An internationally renowned UK academic is to be called before a disciplinary panel to answer allegations of "scientific malpractice" over research findings published in one of the world's leading science journals.
Keith Kendrick, head of the Laboratory of Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, will face a disciplinary hearing this month after a two-month internal investigation that was prompted by inquiries made by The Times Higher .
The allegations involve a 2001 paper in Nature that reported that sheep can recognise the faces of other sheep for up to two years. The paper, titled "Sheep Don't Forget a Face", drew international attention at the time.
A whistleblower raised questions, via The Times Higher , about the validity of some of the data reported in the journal, including whether the death records of sheep tallied with the reported findings.
In a statement this week, the Babraham says: "The Babraham Institute confirms that allegations of scientific malpractice have been received against one of its senior scientists.
"Immediately (after) the allegations were received, the institute put into operation the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (which funds the Babraham) published policy and procedure for investigating allegations of scientific malpractice.
"This procedure has several stages in order to ensure a fair and thorough examination of the allegations. We have currently concluded the two investigation stages and have decided that a disciplinary panel should be convened. This panel should meet later this month."
Professor Kendrick said he could not comment in any detail because the procedure was incomplete and had not reached a formal conclusion, but he disputed the allegations.
There is no action against any of the paper's co-authors.
The Times Higher made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the data underpinning the research and the sheep death records. It informed the institute of the nature of the allegations on August 17.
The Times Higher agreed to put the FoI request on hold to allow the institute to mount a formal investigation. A preliminary investigation committee (PIC) was set up, chaired by Barry Keverne, professor of behavioural neuroscience at Cambridge University, who has co-authored research papers with Professor Kendrick.
After reviewing records and interviewing witnesses, the PIC concluded that there was a need for a formal investigation.
A new investigation panel was set up, chaired by Len Stephens, who is on an equal managerial footing with Professor Kendrick at the Babraham, as head of its Inositide Laboratory. This panel interviewed a wider pool of witnesses, informing them that they were investigating claims about "some of the data" in the Nature paper.
Dr Stephens's panel concluded this week and decided to move to a full disciplinary hearing.
The institute's statement says: "The (disciplinary) panel will study the reports from the two stages of the investigation into the allegations and all the supporting evidence, including witness statements.
"The panel will invite the respondent to be interviewed and may re-interview witnesses if required. The panel will then determine whether the allegations have been substantiated and, if so, determine an appropriate sanction."
Professor Kendrick is one of the UK's leading behavioural neuroscientists. He has published in most of the top science journals.
His work on sheep and face recognition, which Nature published in November 2001, made headlines in all the major British newspapers. The insights it offers into the workings of the human brain could advance the understanding of conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
Professor Kendrick told The Times Higher : "The inquiry by the Babraham Institute investigating your allegation, and other issues surrounding it, has yet to be concluded.
"I must therefore decline making any detailed response to you at this time since it could prejudice ongoing proceedings. I can only state that I dispute the assumptions made in your allegation and therefore do not accept its conclusion. You will, of course, appreciate the seriousness of publishing allegations that are later proved to be unfounded."
A spokeswoman for Nature said the journal had just been made aware of the issue. It was now co-operating with the institute in investigating the matter, she said.