MU is investigating allegations that images accompanying research published by MU professor of reproductive biology R. Michael Roberts in a prominent academic journal were digitally altered.
Robert Hall, associate vice chancellor for research at MU, said the investigation began in early June after a scientist outside the university sent a letter to Science magazine questioning the reliability of the images. The magazine forwarded the complaint immediately to MU Provost Brian Foster’s office.
“Upon learning of these allegations we have to follow procedures set by the federal Office of Research Integrity,” Hall said.
Roberts’ research, published in the Feb. 17 issue of Science, a weekly, peer-reviewed journal, challenged the conventional view on the properties of the first two cells in a mouse embryo and, according to Hall, has potential implications for stem cell research.
Roberts said the purpose of the study was to add to an ongoing debate in the scientific community over whether cells are pre-patterned in an embryo to become a certain kind of tissue. Roberts’ study argued that cells in a mouse embryo were marked at an early stage to become either a placenta or a fetus. Roberts, the former director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, was the lead researcher.
“To some, it may be controversial, to others not,” Roberts said about his findings, “but I knew that this paper was important.”
Three co-authors — none of whom are currently at MU — are also under investigation, Hall said. “It is a standard in the scientific community that if you put your name on a report, you are responsible for all of the information it contains,” he said.
Roberts declined to comment on the investigation itself. “Many people may be implicated if I were to comment, and there is no presumption of guilt or innocence until the inquiry is complete,” he said. “It has been a very difficult and painful thing for me and everyone in my laboratory,” he said.
The current issue of Science includes an Editorial Expression of Concern, by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, alerting readers that the research “may not be reliable” and that MU is conducting “an ongoing investigation.”
The research — “CDX2 gene expression and trophectoderm lineage specification in mouse embryos” — included a series of images of cells dividing. Hall said the investigation is focused on two particular figures, each containing multiple images. Anyone with knowledge of Photoshop or similar software programs is capable of manipulating digital images, which Hall said is a common concern in the scientific community. “Any national meeting focused on research integrity in today’s scientific environment, nine out of ten times, it will be about digital image manipulation,” Hall said.
Both the federal Office of Research Integrity and MU have policies defining misconduct in research and how to deal with it. Hall said misconduct could include falsification, fabrication or plagiarism of research. “It must be done intentionally, willfully or recklessly,” he said.
MU’s investigation is currently in its initial phase, in which a committee of three senior faculty members are interviewing people who may shed light on the research. Hall likened this phase to a “grand jury” composed of people who understand the science.
If the committee determines there is probable cause to believe there was wrongdoing on the part of Roberts or his co-authors, the university’s standing committee on research responsibility would take over the investigation. “This phase is not a trial,” Hall said, “but it is as close to a trial as you will get in an academic setting.”
If the standing committee finds that Roberts or his co-authors purposely altered research photographs, the Office of the Chancellor would decide on the punishment. Hall said a similar investigation six years ago led to a researcher’s dismissal.
Any decision could be appealed. The university’s findings must be reported to the Office of Research Integrity — under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — which could decide to impose additional penalties.
Roberts has worked at MU since 1985. He resigned as head of life sciences about a year ago to take a sabbatical. Part of the Department of Biochemistry, he now teaches graduate students and is involved in numerous research projects at MU. He received the Carl G. Hartman Award in 2006 from the Society for the Study of Reproduction for accomplishments in reproductive biology. And in 2005 he was named one of the world’s top 50 scientists by Scientific American magazine.