(March 7th, 2017) What's the best thing to do when you notice misconduct in your lab? Take immediate action. Sophie Martin at the University of Lausanne was in this very situation recently.
“There was no behaviour that arose my suspicion earlier on. His work was a collaboration with another lab, so there was quite a bit of discussion and results exchanged throughout the project, and none of us suspected fabrication. My suspicion only started when I and my technician tried to repeat experiments he had done and could not obtain the same results,” Sophie Martin, cell biologist at the University of Lausanne and EMBO Gold Medalist, shared with Lab Times.
Her suspicions sadly turned into bitter reality when she took her former postdoc, Pranav Ullal, to task. Yes, he had fabricated data, which ended up in Figures 3 D and Figures 6 E, F of the group's Journal of Cell Biology paper. And yes, he had also deliberately mislabelled the image in Figure 3 C. Why he did it, he could not say. “I have been extremely shocked and distressed by this discovery. (…) The fabricated data is mostly presented in the form of bar graphs. The fraudulent image of the mid1Δ cdc15-19A cells shown in Figure 3C could not have been detected for manipulation by JCB, as it was taken intact from another experiment,” Martin told Retraction Watch.
The paper, published in 2015, describes the molecular regulation of cell division in the fission yeast, Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Martin et al. found that a kinase named Pom1 phosphorylates the Cell division control protein 15, Cdc15, to prevent division at cell poles. “Although the data presented in the JCB paper involved several other authors, whose work is not put in doubt, the only possible course of action was to retract the paper,” Martin said. The JCB editors agreed and officially retracted the paper on February 16th, 2017.
Ullal, who had previously studied at the University of Glasgow and Imperial College, London, left the Martin lab in October last year to work as a Chief Scientific Officer at “a top-notch biotechnology, (which) determines, by analyzing the DNA from your saliva sample, the concealed 14 different behavioral characteristics” (sic). Following the scientific misconduct accusations, the company's CEO recently fired him from his post. According to the firm's website, “Dr Ullal has decided to pursue his child dream of soon launching his own food business.”
But what advice does Martin have for other researchers, who notice unethical behaviour in their labs? “I would simply give the advice to address the problem as soon as possible, by using the appropriate channels within your institution and contacting the journal editors if you are dealing with published work,” she said.
Photo: University of Lausanne