Nothing Fishy After All

(September 26th, 2016) A Science paper was recently called into question but an independent investigation found that there's no reason to suspect fraud.

A few weeks ago, Lab Times asked if something fishy was going on with a paper recently published in Science looking at the impact of microbeads in aquatic life. The paper, authored by Swedish researchers Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, found that young perch prefer small polystyrene balls for lunch instead of their natural plankton. The results seemed perfect to support the ban on the use of these plastic balls but, soon after its publication, allegations of misconduct started to appear.

These were led by Norwegian biologist Frederik Jutfelt, who wrote a letter to Uppsala University listing his concerns. The accusations ranged from poor statistical analysis to substantial differences between the way the experiments were reported and actually conducted.

In response, the institution quickly gathered an independent panel to conduct a preliminary  investigation, which included Birgitta Bergman, from Stockholm University; Per Jensen, from Linköping University; and Magnus Hallberg, Legal Officer from Uppsala University. This team examined a tremendous amount of information, including photos, emails and raw data.

"The expert group who conducted the preliminary investigation has now published its report", says a spokesperson for Uppsala University. "Their conclusion is that there is no evidence of research misconduct and that there are insufficient reasons for a full investigation". According to the same spokesperson, the university also passed the matter on to the Central Ethical Review Board, and Uppsala University will make a final decision on this issue when both reports are available to make an overall assessment.
The report goes through the list of accusations in detail and, for every point raised by Jutfelt and colleagues, the experts believe the authors have provided sufficient answers. This includes, for example, explaining missing supplementary data with a lapse from Science to enter these data prior to publication; and expanding on materials and methods, which were kept to a minimum due to space limitations in the paper.

From the list, the most serious accusation - and certainly one that could raise the misconduct flag - was that the authors had not conducted the experiments in the way that it was described in the article. The authors were cleared on this point as well, but were reprimanded for their inadequate documentation with some research documents not backed up adequately.

For the panel, it almost feels like Jutfelt and colleagues had a strong desire to put the Science paper under unnecessary scrutiny. "The large majority of their objections come within the ambit of normal scholarly discussion, which could have been conducted directly with the authors of the article", they write in the report.   "We recommend Uppsala University not to carry out any further investigation and instead [...] to take diligent steps to restore the reputation of the accused".

Understandably, Eklöv is very pleased with the outcome. "We are, of course, happy about the result from the investigating group", says the researcher. "Although we do not want to anticipate the results from the Central Ethical Review Board, we have always been confident about our own innocence. We also want to say that it has been very stressful to be attacked by a group with the only purpose of discrediting our research".

Alex Reis

Photo: Griffin

Last Changes: 10.21.2016