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MU drops charges against 3 scientists

One researcher still under investigation in misconduct charges.
Friday, February 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:55 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

MU has dropped charges of research misconduct against three scientists, including lead researcher R. Michael Roberts, Curators’ Professor of animal sciences and biochemistry. The scientists had been under investigation for allegedly doctoring photographs that accompanied research published in a prominent scientific journal last February.

An investigation of research misconduct by the fourth author of the paper, Kaushik Deb, continues.

MU officials determined that there was not enough evidence to file misconduct charges against two of the article’s authors, Mayandi Sivaguru and Hwan Yul Yong. In a release issued through the MU News Bureau on Thursday afternoon, MU said evidence gathered by a three-person panel of investigators did not show that Roberts “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” fabricated or falsified data or that he directed other individuals to do so.” His actions did not constitute “a significant departure from accepted practices of a relevant research community,” according to the release.

“I’d known this would happen,” Roberts said. “I’m just sort of pleased it’s over with. The university has to do due diligence.”

The investigation stems from a paper published a year ago in Science magazine in which Roberts’ team argued that cells in a mouse embryo were marked at an early stage to become either a placenta or a fetus. Images that accompanied the paper came under scrutiny after a scientist from outside MU sent a letter to the magazine’s editor questioning their veracity.

MU’s investigation was still in the preliminary stages when Provost Brian Foster notified Roberts of the dismissal of charges in a Jan. 17 letter. The next phase would have been to refer the evidence to a standing committee on research responsibility for a formal investigation.

Phil Harter, who chairs the standing committee, informed other committee members in a Jan. 29 e-mail, obtained by the Missourian in an open records request, that they “will likely be called upon to hear the allegations” against one of the researchers. On the following day, Harter informed the committee by e-mail that the charges against Roberts and two other members of his team had been dismissed.

“For reasons that are unclear to me, we have been asked to keep this confidential for the time being,” Harter wrote.

Because the research was federally funded, the results of the investigation — from the inquiry into Roberts and his team through the final decision regarding Deb — will be forwarded to the Office of Research Integrity in Rockville, Md.

The ORI will then decide whether to accept or reject the university’s findings. If the agency believes any sanctions issued by MU are inadequate, it can require additional punishments.

Nancy Davidian, an investigator with the Division of Investigative Oversight at the Office of Research Integrity, said it’s unusual — but not unheard of — for charges to be dropped against individuals before there is a formal investigation. Universities typically opt to name all parties that worked on the research, then let an investigation determine who made the alterations.

“Everybody who works on the paper has some obligation to review all of the underlying data, but it doesn’t always happen,” Davidian said. “Because it didn’t, you can’t make a finding of misconduct against them if they weren’t responsible for it.”

The next step, Roberts said, will be to decide whether the paper, or parts of it, should be redacted.

“That’s something that will have to be worked out among the journal, the National Institute of Health and myself,” Roberts said.

Missourian reporter Seth Graves contributed to this report.


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