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Probe finds 'reckless' misconduct in University of Utah lab

Published August 2, 2013 4:35 pm

Science • Eleven papers are suspect; two have been retracted, three corrected – and more fixes may follow.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Researchers at a respected University of Utah lab "recklessly" mishandled and manipulated data in 11 papers published over the course of five years, according to a report released this week.

The problems went far beyond two papers about regulation of iron in the blood that were retracted from a scientific journal last year after a lab technician threw away notebooks, the investigation by a U. research oversight committee found.

The lead author on many of the suspect papers, assistant professor Ivana De Domenico, has been fired, and the head of the lab, veteran pathology professor Jerry Kaplan, has retired in the wake of the investigation. University officials are continuing to examine other papers produced by the lab and more corrections or retractions could be forthcoming.

Kaplan and current members of the lab did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Investigators listed 21 errors found in 11 papers published between 2007 and 2011. The problems all involved visual data, figures "published as if they reflected the results of laboratory experiments," according to the report.

The errors include images that were "intentionally manipulated to present false data," others that were "flipped or mislabeled," graphs that were "misleading" and "inverted," as well as dates and notes on film that were likely added several months after the work was done, according to the report.

The report faults "extreme carelessness" on the part of De Domenico and others whose names have been redacted from the copy of the report provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The problems appear to be the result of negligence rather than plagiarism or fabrication, said Jeffrey Botkin, associate vice president for research integrity at the U.

The research oversight committee "was not convinced there was an intention to mislead, but that the process was so reckless that ... the publication didn't represent what was done," said Botkin.

In a written statement to The Tribune, released by her attorney, De Domenico reiterated that she didn't purposely falsify or fabricate research and disputed the finding that she had committed accidental misconduct.

De Domenico "maintains that she conducted her work as conscientiously as possible within the context of a very difficult work environment at the university," according to the statement, and she pointed to the report's finding that the problems were part of a "larger pattern," rather than hers alone.

De Domenico, who noted she was trained in the lab, also asserted that the university deprived her of due process and other rights in the course of the investigation.

Kaplan's lab has been "certainly, one of the most productive labs on campus," Botkin said, handling millions of dollars in federal grants and publishing regularly in top-shelf science journals. Kaplan, an assistant vice president for health science research, "has been a highly respected member of our community," Botkin added.

The issues, which a U. spokesman called "extremely unusual," first came to light in the fall of 2011, when editors at a journal where one of the papers was published expressed concerns about the data, later echoed by a former collaborator at another university.

The U.'s investigation started the following spring, around the time two papers were retracted from the journal Cell Metabolism. Other journals have since issued three corrections to other papers from Kaplan's lab.

"I think that it is a matter, to some extent, of the zeal for science and the discovery, and folks get busy pursing the science and have lost the sense of the sort of oversight mechanism that should be in place," said Botkin. "Sometimes it's a matter of poor oversight also ... oftentimes individuals think they already know the answer and the paper is just a validation to demonstrate what the right answer is."

The report said that the U.'s responsibility for the problems shouldn't stop at Kaplan's retirement and De Domenico's termination.

Along with investigating other papers published by researchers in the lab, university officials are reaching out to other U. scientists to remind them of research rules and how to report problems if they see them.

Asked whether researchers need more oversight, Botkin said that academic journals could do more to ensure that images haven't been manipulated. The university, he said, should "remind investigators collaborating on a project that they need to take a certain amount of responsibility to ensure that everyone's work is the highest quality it can be."

The university will contact the editors of the journals where the six remaining papers were published, and the editors will decide with the authors what steps to take, Botkin said.

The problems could affect other scientists working on similar projects, but the work hasn't been used in medical care or other applications that affect the general population, Botkin said.

At the time the two papers were retracted, Kaplan-led researchers insisted in a statement that the problems didn't affect the science and the data is reproducible. The report released Thursday didn't investigate that claim.

"Whether the science is right or not is not the primary issue," Botkin said. "Being right doesn't mean it's not research misconduct."

The research was funded by federal tax dollars, and the federal Office of Research Integrity is conducting its own investigation.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst