You can't blow that whistle incognito

Cardiff calls time on anonymous allegations of past misconduct in dean’s lab. Paul Jump reports

April 18, 2013

Source: Cardiff University

Cleared: a formal inquiry into alleged misconduct has absolved Cardiff’s dean of medicine, Paul Morgan, of any wrongdoing

Cardiff University will not investigate any further anonymous allegations of past research misconduct in the laboratory of its dean of medicine after a trawl through dozens of claims turned up just a handful of falsified images.

Cardiff announced last week that a formal inquiry headed by a retired judge had cleared the dean, Paul Morgan, of any wrongdoing. However, a former member of his lab, Rossen Donev, was found guilty of falsifying images in four papers authored between 2006 and 2012.

Dr Donev, who is now a lecturer at Swansea University, was cleared of the more serious charge of fabrication because no reason was found to doubt the validity of the papers’ conclusions.

The allegations were raised by an anonymous whistleblower using the pseudonym “Clare Francis”. Although Cardiff began investigating only six papers, a spokesman said it subsequently received allegations from a single source - assumed to be Ms Francis - about a further 37 papers relating to Professor Morgan’s group. These were examined in a second phase of the investigation and none was upheld.

The university said its approach had been based on advice from the UK Research Integrity Office.

James Parry, UKRIO’s chief executive, declined to comment on a specific case but said the body’s guidelines advised institutions not to dismiss anonymous allegations “out of hand” since complainants often had valid reasons for concealing their identities. Instead, institutions should weigh up the “seriousness” of the concerns, the possibility of confirming them and “the credibility of the manner in which they have been raised”.

He said the availability of papers online had prompted more people to become interested in scrutinising them for malpractice. This required institutions to “re-evaluate” their traditional procedures for handling allegations, including being prepared to field large numbers at once.

But Cardiff said that in light of the “detailed consideration” it had given to the 43 complaints received thus far, it had accepted the investigating panel’s recommendation that any further allegations involving papers from Professor Morgan’s group predating the investigation “should not be accepted from an anonymous source”.

Gilberto Corbellini, professor of bioethics at the Sapienza University of Rome, noted that most of the rising number of anonymous allegations - which particularly related to image manipulation - turned out to be false: “But scientists and editors have to spend time anxiously searching for old image files: time they could devote to research.”

He said that taking anonymous allegations seriously risked feeding a climate of “punitive moralism” in which images were “almost compulsively” screened for anomalies “as a substitute for the traditional practice of repeating the experiments”. Scientists who subsequently withdrew papers were “put to shame” online even when the retraction was because of a “trivial” reason that did not undermine their work.

He said a letter he had written on the subject, published last month in the journal Nature, had elicited a response from one journal editor thanking him for providing “a voice of reason in the mad rush of the vigilante”. The editor claimed to have been “bombarded by nonsense” from an anonymous source, with “nearly all of it” proving to be “rubbish”.

Meanwhile, Swansea said it would investigate the “issues raised” by Cardiff’s report. Cardiff said it had “no plans” to make the report public.

Dr Donev did not respond to requests for comment.

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