News blog

Immunologist accused of misconduct in 21 papers

After a 19-month investigation, the National University of Singapore (NUS) today says that it has determined that one of its former scientists, the immunologist Alirio Melendez, has committed “serious scientific misconduct”.  The university found fabrication, falsification or plagiarism associated with 21 papers, and no evidence indicating that other co-authors were involved in the misconduct, it says.

But the university would not identify the papers (although five of Melendez’s papers have already been retracted), nor release the report of the committee that investigated them.  That tight-lipped approach mirrors two other investigations into Melendez’s work by the University of Liverpool and the University of Glasgow, UK, which respectively abandoned and concluded inquiries last year without publicly commenting on their findings.

“It’s standard procedure that for research-misconduct investigations such a report and the list of papers would be kept confidential,” an NUS spokesperson explained to Nature. She said that the university is now contacting journal editors and co-authors about each of the papers involved, and added that normally the university would not make a public statement at all, but in this case “the scientific misconduct uncovered was unprecedented”. When asked whether the report would remain permanently under wraps, she added: “I don’t think it will be released at a later date.”

The university did not reveal Melendez’s response to the charges; last year he told Nature that he was conducting his own investigations into other papers, which he agreed contained “questionable data”, but which he asserted were not his fault. Nature made efforts to contact him for this article without success.

The NUS launched its investigation in March 2011 after an anonymous letter alleged research misconduct in two papers. An inquiry committee looking into this subsequently extended its remit to cover around 70 papers, focusing on NUS-affiliated work, and the investigation was reported in Singapore’s Straits Times in October. Melendez — who left Singapore to come to the United Kingdom in 2007 — had subsequently worked at the Glasgow and Liverpool universities, which conducted their own investigations alongside NUS.

A cascade of retractions and alterations racked up while the NUS was investigating; it now totals five retracted papers, a correction and an expression of concern (the history can be followed on Retraction Watch). In autumn of 2012, it emerged that Melendez had resigned from Liverpool in November 2011, not long after the University of Glasgow concluded its investigation in October 2011. But Glasgow told Nature it would not comment on individual cases (as the Times Higher Education also reported).

Today, the NUS says that its committee “uncovered evidence of fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism associated with 21 papers, including the two in the original allegation. Based on similarities in the pattern of misconduct and in some cases sole authorship of questionable papers, it concluded that Dr Melendez has committed serious scientific misconduct. The Committee found no evidence indicating that other co-authors were involved in the scientific misconduct. NUS has started the process of informing the relevant authors and journals about the problems in these papers to ensure that the public scientific record will be corrected.”


  1. Report this comment

    R Kaplan said:

    To a large extent, Singapore’s star rose rapidly and the country made international headlines during the last decade because of infusion of large amounts of research funds into the biomedical sector, but research management skills and professional ethics have not kept pace. Coupled to this are the facts that the academic rewards are annual-bonus-driven and “merit” is measured by not what counts but what is countable (number of publications), which have led to practices that defy, at best, common sense and amount, at worst, to violations of ethical norms. The Melendez case illustrates how a “promising” young star gets to be a promising young star who can thrive in a “collaborative” environment in which Heads, Deans, and Deputy Presidents share publication glory – either because of their administrative titles and influence or because they are also “active” scientists with labs that are available to an anointed few. “Oh, you can use my instrument – just list me and my student as coauthors.” After all, the Heads, Deans, and Deputy Presidents also have to go through annual performance reviews and grant applications that expect “productivity”. The universities, in fact, showcase their administrators as supermen/superwomen who can be senior management leaders as well as research powerhouses (“see their publication numbers!”). The rising young stars are gladly rewarded! The Melendez affair shows that this house of cards is falling apart, but to admit that the coauthors (many of whom are or have been administrators) also bear responsibility – if not for data manipulation, but at least for being supporters and “blind” and willing participants in a charade – is to admit that the very foundation is rotten. This explains why a Deputy President who himself had joint publications with Melendez was even allowed to be a spokesman for the investigation until the conflict of interest was exposed by bloggers. It is unthinkable that no other coauthor had any inkling of the frauds that were committed in the Melendez case. Even if so, the senior coauthors should bear at least some responsibility for turning a blind eye to not just one or two publications but to over at least 20 in a span of about 10 years. Who were the members of the investigation committee, and what were their relationships to the senior coauthors? We have a right to know. Remember that it is a small community of researchers. What Singapore needs is an impartial, national Office of Scientific Integrity that includes truly independent external (international) researchers as consultants. The funding agencies and the citizens should demand establishment of such a body as a protection against the abuse of tax dollars. Don’t expect anything from the university. If it had been mature enough to demand highest standards of research integrity, the present situation most likely would not have arisen. If such situation did arise, the investigation would have been fair and transparent within reason.

  2. Report this comment

    Jose Berengueres said:

    Lack of transparency seems so contrary to scientific principles… we need more wiki transparency articles… like…

Comments are closed.