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Immunologist in massive misconduct investigation

A large investigation into research misconduct which has been going on since March became public this week, when the National University of Singapore (NUS) revealed it was looking into nearly 70 papers authored by immunologist Alirio Melendez. The investigation – reported on Sunday by the Straits Times and subsequently on the blog Retraction Watch – is being conducted with the help of the universities of Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK, Melendez’s present and former employers. Update (August 2012): Both Liverpool and Glasgow are no longer investigating, although the National University of Singapore’s investigation continues.  Meanwhile, separate accusations of image manipulation involving Melendez have also been posted on the internet.

NUS deputy president Barry Halliwell said that the university was alerted to allegations of research misconduct by an anonymous tip-off. Subsequently, a February 2011 paper in Nature Immunology was retracted in July for image irregularities, while on 3 October, Science issued an expression of concern about a 2010 paper by Melendez’s group. Both papers discussed work relating to experimental therapies for septic shock.

“The University is investigating all the papers published by Dr Melendez with an affiliation to NUS, as well as other related papers that were published before he joined NUS in 2001,” Halliwell said. Liverpool University said that Melendez had been suspended from his role since April 2011, without prejudice, pending the outcome of the investigation.

14 August 2012 UPDATE: It has emerged that Melendez had resigned his position at Liverpool University in November 2011, before the University’s internal processes were completed. By that stage, four of Melendez’s papers had been retracted: see Retraction Watch for details. Glasgow University also told Nature that it had concluded in October 2011 its investigation into the allegations of research misconduct made against Melendez, but that it was the university’s policy not to comment on individual cases. The investigation by the National University of Singapore continues.

As recently as 2007, Melendez won a ‘young researcher’ award at NUS. He says that it was in that year he moved to the UK – whilst maintaining his lab at Singapore until 2009. Melendez told Nature that he was currently unwell and on sick leave, and that he was conducting his own investigation into other papers which he agreed did contain “questionable data”, but which, he asserted, were not his fault. “It has been a living nightmare. With the current leaks and smears I have to say something to defend myself,” he said. “I know that such problems are more common than we realise and I’m not condoning them,” he said. “I’m glad they were picked up.”

Some of these other papers are detailed on the ‘Abnormal Science’ blog, in a post which variously suggests problems with image manipulation or duplication. Melendez agrees that there are issues with some (though not all) of these papers. Joerg Zwirner, who writes the blog, says he has flagged these problems up to journal editors. But in one response, Nature Medicine editor Juan Carlos Lopez said that he ran the relevant figures through image-manipulation detection software of the kind used by the US National Institutes of Health, and did not find evidence of fraud. In response, Zwirner – who inists he can see manipulation – complains that journal editors have no common criteria to agree on whether or not a digital image has been manipulated.

The National University of Singapore’s report into the Nature Immunology and Science papers should be finalized in about 4 weeks, Halliwell said – with the authors then allowed to respond. The investigation of Melendez’s other papers would take longer to work through, he added.

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    Hu RC said:

    It is rather strange, but perhaps not surprising to someone who knows how things are done in some parts of Asia, that NUS would allow the Halliwell to oversee the investigation and be the spokesman! He is, after all, a collaborator of Melendez and has coauthored papers with him (see Pubmed; see also the blog at http://gigomole.blogspot.com/?v=0). Unfortunately, some administrators in some Asian universities allow or expect themselves to be coauthors in the papers of subordinates or other faculty members. Clearly, there are those subordinates who take advantage of this practice to move up the ladder fast and to win awards. One wonders what kind of unbiased investigations meeting “international standards” can be expected from such institutions.

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