Abbott, Alison. "Researcher Sues Over Fraud Sanction," Nature 390 (18/25 December 1997), p.

 

Abbott, Alison. "Researcher Sues Over Fraud Sanction," Nature 390 (18/25 December 1997), p.
652.

[MUNICH] The University of Dusseldorf in Germany has been taken to court by a researcher in
its orthopaedics department who has been stripped of his right to teach at the university following
an internal inquiry into allegations of scientific fraud.

The researcher, Meinolf Goertzen, claims that the university has no right to rescind his
Habilitation, an academic qualification required for teaching in German universities (as well as in
Switzerland and Austria).

But the university is defending its actions, saying its inquiry raised serious questions about the
genuineness of some of Goertzen's published experiments.

At the same time, it has welcomed new guidelines on handling cases of suspected scientific
misconduct published this week by an international panel set up by the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's principal university grant-giving body (see below) .

The allegations of fraud focus on a paper submitted by Goertzen in March 1994 to the Journal of
Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS) on the effect of gamma-irradiation on the viability of knee
ligament grafts in foxhounds. (Two of the three listed co-authors deny any knowledge of the
paper, while the third, Klaus-Peter Schulitz, head of Goertzen's department, acknowledges
‘honorary authorship') The paper was published the following year.

One of the figures in the paper claimed to show free sensory nerve endings reinnervating a
non-irradiated graft in dogs. But soon after publication, Zdenek Halata, professor of functional
anatomy at the University of Hamburg, recognized the electron micrograph as one he had taken
and published in 1989 depicting stretch receptors in human ligaments. It was one of three
micrographs lent to Goertzen as teaching aids.

Halata alerted the London-based journal's editor, Philip Fulford.. Goertzen subsequently
explained to Fulford that the picture had been sent in error, and provided another for an erratum,
which was published by the journal in November 1995. But this micrograph also fell under
similar suspicion.

These charges, when brought to the attention of the University of Dusseldorf, were evaluated and
confirmed by its faculty of medicine's standing committee on ‘good scientific practice' in early
1996. The medical faculty's standing Committee on Habilitation Affairs investigated all of
Goertzen's studies on dogs, some of which had been used by Goertzen in his 1991 Habilitation
thesis.

The investigation revealed various irregularities in Goertzen's research. These included duplicate
publication of results; even Halata's electron micrograph published in Goertzen's 1995 JBJC
paper had been published under Goertzen's name in 1994, and other micrographs had been
published repeatedly with captions variously claiming to be either irradiated or non-irradiated
grafts.

The number of dogs noted in the university's animal house records as being used by Goertzen in
his experiments was also significantly fewer than the number referred to in his published results.

As a result of the committee's investigation, the faculty of medicine rescinded Goertzen's
Habilitation in October 1996, along with his title of Privatdozent which allowed him to teach
specifically at Dusseldorf University. Goertzen has challenged both decisions in court. He
declared to the court that his animal studies of 1983-94 were done both in Dusseldorf and with a
company m the United States. The court refused his request that his Privatdozent title be
reinstated pending the outcome of the case, because it judged the university's case to be very
strong.

Despite efforts by Goertzen's lawyers, Fulford ‘formally retracted' Goertzen's paper in an
editorial published last September. One professional society of which Goertzen is a member, the
German Association for Orthopaedics and Traumatology, voted to expel him shortly afterwards.

But Goertzen continues to be defended by Schulitz, his head of department, who says he will
continue to do so whatever the outcome of the case.

Goertzen told Nature that most of his experiments on dogs were carried out at private
companies - which he declines to name - in the United States many years ago, and that these
companies have since destroyed the records. He also said that the electron micrographs he
published were meant to be illustrative, and were not essential to the scientific conclusions of his
paper.

He is demanding that his case be reconsidered by a committee of experts, since the faculty
Committee on Habilitation Affairs did not consist of specialists able to judge the details of his
scientific work. Andreas Scheid, however, vice-dean of the medical faculty, who organized the
investigation, argues: "You don't need experts to count dogs and compare photographs."

The university itselfis taking the affair seriously. Its rector, Gert Kaiser, says he is investigating
how Goertzen could be dismissed not an easy matter, as Goertzen is a tenured civil servant
directly employed by the state government of Nordrhein-Westfalen.

There had also been broader uncertainty, since the rights of a university to setup a panel to
investigate research misconduct had been challenged by a professor of biophysics from Giessen
who was himself the subject of an investigation. He claimed that it contravened the "freedom to
research' which is guaranteed in Germany's constitution. After a series of court battles the
federal constitutional court has recently confirmed this right.

Scheid says he welcomes the guidelines put forward by the DFG panel of experts, which he
hopes will be put in place at his university. "We had to plough hundreds of hours into the
[Goertzen] case, to work out what we could and could not do legally" he says.

A standard procedure means that any future case will be easier to handle. "No one will have to
start from scratch as we did," he says, adding that the panel's recommended requirements for
integrity should be written into the contracts of new staff.