Top Harvard Cancer researchers accused of scientific fraud; 37 studies affected

Enlarge / The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, is seeking to retract six scientific studies and correct 31 others that were published by the institute’s top researchers, including its CEO. The researchers are accused of manipulating data images with simple methods, primarily with copy-and-paste in image editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop.

The accusations come from data sleuth Sholto David and colleagues on PubPeer, an online forum for researchers to discuss publications that has frequently served to spot dubious research and potential fraud. On January 2, David posted on his research integrity blog, For Better Science, a long list of potential data manipulation from DFCI researchers. The post highlighted many data figures that appear to contain pixel-for-pixel duplications. The allegedly manipulated images are of data such as Western blots, which are used to detect and visualize the presence of proteins in a complex mixture.

DFCI Research Integrity Officer Barrett Rollins told The Harvard Crimson that David had contacted DFCI with allegations of data manipulation in 57 DFCI-led studies. Rollins said that the institute is “committed to a culture of accountability and integrity,” and that “Every inquiry about research integrity is examined fully.”

The allegations are against: DFCI President and CEO Laurie Glimcher, Executive Vice President and COO William Hahn, Senior Vice President for Experimental Medicine Irene Ghobrial, and Harvard Medical School professor Kenneth Anderson.

The Wall Street Journal noted that Rollins, the integrity officer, is also a co-author on two of the studies. He told the outlet he is recused from decisions involving those studies.

Amid the institute’s internal review, Rollins said the institute identified 38 studies in which DFCI researchers are primarily responsible for potential manipulation. The institute is seeking retraction of six studies and is contacting scientific publishers to correct 31 others, totaling 37 studies. The one remaining study of the 38 is still being reviewed.

Of the remaining 19 studies identified by David, three were cleared of manipulation allegations, and 16 were determined to have had the data in question collected at labs outside of DFCI. Those studies are still under investigation, Rollins told The Harvard Crimson. “Where possible, the heads of all of the other laboratories have been contacted and we will work with them to see that they correct the literature as warranted,” Rollins wrote in a statement.

Despite finding false data and manipulated images, Rollins pressed that it doesn’t necessarily mean that scientific misconduct occurred and the institute has not yet made such a determination. The “presence of image discrepancies in a paper is not evidence of an author’s intent to deceive,” Rollins wrote. “That conclusion can only be drawn after a careful, fact-based examination which is an integral part of our response. Our experience is that errors are often unintentional and do not rise to the level of misconduct.”

The very simple methods used to manipulate the DFCI data are remarkably common among falsified scientific studies, however. Data sleuths have gotten better and better at spotting such lazy manipulations, including copied-and-pasted duplicates that are sometimes rotated and adjusted for size, brightness, and contrast. As Ars recently reported, all journals from the publisher Science now use an AI-powered tool to spot just this kind of image recycling because it is so common.

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