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Leaked report implicates Danish neuroscientist in misconduct case

Image courtesy Danish Science Ministry EliteForsk

A once high-flying Danish neuroscientist, Milena Penkowa (pictured), is suspected of “potentially intentional misconduct” involving 15 research papers, according to a leaked report from an international committee investigating her case.

A quick summary of this convoluted case: Penkowa, whose work involving brain-repair mechanisms and a protein called metallothionein was lauded by public and private funders in Denmark, was accused in 2010 of misrepresenting the number of animals she used in experiments and data from protein assays, as well as misspending grant money. In response, the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) launched an investigation in November 2010 into two papers initially suspected of research misconduct. In February 2011, her former employer, the University of Copenhagen, tasked an outside, international committee with investigating the rest of her work. She left the university in late 2010. For a full rundown, see Nature’s previous coverage of the case (‘Fraud investigation rocks Danish University‘ and ‘Danish neuroscientist convicted of embezzling university funds‘).

The international committee’s report will be officially released on 8 August, but the Danish newspaper BT posted a leaked copy of the report this week. The University of Copenhagen declined to comment on the document, as did committee chair Hans Lassman, a multiple-sclerosis researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria.

A leaked copy of the DCSD report obtained by another Danish newspaper, Weekendavisen, is said to have found Penkowa guilty of research misconduct involving a 2002 paper from the journal Experimental Neurology and a manuscript that was submitted to the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2010 but never published. A university spokesperson declined to comment on that report until it is made public later this summer.

The international committee’s report adds detail to the case, which garnered front-page headlines in Denmark, where Penkowa was once a darling of the media and government. The committee found evidence that in two papers, Penkowa misrepresented the number of rodents she used, and in more than a dozen papers, she misrepresented data in experiments designed to assess the levels of proteins expressed by different tissues. For a full list of the implicated papers, see pages 42–44 of the report. The committee did not find evidence of scientific dishonesty in dozens more papers co-authored by Penkowa.

Nature has contacted the law firm representing Penkowa, and we will post any response we receive. A chapter in the report responds to an 11 July letter Penkowa sent to the panel after reviewing their draft. She writes that “the Panel’s conclusions are not based upon evidence” and “[T]he contents of the report are based upon assumptions, guessing and uncertainty as to what [histological] section and tissues belong to which project, not to mention which publication.”

The report also cited a lack of oversight and training during Penkowa’s graduate studies and postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Copenhagen: “[T]he suspected scientific dishonesty of Dr. Penkowa may have been precluded several years earlier than is the case, if the University of Copenhagen had had formal rules on good scientific practice or on mentoring of young scientists.”

A university spokesman had no comment on those charges ahead of the public release of the report. He did, however, point to a website describing changes that the university has made regarding how it trains researchers, including clearer rules for reporting misconduct and research-ethics training.

So far, just two of Penkowa’s papers have been officially retracted: a 2004 article in the Journal of Physiology (notice here) and a 2004 paper in Experimental Physiology (notice here). At least one other paper, a 2003 report in FASEB Journal, is subject to a notice of concern. Stay tuned.


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