A University College London investigation has found that the research practice of a senior molecular biologist “did not always meet the standard of good practice expected of UCL researchers”.
Suspicions of image manipulation were raised last November concerning eight papers published between 2006 and 2012 by the laboratory of Giulio Cossu, who joined UCL in May 2011 as professor of human stem cell biology.
The allegations were made by an anonymous whistleblower known as “Clare Francis”. UCL’s formal procedure for investigating misconduct allegations requires a named accuser, but, in a statement, the university says that its “commitment to good practice in research” obliged it to examine the allegations.
The investigating panel, which included an external expert, concluded that no research misconduct had occurred. It cleared Professor Cossu of any “deliberate intention to mislead” and found no substance to the “large majority” of the allegations.
But it found that in a “few” cases “the conduct and presentation of the research in question did not always meet the standard of good practice expected of UCL researchers”.
“Where specific errors were detected, the panel recommended that, where possible, corrections should be made to the published papers,” the statement adds. But the investigation “found no indication that the errors altered the fundamental conclusions of these studies, many of which have been confirmed by independent research groups”.
It says that Professor Cossu “has acknowledged the spirit and details of the report” and “sincerely regrets” the errors.
“He will…implement processes to ensure to the best of his ability that such errors do not occur in the future,” the statement adds.
Professor Cossu, who declined an invitation to comment further, is no stranger to controversy. A paper he published in 2006 on a trial in dogs of a new treatment for muscular dystrophy was heavily criticised in some quarters, leading to a critical commentary in Nature the following year and a correction in February this year.
In January, a paper his group co-published with another group in 2006 was retracted after doubts were raised by “Ms Francis” and the original data could not be found.
Allegations by “Ms Francis” also prompted a Cardiff University investigation that, last month, found a former postdoctoral researcher guilty of falsifying images in four papers, although it cleared the academic of the more serious charge of fabrication.