Fraud or Serious Forgery?
(October 18th, 2016) The Danish High court cleared one of Denmark's most infamous researchers, Milena Penkowa, of certain misconduct charges. The court found her guilty of fraud but not of serious forgery.
Milena Penkowa was once the star of the Danish neuroscience scene. At a very young age, she already had several high-profile papers under her belt and was a media darling. Then, evidence emerged that a few things in her work didn't seem quite kosher. And shortly thereafter, Penkowa found herself at the centre of the biggest case of scientific misconduct in Denmark. We reported about her case several times. Now, the High Court in Denmark has made a (final) decision and dismissed charges, imposed by another court, regarding forgery during her PhD studies. For Milena Penkowa, this is a great success but it concerns only a small part of the scientific misconduct during her entire career.
Penkowa's dubious actions began as she was a PhD student. In her 2002 thesis, she described experiments on around 1,700 rats – conducted in only a few months. The thesis committee found that highly suspicious and did what rarely happens, they rejected the thesis. External experts, however, found no signs of scientific misconduct and gave Penkowa the chance to resubmit her thesis - without the controversial rat experiments. With success – she passed and was awarded her PhD degree in 2006. Later, Penkowa stated, "In 2003, I provided the necessary information, study facts and relevant documentation relating to these particular animals. There was not and there is still nothing reprehensible about this issue."
But that wasn't all. In 2008, another group wanted to repeat Penkowa’s rat experiments and failed. Again, a committee at the University of Copenhagen looked at the discrepancy and was unable to prove misconduct on Penkowa’s side. Surprisingly, all these investigations had no negative effects for Penkowa. Within only six years, she climbed the career ladder from PhD student to full professor in 2009.
In December 2010, Penkowa was accused again - this time by her own colleagues. Fifty-eight Danish scientists signed an open letter, calling for a transparent review of her case. The University of Copenhagen reacted and reported Penkowa to the police. Penkowa stepped back from her position as professor.
In 2012, the investigations revealed 15 cases of missing data and manipulated pictures in publications. This immense amount of potential cheating could no longer be handled by the university alone and so the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) took over.
After a spectacular rollercoaster ride, with several court cases and decisions for and against Penkowa, the Copenhagen City Court found that she had indeed faked the experiments on 1,700 rats in her PhD thesis. She was sentenced with a nine-month suspension, last year. As usual, Penkowa did not accept the decision and appealed to the High Court. Interestingly, the High Court now cleared her of the charges and found that “although she had committed fraud, it was not a case of ‘serious forgery’”. On Facebook, Penkowa wrote, “Dismissed!!! This is a victory also for all of you who are still struggling against injustice.” For her, this verdict is a victory of law and legislation over the media, which had been against her.
Her actions – whether you want to call them fraud or misconduct or forgery – did not only affect herself but also the collaborating researchers and co-authors of her papers. One of them is Bente Klarlund Pedersen, a renowned Danish health researcher, medical doctor and professor at the University of Copenhagen. She and Penkowa were co-authors of 12 articles, published between 2003 and 2005. The images faked by Penkowa were the starting point of a long court trial that nearly ruined Klarlund Pedersen’s career, as she told us in an interview last year. Klarlund Pedersen had also been accused of scientific misconduct but was cleared by the High Court of all charges. Klarlund Pedersen thinks it is important that the High Court still sees Penkowa to be guilty of fraud. She told us, “I think it is very clear that the High Court claimed that she had committed fraud. It is ridiculous that Penkowa claims that she won the case and that she is acquitted of all charges. She is not. The High Court states that she is guilty of fraud. Although three out of six judges found that the fraud was not gross, the important thing is that they all state that she committed fraud.”
It's important to point out, once more, that the High Court’s recent decision does not pass sentence on the scientific misconduct Penkowa had committed throughout her career, after the PhD thesis. Penkowa, still stripped of her PhD degree and professorship, is currently working as a “brain expert”, giving talks and writing books, with thousands of followers on Facebook.
Photo: Lars Juul Hauschildt