Research misconduct claim upheld against former head of UCL lab


A lab run by one of Britain’s foremost academics published fraudulent scientific papers for more than a decade, according to investigators.

Work at Prof David Latchman’s laboratory at UCL Institute of Child Health came under scrutiny from senior academics after an anonymous whistleblower alleged that dozens of papers from the lab were doctored.

Latchman, a prominent geneticist with hundreds of papers to his name, oversaw research by about two dozen scientists at the laboratory from the early 1990s until 2003 when he became master of Birkbeck, University of London.

UCL initially refused to release the reports from two separate misconduct investigations in 2014 and 2015 but finally made them public on Monday. The Guardian had requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in January and, after a lengthy delay, referred the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The reports show that experts convened by UCL found evidence of research fraud in each of the investigations and called for the doctored papers to be retracted. One panel said fabricated data it had spotted “might be just the tip of the iceberg” and said work in many other papers was “very sloppy”. The studies covered a range of topics from human genetics to heart attacks.

While the reports did not claim that Latchman fabricated data himself or had any knowledge of the behaviour, an allegation of research misconduct against him was upheld. “Whilst he did not intentionally commit the misconduct in research identified in this investigation, his recklessness in the conduct of his laboratory and his involvement as author on many publications facilitated that misconduct,” one panel found.

READ  The Trump administration is waging a quiet war on education | Ross Barkan

The first expert panel checked 28 papers from Latchman’s lab dating back to 1997 and found evidence for research misconduct in eight of them. The second panel examined 32 studies from 1990 to 2013 and found evidence of fraud in seven.

One paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology contained clear evidence of “cloning”, where copy and paste was used to repeat features throughout an image. In some papers, fabrications were “fundamental” to the conclusions reached by the authors.

“In the panel’s view the evidence clearly indicates that the researchers in the laboratory had developed a culture outside the accepted standards of research integrity,” one panel found.

Latchman’s department has so far retracted at least six papers and corrected two more. One retracted study contained an old image that was dressed up as new data. In a second retraction, six images had been flipped or copied and relabelled to make them look new.

A co-author of the second paper, Anastasis Stephanou, who is now at the European University in Cyprus, admitted responsibility for the latter manipulations and said Latchman and the paper’s other authors were “completely unaware” of the changes.

Further questions have been raised over dozens of studies from Latchman’s group on the PubPeer website, a forum used by academics to discuss scientific research.

UCL said: “These reports concluded that manipulation of research data had occurred in many research papers during the period of Prof David Latchman’s time as head of the unit.”

As a result, it said, UCL started formal disciplinary action against a former member of Latchman’s research group, who it did not identify, but the individual resigned before it was completed. Because Latchman had not intended to commit misconduct in research, there were insufficient grounds for dismissal, the statement added. Latchman no longer supervises research.

READ  Headteacher Judy Shaw: ‘My staff are fantastic but they can’t fight poverty’

A disciplinary hearing in September 2018 chaired by a UCL chemist, Prof Richard Catlow, decided that no formal action would be taken against Latchman. Instead it noted that fraud could be hard to detect and recommended UCL “consider the difficulties in leading a research unit” when the head could spend only a small proportion of their time overseeing research. It also urged senior group leaders to consider when they should stop being named authors on papers.

A spokesman for Latchman said: “The outcome of this UCL disciplinary hearing has drawn a protracted four-year long ordeal involving publications at UCL to a close. The nature of the manipulation identified in the UCL investigation was such that any fraud would only be apparent to a reviewer who was actively looking for such deception. To subject all research to this disproportionate scrutiny is not reasonable. To then make the assertion that to overlook such deception is ‘inattentive’ or ‘reckless’ is unjust.

“Thankfully, UCL have recognised that scientific fraud can be difficult to detect, even in well-run teams, and as such made the decision that no disciplinary action would be taken against Prof Latchman. UCL also recognised that there is a clear need in the training of early-career scientists to instil the highest standards of research ethics, while making clear the consequences of fraudulent behaviour, a sentiment that Prof Latchman has always supported.”

Latchman received a CBE in the 2010 birthday honours for services to higher education. As a member of the National DNA Database Ethics Group, he advises Home Office ministers on the ethical use of DNA samples.

READ  Student loans sale by government failed to get good deal for taxpayers, MPs say



READ SOURCE

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here