University chief in scientific fraud scandal
A LEADING university has become embroiled in a research scandal after an inquiry found that scientific papers published over 11 years had been doctored.
Prof David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, and one of the country’s prominent geneticists, is accused of “recklessness” by allowing research fraud on his watch at University College London’s Institute of Child Health. UCL undertook a formal investigation after a whistleblower alleged fraudulent research in dozens of papers published by scientists at the institute.
A panel of experts was set up to investigate the claims and their findings were reported earlier this year, but had not been made public.
The panel found that two scientists – Dr Anastasis Stephanou and Dr Tiziano Scarabelli – were guilty of misconduct by manipulating images in seven published research papers. Prof Latchman, former dean of the Institute, is cited as an author on all seven papers.
In one, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the panel said there was “clear evidence” of cloning, where parts of an image were copied and pasted over the same image. Elsewhere in the research, an image from a paper published a decade
earlier was also used. In another paper, an image was “cropped and flipped” before being used again in the same research. Images were found to have been “intentionally” manipulated in several other papers.
The report found that Prof Latch- man was “insufficiently attentive” in his oversight of the institute which “allowed” the conduct to continue.
The panel concluded that while Prof Latchman had “no intention” to commit fraud, his “failure” to manage the laboratory appropriately, as well as his involvement as an author on the publications, amounted to “recklessness”.
They went on to say that his behaviour “facilitated” the research misconduct identified in the investigation. Prof Latchman was institute dean before becoming master of Birkbeck, in London, in January 2003, but continued to hold a full-time position at the institute.
The Institute, along with its clinical partner Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, is responsible for the largest concentration of children’s health research in Europe. Allegations of possible research fraud at the Institute first surfaced in 2013. An initial 20-month inquiry found in 2015 that Prof Latchman had “no case to answer”. But UCL ordered a fresh investigation after a whistleblower made a series of allegations of misconduct by scientists.
Researchers are under intense pressure to publish research papers that raise the status of their department and secure funding or research grants.
A panel of three professors was set up in May last year to investigate allegations in respect of 32 papers published between 1990 and 2013 by scientists at the Institute.
In 25 cases, the inquiry found there had not been research misconduct, but in the seven others, it said there was evidence of fraud. Prof Latchman said he had “no idea” that images were being manipulated and “regret [s] that an- yone at the relevant time would do such a thing”. He added: “I am pleased that the UCL investigation has confirmed that I had no knowledge of the image manipulation, let alone any improper intent, although I do take issue with its conclusions in relation to the supervision of research.”
A UCL spokesman said the university was “committed to maintaining and safeguarding the highest standards of integrity” and “take [s] any allegations of research impropriety very seriously”.
He added: “We have rigorous systems in place to ensure all allegations are investigated thoroughly. UCL’S internal processes in relation to the matter are ongoing and certain papers related to investigations in this area have recently been the subject of retrac- tion notices. We do not intend to comment further on the matter at this time.”
Sir Harvey Mcgrath, the chairman of Birkbeck governors said: “This matter does not relate to Professor David Latchman’s leadership of Birkbeck, which has been excellent.
“Furthermore, UCL’S investigation confirmed that in his research role at UCL, Professor Latchman was not involved in, and had no knowledge of, the image manipulation identified.”
Dr Stephanou said he “disagreed” with the findings and was not responsible for any research misconduct. He said although he was cited as a co-author, he “did not produce or prepare any of the images the panel flagged.
Dr Scarabelli did not respond to requests for comment.
Prof David Latchman was said to be guilty of failing to manage the laboratory ‘appropriately’