University of Glasgow tight-lipped over ethics inquiry

The University of Glasgow has declined to publish the findings of its investigation into suspected research misconduct by a former professor of immunopharmacology.

August 30, 2012

News broke last October that all 70 papers authored by Alirio Melendez were being investigated by Glasgow, alongside the National University of Singapore, where he began his independent academic career, and the University of Liverpool, to which he moved in 2010.

The investigation followed last year's retraction of a 2011 Nature Immunology paper because of "irregularities" in the figures, and an editorial expression of concern by Science about a 2010 paper. Both featured Professor Melendez as senior author.

A third retraction of a Melendez-authored paper - a 2009 publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - was reported by the Retraction Watch website earlier this month. Professor Melendez was reported to have declined to sign the retraction notice.

A spokesman for Glasgow, which recruited Professor Melendez in 2007, told Times Higher Education that its investigation had ended but that it was the university's policy not to comment on individual cases. He would say only that there was "no evidence that our current staff contributed, falsified or duplicated data to any publications co-authored with (Professor) Melendez". He also confirmed that relevant journals would be contacted where retractions or corrections were deemed necessary.

The recently published Concordat to Strengthen Research Integrity says UK institutions should keep funders and professional bodies informed about misconduct investigations, but it is silent on whether conclusions should be more widely publicised.

Guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics say that communications relating to misconduct investigations, including press briefings, should be "clear, accurate and complete".

The body's former chair, Liz Wager, said: "Transparency is important for maintaining trust and also has practical implications, such as to make sure journals are aware of any affected work and future employers are aware of a researcher's record.

"Since whispering campaigns and allegations can be almost as harmful as actual findings of misconduct, I think it is helpful to name individuals found not guilty as well as those found guilty."

James Parry, chief executive of the UK Research Integrity Office, declined to comment on a specific case but said that his organisation recommended that if a case had generated media interest, the investigating organisation should make a statement on the outcome.

"Given clear trends towards greater transparency and accountability, we feel that institutions should judge whether they could go beyond basic standards and be more open in particular cases," he said.

"While they must fulfil the requirements of employment law and data protection, they should also take into account the increasing interest in issues of research practice and the need to retain the public's trust. Openness is becoming the expected norm."

Professor Melendez was suspended from his position as chair of immunopharmacology at Liverpool in April 2011 pending an institutional investigation.

A spokeswoman for the university confirmed that the investigation had been abandoned after he resigned in November 2011 because "none of the scientific work relating to the papers in question was carried out at Liverpool".

A spokesman for the National University of Singapore said its investigation was ongoing.

Professor Melendez's whereabouts are unknown. Last October he admitted to THE that "some of the data [in the papers under suspicion] appear to have been duplicated/plagiarised or accommodated to fit a few papers", but he insisted that he had not personally committed any misconduct.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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