Thursday, July 26, 2012

Danish Neuroscientist found guilty of misconduct

It has been a long and complicated story. The newspaper for the University of Copenhagen published "Penkowa for Dummies" in the spring of 2011, which gives a good background to the skirmishes of the past year.

Milena Penkowa, since resigned from her position as professor at the University of Copenhagen, had been the shooting star in research in Denmark. Sure, there had been some dark mutterings about her dissertation, as Nature reported in January 2011 on the basis of a report in Weekendavisen by Poul Pilgaard Johnsen. The thesis was first rejected, then accepted on a second review.

Then some of her research had to be retracted, as it was not replicable. Retraction Watch lists 2 papers out of over 100 that were retracted and two letters of concern that have been published in journals. And some research money had been used to pay for lawyers and restaurant visits. The university promised to start a full-fledged investigation.

The investigation was conducted by a group of foreign experts, Weekendavisen reports in its issue from July 20 (they are, unfortunately, not online). Hans Lassmann from the Medical University in Vienna chaired the committee that examined the 102 publications by Penkowa. 23 of the papers were deemed to be unnecessary to examine more closely. In 26 of the remaining 79 papers the committee determined scientific irregularities. Out of these 26 papers, 16 were determined to be scientific misconduct.

The misconduct has involved, among other things, mismatches between the number of lab animals in the papers and in the animal registers, problems with quantitative data, and problems with pictures (for example just turning the pictures as evidence of new work). The data archives were chaotic and filled with errors.

Berlingske, another Danish paper, reported July 15 by Claes Lautrup on the results of the investigation. Not only Penkowa, but also the University of Copenhagen were found to be guilty of misconduct. Penkowa still claims innocence, but notes that her career is ruined already, there is nothing left for her to give up. The university has refused to comment. By law, the report must be made public and is scheduled for August 7.

The university has started a new program for PhD students that includes mandatory courses in research ethics, good scientific practice, record keeping, and documentation, according to Weekendavisen.

The university must now decide what to do with the 16 articles, whether to contact the journals for retraction. They have already taken Penkowa to court on a case of defrauding university funds, which she blamed on a student. She lost the case and has been fined. She currently is running a company for advising patients with neurological problems and writing a book about dog psychology, Weekendavisen writes. 

There is also a political aspect to the drama, involving the rector of the university and the former federal minister of science, but that is just an added layer of complication to an already tangled web.

(If there are any translation errors in my summary, please let me know! -dww)

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