud as "an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Northwestern University, USA" so let's look at the Department listing for Core Faculty and Research Faculty. Nothing. Courtesy faculty? Emeritus?

Ok, weird. No sign of the guy. Google search seems to turn up validation that he was once there.

There was an accusation of data fraud in the comments to that post.

Turns out that this is probably correct. The Journal of Neuroscience has issued a retraction.

The Journal of Neuroscience has received a report from Northwestern University that describes substantial data misrepresentation in the article “Mechanistic Basis and Functional Roles of Long-Term Plasticity in Auditory Neurons Induced by a Brain-Generated Estrogen” by Liisa A. Tremere, Ryan F. Kovaleski, Kalping Burrows, Jin Kwon Jeong, and Raphael Pinaud, which appeared on pages 16478–16495 of the November 14, 2012 issue. Because the results cannot be considered reliable, J Neurosci is retracting the paper.

No mention of any of the authors throwing one or more of the other authors under the bus, I will note. It's pretty clear that Tremere and Pinaud are probably in on the fraud together, since they appear to be a couple and are the ones that skipped town (country?). I wonder what the other three authors have to say about this situation?

h/t: PhysioProf

35 responses so far

Medical Experiments on Slaves

An article by Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed alerts us:

Electric shocks, brain surgery, amputations — these are just some of the medical experiments widely performed on American slaves in the mid-1800s, according to a new survey of medical journals published before the Civil War.

Previous work by historians had uncovered a handful of rogue physicians conducting medical experiments on slaves. But the new report, published in the latest issue of the journal Endeavour, suggests that a widespread network of medical colleges and doctors across the American South carried out and published slave experiments, for decades.
Savitt first reported in the 1970s that medical schools in Virginia had trafficked in slaves prior to the Civil War. But historians had seen medical experiments on slaves as a practice isolated to a few physicians — until now.

to the following paper.

Kenny, S.C. Power, opportunism, racism: Human experiments under American slavery. Endeavour,
Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 10–20[Publisher Link]

Kenny writes:

Medical science played a key role in manufacturing and deepening societal myths of racial difference from the earli- est years of North American colonisation. Reflecting the practice of anatomists and natural historians throughout the Atlantic world, North American physicians framed andinscribed the bodies, minds and behaviours of black subjects with scientific and medical notions of fundamental and inherent racial difference. These medical ideas racialised skin, bones, blood, diseases, with some theories specifically designed to justify and defend the institution of racial slavery, but they also manifested materially as differential treatment – seen in medical education, practice and research.

I dunno. Have we changed all that much?

12 responses so far

Another GlamourMag Data Faker is Busted by ORI

Apr 07 2015 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

In the Federal Register:

Ryousuke Fujita, Ph.D., Columbia University: Based on the report of an investigation conducted by Columbia University (CU) and additional analysis conducted by ORI in its oversight review, ORI found that Dr. Ryousuke Fujita, former Postdoctoral Scientist, Taub Institute for the Aging Brain, Departments of Pathology and Cell Biology and Neurology, CU Medical Center, engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant R01 NS064433 and National Institute of Aging (NIA), NIH, grant R01 AG042317.

ORI found that Respondent engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and fabricating data for specific protein expressions in human-induced neuronal (hiN) cells derived skin fibroblasts of Alzheimer's disease patients and unaffected individuals in seventy-four (74) panels included in figures in the following two (2) publications and one (1) unpublished manuscript:

Wow. 74 panels faked in a mere three papers? One wonders how many valid panels could possibly be left.

So what are the papers?

Nature. 2013 Aug 1;500(7460):45-50. doi: 10.1038/nature12415. Epub 2013 Jul 24.
Integrative genomics identifies APOE ε4 effectors in Alzheimer's disease.
Rhinn H, Fujita R, Qiang L, Cheng R, Lee JH, Abeliovich A. [PubMed]

Nature eh? Glamour number one. And I note that this busy bee faker is listed-second with a co-equal symbol. No evidence on the publisher site that this has been retracted that I can see.

Cell. 2011 Aug 5;146(3):359-71. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.07.007.
Directed conversion of Alzheimer's disease patient skin fibroblasts into functional neurons.
Qiang L, Fujita R, Yamashita T, Angulo S, Rhinn H, Rhee D, Doege C, Chau L, Aubry L, Vanti WB, Moreno H, Abeliovich A. [PubMed]

Cell. Glamour two. In this case the retraction notices are all over the place. Once again, the faker is listed-second with a co-equal contributor symbol.

Fujita had a very impressive number of cheating techniques that were deployed. This seems slightly memory suggests cheaters often focus on one or two strategies*.

Respondent inflated sample numbers and data, fabricated numbers for data sets, manipulated enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) analysis, mislabelled immunoflourescent confocal images, and manipulated and reused Western blot images.

h/t: Comradde PhysioProffe
*I could be wrong about this.

20 responses so far

Data faker happily employed by the US Patent Office

via retraction watch we learn:

A Bijan Ahvazi has been working at the USPTO since at least 2008, and today a source confirmed that it was the same person who was the subject of last October’s ORI report. Ahvazi was found to have faked five different images in three different papers, two of which have been retracted.

The Notice of ORI finding appeared in October of 2014.

Based on the report of an investigation conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and additional analysis by ORI in its oversight review, ORI found that Dr. Bijan Ahvazi, former Director of the Laboratory of X-ray Crystallography, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), NIH, engaged in research misconduct in research supported by the Intramural Program at NIAMS, NIH.

The Notice shows that the offenses for which Ahvazi was convicted date to 2004 and 2006. One doesn't have to assume that much to figure out that he was busted and then had to look for a new job somewhere between 2006 and 2008. It took until 2014 for his fraud to come to light via the official ORI mechanisms. Presumably, although we don't know for sure, the investigation was confidential up until it reached its formal conclusions which may have permitted him to avoid telling the US Patent and Trade Office about his little whoopsie? I dunno, do you think the USPTO would hire a data fraud as a patent examiner if they knew about it? One thinks not.

p.s. apparently a co-author of this data faker died under bizarre circumstances in 2003.

11 responses so far

It isn't the fraud witchhunt, it's the Glamour culture of science

Aug 05 2014 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

The Sesai suicide has been deemed the result of an anti-fraud witch hunt by well respected biomedical ethics / conduct of science / publishing / open science dude Michael Eisen.

I disagree that this is the proper frame for what happened.

First, while I am no fan of the sort of lynch mob behavior that tends to emerge in the comments at the retractionwatch blog these days, scientific fraud still needs to be rooted out and exposed wherever it occurs. Blaming a suicide on the "witch hunt", as if rooting out fraud is not a valid or significant concern, is a problem to me. We already have enough enabling behavior in the Academy. Enough excusing, enough looking the other way and enough failing to convict a pattern of behavior because we can't lay beyond-reasonable-doubt gloves on the perpetrator. Dismissing all vigorous attempts to get to the bottom of a paper fraud situation as if they are baseless (i.e., witches do not exist) is counterproductive.

Second, data fabrication and fraud has victims. And all too often we frame scientific fraud ONLY through the lens of scientific understanding. Which, let us be honest, is fairly robust against claims that turn out to be wrong. Sure, time and money are lost, but the scientific understanding wins out in the end. Peoples' careers, however, often suffer irretrievable harm. When a job is won by a data faker like Marc Hauser or Michael Miller then someone else lost that job. When a research grant is awarded based on faked publications or preliminary data, another investigator doesn't get those funds [even the grants themselves are rarely pulled from the University, a new PI is frequently substituted]. These are serious harms, there are victims and turning a blind eye to scientific misconduct ensures more harms in the future.

Third, this was a Japanese investigator who decided to take ultimate responsibility by killing himself. I've been around a few decades and have noticed that middle and top level managers in Japan occasionally commit suicide over work-related matters that are inexplicably strange and unjustified to most Western (and certainly USian) eyes. It strikes me that there are cultural factors at play here that explain this event far more truthily than some analysis of the effects of a "witch hunt" about data fraud.

Nevertheless, if you absolutely insist that there is some thing about the current culture of science that resulted in this suicide of a research scientist, rxnm has some thoughts which seem much more related to me.

And what about everyone else? Journals, colleagues, scientists, journalists? Do we really need hero narratives? The splashy results that will “change everything”? The hype machine it is out of fucking control. We are adopting the language of biz-speak bullshit and starting to buy into these empty non-values about techno-utopian revolutionaries and lone geniuses. We all participate in the culture of valuing glam, prestige, prizes. Who gets the 8-figure grants while everyone else struggles to stay afloat? Who can I get a selfie with at SfN? Who gets to stamp their name all over the culmination of decades of work by hundreds or thousands? We’ve become cultish: around people, journals, technologies, institutions. As if these are things that matter more than the colleagues around us, or our own integrity. It’s pathetic, and we can be better.

Without the need for Glamourous results, there is less need to fake data. Without the hero and lone-genius narrative, PIs would feel less desire to appear always-correct and fear the overturning of their pet story or hypothesis much less. Without this intensely competitive fight to publish in the right limited subset of journals.... etc.

ps. Graduate students suicide occasionally too. Guess which culture change would have the greater effect- anti-fraud alleged witch hunts or dismantling the hypercompetitive, Glamour-humping prestige-seeking?

40 responses so far

The only way to survive is to fake data

Oct 08 2013 Published by under Academics, Anger, Scientific Misconduct

I hope this commenter was being facetious.

With paylines around 5-percentile, the only way to have a shot at having a proposal approved is to quite simply fake data.

and I hope this other commenter was just wising off in frustration.

Certainly in my field the proportion of cheaters at the top venues seems to have increased the harder it is to get in. In fact, in one specific venue that shall remain nameless in my estimation over half of the papers contain some fake data.

Don't get me wrong. I am concerned about cheating in science. I am convinced that the contingencies that affect the careers of individuals scientists is a significant motivating factor in data fraud. I am not naive.

but for today, I wish to object to this normalization behavior. It is not normal to cheat in science. Data faking is NOT standard old stuff that everybody is doing.

"Everybody does it."

This is one of the standard defenses of the cheater pants. It is the easy justification we have seen time and time again in the revelations of performance-enhancing drug use in professional sports. It is the excuse of the data faker as well.

Consequently it is imperative that we do not leave the impression of normalcy unchallenged.

It is not the norm. Faking is not endemic to science. It may be more common than we would like. It may be more common than we estimate. But it is not normal.

Despite claims, it is not necessary. I have more than one grant score that was better than the 5th percentile and I didn't have to fake any data to get those. So that first claim is wrong for sure. It is not required to fake data.

83 responses so far

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