Abbott, Allison. "German Scientists May Escape Fraud Trial," Nature 395 (8 October 1998), pp.

 

Abbott, Allison. "German Scientists May Escape Fraud Trial," Nature 395 (8 October 1998), pp.
532-533.

[MUNICH] Prosecutors in Germany are finding it more difficult than expected to bring legal
charges against two scientists alleged to have perpetrated Germany's biggest ever scientific
fraud.

More than a year after a scientific investigation committee concluded that clinical researcher
Friedhelm Herrmann and his colleague, molecular biologist Marion Brach, had systematically
fabricated data in 37 publications - and nearly two years after the affair first came to light (see
Nature 387, 442; 1997) - no case has been brought to court.

Brach, who worked - and lived - with Herrmann at Harvard, Freiburg and Berlin before parting
from him in 1996 to go to the University of Lubeck, has admitted fabricating data. Herrmann,
who moved to the University of Ulm in 1996, continues to maintain his innocence, placing full
blame on Brach.

Brach was dismissed as full professor in 1997. She is now reported to be working in New York,
and is only communicating with investigators through her solicitor. Herrmann resigned his
position in Ulm last month and is now working as a private practitioner in Munich.

Public prosecutors in three regions began investigating different aspects of the affair last year.
Those for the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Herrmann's formal employer at the Universityof
Ulm, had hoped to take disciplinary action against him on the grounds that evidence that he
perpetrated fraud made him "unsuitable" for employment as a professor and Beamter (civil
servant).

But they had to abandon their strategy three weeks ago when the ministry of science and research
in Baden-Wurttemberg accepted Herrmann's resignation.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Ulm have been investigating evidence that Herrmann used research
papers containing fraudulent data to support his application for his post as professor at the
university. But they have suspended their investigations pending clarification of a court ruling in
an unrelated case in Berlin.

This case concerns a policeman from east Berlin, who had concealed his former relationship with
the Stasi in order to secure employment in the police force in reunified Germany. The court ruled
that he should not be disciplined on the grounds that his work since reunification had been
satisfactory.

A verdict from Germany's highest court, the Bundesgerichtshof, to which this decision has been
appealed, is expected shortly. Because the charges against Herrmann relate to work conducted
before he arrived in Ulm, the prosecutors there are waiting for this ruling before deciding
whether to proceed.

But Albin Eser, director of the Max Planck Institute for International Criminal Law in Freiburg,
who has specialized in scientific fraud, argues that the link between the two cases is not obvious,
as the concerns about the policeman as a Stasi informer related to his character, while those about
Herrmann related to the way he conducted his job.

Scientists who want to see Herrmann and Brach sanctioned are now pinning their hopes on an
investigation by public prosecutors in Berlin, where many of the fraudulent research papers were
written, into whether the two researchers made false statements to acquire grant money.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Deutsche Krebshilfe Stiftung (German
Cancer Aid Foundation), which between them gave around DM3 million (US$1.8 million) in
research grants to the researchers, have provided documents to help the prosecutors decide
whether the success of their grant applications was dependent on fraudulent papers.

The Thyssen Foundation, which awarded a grant of DM200,000 to the pair, has also provided
documents to help the prosecutors decide whether the application was copied from a Dutch
research grant application that Herrmann had been asked to referee.

All three agencies are awaiting the outcome of the Berlin investigation and any possible trial
before beginning their own steps to reclaim their money. Such a process could take years. If a
trial were to prove that the pair were guilty of fraud, says Christoph Schneider, director for
scientific and international affairs at the DFG, it would be a straightforward matter to sue for
return of money.

Indeed, in the event of conviction, state-supported grant agencies and charities would be legally
obliged to sue for return of grant money. But actually getting the money back would be fraught
with difficulty, admits Bruno Zimmermann, the DFG section head who followed the case.

As grant agencies make contracts with institutions rather than individual researchers, the
universities where the grant money was spent would presumably have to be sued first, he says.
The legal responsibilities have yet to be sorted out, says Zimmermann.

Eser says he is "highly frustrated" with how slowly the case is moving, and is also worried that
even if Herrmann's involvement is demonstrated, he may "get away without sanctions" Detlev
Ganten, director of the Max Delbruck Centre in Berlin at which Herrmann and Brach worked for
several years, is similarly angry at this possibility.

But not everyone is seeking retribution. Guido Adler, dean of medicine at Ulm University, points
out that Herrmann is no longer working in academia, and believes that the most important issue
is the work of a newly created task force, funded by the DFG, which will assess the scientific
impact of theaffair and set the record straight (see Box).

Meanwhile Herrmann, who now works in a private medical practice Munich, continues to deny
any involvement in misconduct, and sees the failure to bring charges against him as proof of his
innocence. He says he is a victim of press harassment which "has harmed my career and
destroyed my family".

"Brach was the scientist in the lab: my main and only job in the past ten years has been to care
for patients', he says, contradicting the views of many former colleagues that he has always been
more of a lab researcher than a clinician. "Now I just want to be left in peace to build up some
sort of future."

He could well achieve his goal. The German Chambers of Physicians, which regulate the medical
profession, is informed automatically of court convictions - but does not require doctors on their
lists to submit details of criminal investigations.

And if Brach is indeed living in New York, she may well avoid a trial because Germany has only
an extradition agreement - under which cases are negotiated individually, and the outcome often
depends on the severity of the charges - rather than an extradition treaty, in which extradition is
automatic on request.

++++++++++

(Sidebar)

Abbott, Allison. "Task Force Set Up To Determine The Damage," Nature 395 (8 October 1998),
p. 533.

[MUNICH] Determined to assess the full extent of any scientific damage inflicted by the
Herrmann and Brach affair (see opposite), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG),
Germany's main university research funding agency, is funding a task force to pick through the
details of around 500 publications that could have been affected.

In April, Ulf Rapp, a professor of biology/immunology at the University of Wurzburg, was
awarded a one-year grant to conduct the investigation. This will go considerably further than the
investigation by a national scientific committee set up jointly last year by the three German
institutes where Herrmann and Brach worked.

The national committee had identified 37 papers in which it concluded that data had either
certainly or "most probably" been falsified, often by mixing computer-stored images from
different experiments to create new figures.

Rapp's team are examining data and figures in all papers published by Herrmann and Brach, and
also some published by former colleagues.

They will try to determine which data may have been fabricated or duplicated, and the origin of
figures and their primary data. Co-authors on the papers have been asked for relevant information
about how figures were created and who generated the data.

Rapp was selected because his field of research overlaps with that of Herrmann and Brach, and
also because he returned to Gemmany in 1994 after 25 years abroad.

"The DOG wanted someone independent to head the task force, and because of my absence I was
not part of a local network,. Rapp says. The investigation's results win be presented to the COG
next year and may be used in court proceedings.