Net widens on fishy research misconduct probe

Marine biologist Oona Lönnstedt has gone to ground in Sweden after being found to have fabricated data

April 29, 2019
Source: iStock

James Cook University will widen a probe into a star former PhD student who has been unmasked as a fraudster.

The North Queensland institution said it would soon unveil an external panel to review the research of Oona Lönnstedt, a young marine biologist who has gone to ground in her native Sweden after being found to have fabricated data.

A JCU spokesman said that he could not name the panellists because they had not yet been formally appointed. But, he said, they included a former federal court judge with experience on research misconduct panels as well as “eminent” academics with expertise in fieldwork, marine science and ethics.

He said the university was also conducting internal investigations into matters including Dr Lönnstedt’s funding sources and “implications arising” from them. The panel’s terms of reference will be broadened once this work is finalised, he said.

The panel’s establishment will be a milestone in a process that has already stretched to almost 18 months. In December 2017, JCU said it would determine whether an investigation of Dr Lönnstedt’s research was warranted. In March 2018, it said it was convening an external panel to investigate her work.

JCU’s spokesman said the university “takes this matter very seriously and had hoped that the external review would be under way by this stage”. He said floods in Townsville, a fire in student accommodation and sickness of key staff had delayed things.

The university planned to let the internal investigation process run its course “to ensure the terms of reference cover the full extent of the issues of concern”, he said.

Dr Lönnstedt completed her undergraduate, honours and doctoral degrees at JCU and notched up 20 publications while affiliated with the university. Fifteen were published before her PhD was conferred in July 2014, in journals including Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Nature Scientific Reports.

Her research at JCU has attracted 550 citations, according to the Scopus database.

She subsequently obtained a position at Uppsala University thanks to a “really good” CV. A supervisor later told Science magazine that the recommendation letter from her previous fixture was “the best I had ever seen”.

Her career collapsed after investigations into her 2016 paper in the journal Science, which suggested that tiny plastic fragments in the sea were undermining Baltic perch’s ability to avoid predators.

Fellow researchers claimed that she had not been at the research station at times when her experiments were supposedly conducted. Reviewers were unable to obtain the study’s original data, with Dr Lönnstedt claiming that the only copy had been lost when a laptop was stolen from a car. The paper was eventually retracted.

Dr Lönnstedt resigned from Uppsala in April 2018 and does not answer enquiries from journalists or journal editors.

Formal concerns have been published over data missing from three papers she co-authored while at JCU, in the journals Biology Letters and Ecology and Evolution. Data eventually lodged by her co-authors appear to have satisfied the journals, but not sceptics.

For instance, a collage of 50 photographs of lionfish attached to a correction published by Biology Letters – offered as evidence of the dozens of fish Dr Lönnstedt claimed to have caught – appears to contain manipulated and duplicated images of the same specimens. Sources said the collage probably includes fewer than 10 individual fish.

Times Higher Education asked the journal whether it was examining these claims, first raised in early January. “As this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot comment at this stage,” said a spokesman for the Royal Society, the title’s publisher.

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