Abbott, Alison. "Forged Images Lead to German Inquiry," Nature, 387 (29 May 1997), p. 442.

 

Abbott, Alison. "Forged Images Lead to German Inquiry," Nature, 387 (29 May 1997), p. 442.

[MUNICH] In what appears to be Germany's first significant case of scientific fraud, two
molecular biologists with rapidly growing reputations have been accused of fabricating data in
papers published in leading journals.

Marion Brach, 37, a full professor at the University of Lubeck near Hamburg, is reported to have
admitted falsifying results in four research papers while she was working in the laboratory of
Friedhelm Herrmann at the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin in the early
1990s.

But Herrmann denies any knowledge that the data in the papers had been manipulated, even
though he was a co-author on all four. Herrmann, 47, is one of Germany's leading gene therapy
research scientists and a professor at the University of Ulm.

In the most brazen case, Brach, whose work concerns cytokines and multidrugresistance genes in
relation to cancer therapy, is said to have admitted that she had "mixed and matched"
computerized images from unrelated experiments, based on unrelated methodologies, to forge a
new set of experimental data.

Local and national committees have been set up to investigate the extent of the alleged fraud in
the pair's voluminous publication record, and to try to determine whether Herrmann was aware
of it.

Details of the affair were made public last week in the German news magazine Focus. Both
scientists are continuing their academic work. But all grant money to their laboratories has been
suspended until the affair is resolved. Herrmann's positions on advisory boards to the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's research council, have also been suspended.

Herrmann and Brach have shared what has appeared to be a highly successful academic career. In
the 1980s, both worked at Harvard University in the United States before returning to the
University of Freiberg in Germany. In 1992 they moved to Berlin, where Herrmann was full
professor at the Free University and a senior consultant at the university's Robert Rossle Cancer
Centre.

Herrmann was also given laboratory space at Max Delbruck Centre, a national research centre set
up in east Berlin after reunification, where he built up a research team of around 20 scientists.
Brach was one of four group leaders in the team, a position that allowed her to gain the German
qualification Habilitation, which is necessary to become a university professor.

In early 1996, Herrmann and Brach left Berlin for Ulm in west Germany, where Herrmann had
better opportunities for his clinical and research activities.

Shortly afterwards Brach was offered a full professorship at the University of Lubeck. She is
director of the university's new Institute of Molecular Medicine.
But the professional rise of both scientists was halted in March when investigations into the
alleged fraud began. Researchers working with them in Berlin had for some time suspected that
some data might have been fabricated, but had been reluctant to make a public complaint out of
concern that Herrmann and Brach could hinder their careers.

Earlier this year, however, they took their evidence to a sympathetic intermediary, who alerted
the deans of medicine at Ulm and Lubeck universities, as well as Detlev Ganten, director of the
Max Delbrudk Centre.

Guido Adler, dean of medicine at Ulm, asked Herrmann and Brach for written state meets in
response to the allegations. Brach is said to have eventually admitted falsifying I data in four
papers - two in Blood, one in EMBO Journal and one in The Journal of Experimental Medicine -
but Herrmann denied involvement.

A local committee of investigation set up by Adler is likely to issue an interim conclusion next
week about whether Herrmann was involved. The minister of science in the state of
Baden-Wurttemberg is responsible for deciding what penalty to impose if Herrmann is proved to
have been involved. Dismissal is a possibility, says Adler. "But it is hard to know what will
happen because we have no experience of this in Germany." Adler has asked Herrmann to
voluntarily give up his academic duties until the issue has been resolved.

Herrmann claims that when he was working in Berlin he left the running of the research projects
in the hands of his four group leaders. Although he says that he read closely all the papers he
co-authored, he did not recognize that data had been forged. "But neither did the journals'
referees" says Herrman.

He argues that the affair has been "hochgekocht" (overplayed), although he says he now accepts
that data in at least one of the papers had clearly been fabricated. This is a paper in The Journal
of Experimental Medicine about the control of transcription by the cytokine TNF (tumour
necrosis factor) in human fibroblasts.

Among other deceptions ..., the paper presents as western blots, which are standard protein
assays, old (non-radioactive) enzyme assays that had been stored as computer images. Smears of
background radioactivity apparently went unnoticed by referees.

Ganten, who is a member of the national committee set up to investigate the affair, says he is
astonished and disheartened that the papers appear to have passed through refereeing procedures
without difficulty..

The national investigatory committee, mane up of scientists and representatives of funding
agencies, is studying other publications from the group to determine whether there are any further
indications of fraud. It will also consider if grant money used for the fraudulent work should be
repaid. It will report in the summer.

Most observers suspect that the deception was provoked by the increasing pressure on
researchers in a ‘publish-or-perish' environment, as well as the sudden opening of new
opportunities in Germany in all areas of applied molecular biology.