A three-year investigation into a University of Connecticut biology laboratory has found its chief guilty of falsifying and fabricating data on more than two dozen papers and grant applications.
Dipak Das, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington, and his lab studied the beneficial health effects of wine (including one component resveratrol, which has been linked to life extension and other health benefits) and other foods, as well as cardiology.
A 60,000-page report issued yesterday (you can read a 49-page summary here) by UCHC found Das guilty of 145 counts of fabrication and falsification of data, involving at least 23 papers and 3 grant applications. The alleged misconduct involved manipulating the presentation of experiments called western blots, which assess the presence and amounts of specific proteins. The report documents dozens of instances in published papers where protein bands from separate experiments were spliced and pasted together to suggest that they had been measured in the same experiment.
The UCHC investigation began after the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) notified the university, in November 2008, of a complaint involving a paper published by Das's laboratory. UCHC began its investigation in January 2009. The ORI is conducting its own investigation, according to a University of Connecticut press release.
UCHC has frozen externally funded research in Das's lab, and it turned away US$890,000 in federal grants while the investigation was underway. The university has also begun proceedings to fire Das.
The report focuses on Das's role in the alleged misconduct, but the university is also looking into the roles of graduate students and other former members of the laboratory. The report notes that two doctoral theses from former graduate students contain "anomalies" and "problematic images". The report notes that during the investigation, members of Das's lab said that there was nothing wrong with digitally manipulating western-blot images. The report cites e-mail exchanges between Das and lab members documenting data manipulation, and in one e-mail to Das, a student in the lab wrote: "I have changed the figures as you told me."
But the report also notes that only certain members of Das's lab conducted biochemical work and data analysis, while others performed different tasks. "This type of compartmentalization of research effort increases the opportunity that research misconduct might not be detected by other authors and could potentially lead to blame falling, unfairly, on other authors."
In a June 2010 letter included as evidence in the report (and posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education), Das denied that he modified the western-blot images and accused the university of racial discrimination. He also complained that stress caused by the investigation had caused him to suffer a stroke.
Das has not yet responded to an e-mail from Nature, but Retraction Watch posted a bizarre press release this morning that the blog says it received on Das's behalf. The release denies the allegations of data manipulation and again suggests that the investigation is racially motivated. The release goes on to say that the unnamed informant who turned Das in was a "troublemaker" who worked in the laboratory. The statement claims that the informant attempted to pour wine down the throat of another worker in the laboratory in an effort to get the worker to disparage Das.
Although some of Das's papers documenting the benefits of chemicals in wine have been cited hundreds of times, other researchers who study ageing and the effects of resveratrol downplayed the significance of his work.
"Today I had to look up who he is. His papers are mostly in specialty journals," Harvard Medical School's David Sinclair told the New York Times. Nir Barzilai, a resveratrol researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told the AP that the allegations will not have a significant impact on resveratrol research.
His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry and Free Radical Research. No papers have been retracted, but UCHC says that it has notified the journals in which Das's team published papers containing figures that were allegedly manipulated.
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on January 12, 2012.