Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Strange Tale of the Paus Family and Borstel

Silvia Bulfone-Paus is an immunologist. She worked at the Forschungszentrum Borstel (FZB) outside of Hamburg in Germany, and is a professor at the Medical University in Lübeck. reports that she published many papers together with the Russian couple Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian from Russia. Retraction Watch reported in March 2011 that 12 papers by the three authors have been retracted. The three have published 22 papers together, so there may be more.

In October 2009 the biologist Karin Wiebauer realized that the Western blots in some of the papers were very similar - sometimes just the labels were changed, in others a dose of Photoshop was used to mirror, move or distort the bands. This is the same method that Marion Brach used in the Hermann/Brach scandal end of the 90s [strangely enough, there is nothing in either Wikipedia about either them or the scandals].

In November 2009 Wiebauer informed the first author, Bulfone-Paus, of her discovery. Nothing happened. Finally, in April 2010 an investigation committee was convened. They determined that there was just sloppy publication, but the results were okay. There was a culprit found - the Russian couple. They were accused of deceit and the 12 papers retracted, although the Russians did not agree to the retractions.

There ensued an anonymous Internet-based campaign. Colleagues then published an open letter supporting Bulfone-Paus,  saying the poor woman, who is a brilliant researcher and has published much, including work together with her husband, was deceived by her postdocs. The Borstel Board of Directors - sans Bulfone-Paus - published a good response to the open letter soon after forcing her off the board:
Severe failure in one area (as supervisor and responsible senior, corresponding and first author) can hardly be compensated by merits in other areas. [...] For all scientists, one of the greatest goods in science is personal credibility and integrity, and that the most precious currency scientists have is the truthfulness of their data. The scientific community expects rigorous adherence to the rules of scientific research from principal investigators and, in particular, from heads of research divisions or departments. [...] The scientific misconduct in Silvia Bulfone-Paus's lab and her procrastination to go public despite being ultimately responsible has highly damaged the reputation of the Research Center. This is what cannot be tolerated.
But now the plot thickens: An additional paper by Bulfone-Paus (not including the Russian couple) in Blood  is currently under investigation. A co-author on this one is her husband, Ralf Paus, a dermatologist at the University of Lübeck. And the university has verified for Spiegel, a German news weekly, that they are currently investigating 6 papers of Paus.

And now it appears that Bulfone-Paus and Paus both have professorships in Manchester, in England, where they spend 20% of their time, according to the Times Higher Education. The couple also have three children, as reported by Spiegel in January.

In other news about Borstel, another director, Peter Zabel, stepped down earlier this month amidst plagiarism charges. It seems he double published a paper (once in German and once in English), as well as in 2009 publishing a paper that included large portions of text and diagrams from a 2008 paper published in the US. The double publication is deemed not so severe, although it is not clear that the later publication makes clear that it is in fact a double publication - the abstract has been rewritten, but is still similar. Zabel has now also resigned from the editorial board of Der Internist.

The double publication was found by someone calling themselves Clare Francis, who informed Retraction Watch, Abnormal Science Blog, and me. It was found using the Déjà vu tool for searching for duplicate content in Medline.

Joerg Zwirner, in a recent post to the Abnormal Science Blog, calls for setting up an Office for Research Integrity in Germany, as is to be found in the US. I heartily agree - this is far too complicated to understand for non-medical researchers, but it seems that there are deficiencies in the medical research complex in Germany that have existed for decades. And Hermann/Brach did not result in these being adequately addressed. Germany needs action, and it needs it now.


  1. Note that the resignation of Zabel was apparently not due the duplicate publication (which is not objectionable if referenced; re-publishing in a different language makes the results available to a broader audience).

    Check again.

  2. The resignation notice at first did not specify the publications.[tt_news]=341&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=938e996c51f621728dc521a3af5268c3

    Later this notice was posted.[backPid]=7&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=343&cHash=c76e410b65b06ecf8fb73bf8ce708fc9

    where these publications were specified.

    Der Vorwurf eines Plagiats* hat sich im heute abgeschlossenen Vorprüfungsverfahren durch die Ombudsleute des FZB soweit bestätigt, dass das Kollegium (Vorstand) eine förmliche Untersuchung durch eine externe Kommission einleiten wird.

    * Der Internist 2009, Vol 50, Nr. 7, 779-787
    * Nat Rev Immunol. 2008, Vol 8 (10):776-87.

    Perhaps that will teach the FZB Borstel to specify the reasons in the first place.

    It remains to be seen if the duplicate publication was kosher or not. It does have to fit these criteria, not as simple as just bringing it to a broader audience.

    Secondary publication for various other reasons, in the same or another language, especially in other countries, is justifiable and can be beneficial provided that the following conditions are met.

    1. The authors have received approval from the editors of both journals (the editor concerned with secondary publication must have a photocopy, reprint, or manuscript of the primary version).

    2. The priority of the primary publication is respected by a publication interval of at least 1 week (unless specifically negotiated otherwise by both editors).

    3. The paper for secondary publication is intended for a different group of readers; an abbreviated version could be sufficient.

    4. The secondary version faithfully reflects the data and interpretations of the primary version.

    5. The footnote on the title page of the secondary version informs readers, peers, and documenting agencies that the paper has been published in whole or in part and states the primary reference. A suitable footnote might read: “This article is based on a study first reported in the [title of journal, with full reference].”

    apologies for the long post.

  3. No apologies needed, I'm happy that readers are interested in what I'm writing and contribute more to the story. You are quite correct that duplicate publication can be beneficial - but it must be made *abundantly* clear that this is just a duplicate publication.