At first glance, many of the western blots in the data of nutrition researcher Eric J. Smart, censured yesterday by the US government’s Office of Research Integrity over a 10 year career of misconduct, look innocuous.
But zooming in on two blots from one figure in a 2002 paper (pictured at right) from the Journal of Biological Chemstry, volume 277, pages 4925-31, reveals tell-tale noise patterns that may well betray the images’ common origin.
It is just one of 45 figures that the ORI says was fabricated by Smart in 10 papers, 7 grant applications, 1 submitted manuscript and 4 grant progress reports he prepared while on the faculty at the University of Kentucky(UKY) in Lexington. The office has recommended the papers be corrected or retracted.
Smart, who resigned from his position last May, is a nutritionist who studied cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and cholesterol. Some of his papers on membrane proteins have been cited hundreds of times. His violations included reporting data on knockout mice that did not exist in his laboratory as well as 33 instances of manipulating and duplicating western blots — a technique for identifying proteins.
Smart has agreed to exclude himself from raising grants from the National Institutes of Health for seven years as a result of the censure.
That is a relatively long exclusion compared to most ORI cases, which involve censures of three years or sometimes five. Indeed the longevity of Smart’s fakery seems comparable to that of Eric Poehlman, a researcher on aging at the University of Vermont in Burlington who was prosecuted for grant fraud in 2005 after faking data over eight years.
But as the US government made clear at the time, Poehlman’s fraud involved as many as 17 grant applications, and he also exacerbated his situation by destroying evidence and influencing witnesses. Smart resigned from UKY quietly in May, as a commenter on this Retraction Watch post about him points out.
Smart was not available for comment at time of publication.