Abbott, Allison. "German Technician's Confession Spurs Check on Suspect Data," Nature 393

 

Abbott, Allison. "German Technician's Confession Spurs Check on Suspect Data," Nature 393
(28 May 1998), p. 293.

[MUN1CH] Germany appears to be facing its second major scientific fraud scandal within a
year. Following the admission by a technician at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in
Cologne that she had fabricated data in at least one scientific paper, the possible systematic
manipulation of important experimental results for more than six years is now being investigated.

Scientists at the institute who helped to expose the case are now repeating experiments described
in more than 30 papers published in leading journals such as Nature, Science, EMBO Journal and
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The publications date back to 1992.

The repeat experiments, which began in mid-April and are expected to be completed by the
middle of next month, form part of a formal investigation into the affair by the Max Planck
Society (MPS). Experiments in at least half a dozen papers have already been proven to be
non-reproducible using specially developed tests.

The investigation win also attempt to determine how much responsibility for the length of time
that the suspect data went unchallenged should be shouldered by Jeff Schell, one of the institute's
four directors and head of its department of plant genetics where the experiments were carried
out.

The fraud became public in March (see Nature 392, 111; 1998). But scientists in the department
had long been suspicious about the work of a technician, Inge Czaja, as others had been unable to
repeat her success with a particular assay for the enzyme adenylyl cyclase on cultured plant cells.

The role of this enzyme in hormonal signalling in plants has been controversial in the field for
many years. The most recent paper from Richard Walden's group in the department, published in
Nature last December (390, 698-701; 1997), appeared to provide definitive evidence that the
enzyme exists in plants, and is part of the signalling system of the hormone auxin which
promotes cell growth. The institute says it now intends to retract the paper in its previous form.

Before the investigation began, Walden had refused to allow blind tests to be done, as requested
by other group leaders in the department, to validate suspicions that the assay was being
manipulated.

The fraud was exposed when colleagues gave directly to the technician samples designed to
establish whether or not the assay was being manipulated. Both Czaja and Walden left the
institute in February. Walden claims no direct involvement in the fraud, but admits
responsibility, as group leader, for the quality of work done by his group.

Franz Weinert, an MPS vice-president and director of the Institute for Psychological Research in
Munich, is chairing the investigation. He says its first main aim is to clarify how many papers
have been affected by the fraud, and to what extent.

The second aim is to determine, through discussions with the ten group leaders in the
department, when suspicions were first voiced, and how Schell - co-author of some of the papers
being investigated - reacted to concern expressed by group leaders. Weinert says the MPS is very
concerned that fabrication of data appears to have continued for so many years without being
exposed.

This is the first case to be dealt with under the MPS's new rules for handling scientific
misconduct which were approved last year (see Nature 390, 430; 1997). Under these rules, an
informal and confidential internal inquiry should be carried out within an institute when a
suspicion is raised and completed within four weeks.

If grounds for suspicion are confirmed, the director must ask for a formal investigation by the
society, to be carried out by a committee comprising a vice-president and three members of the
MPS arbitration committee. This committee reports to the society's president, Hubert Markl,
who win decide on sanctions.

In the current case, the process was initiated in the middle of April. "We are carrying out the
investigation as fast as possible, while taking the time necessary to be as accurate as we can,"
says Weinert. The MPS win not "hush anything up", he says, and there will be "no taboos". He
expects to report to Markl by the end of this month.

Last year the German scientific community was caught unprepared when two leading researchers
in molecular medicine were accused of faking data over a period of at least five years in around
40 publications (see Nature 389, 105; 1997). In that case, too, a major concern was that the fraud
had apparently been going on for a long time before exposure. Young researchers in the
laboratory are said to have suspected that results were being fabricated, but were reluctant to
voice suspicions outside their group.

Rules for handling such cases have now been introduced in many universities as wed as in the
MPS. These are designed to protect whistleblowers, as wed as researchers who stand accused of
misconduct.

Francesco Salamini, acting director of tile Max Planck Institute of Plant Breeding, says that
despite the depressed mood in Schell's department, "our scientists are doing all that can be done
in such a dramatic case to find out the truth of what happened".