(February 15th, 2016) Last December, EMBO announced the winners of its 2015 Installation Grants. Only one month later, an influential paper from one of the grantees got retracted and EMBO launched an investigation.
EMBO, the European Molecular Biology Organization, promotes “excellence in the life sciences” by, among others, yearly awarding Installation Grants. These consist of 50,000 euros annually for three to five years, to be given to talented young researchers, working or planning to work in participating EMBC Member States. This year’s grants will help these promising scientists to establish independent laboratories in the Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal and Turkey. The EMBO thereby helps reverse the loss of talented researchers from these countries. Among this year’s winners are: Sebastian Glatt, who set-up lab at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, working on translational control in neurodegenerative diseases; and mitochondria biologist Vanessa Morais, relocating from the KU Leuven to the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon.
Also Sónia Melo, currently based at the University of Porto, convinced the EMBO jury with her scientific work. This work, however, has recently come under scrutiny and one of her papers, an influential 2009 Nature Genetics article cited more than 200 times to-date, has been retracted for image duplications last month. The retraction follows a correction for the paper in 2010. Although not confirmed, rumour has it that whistle-blower platform PubPeer has been responsible for the retraction of Melo’s first-author publication from her PhD period.
Responding to the accusations, Melo told Retraction Watch that she had no intention to commit fraud and that she regrets the lack of diligence. She states that the raw data registered in the lab notebooks shows to be correct, and that she aims to re-publish the original work as she still stands by the data reported in the article.
How could the duplicated images end up in the paper then? Melo let Retraction Watch in on what happened, “The first version of the submitted manuscript shows that the figures were accurate without the duplication that appeared in the final version. The published correction (2010) to the manuscript happened because one of these mistakes was identified soon after the original publication. At that time point this was taken as an isolated error, which happened during final figure assembly of the images. Unfortunately, I failed to see the other duplicated images in the manuscript.”
Meanwhile, PubPeer panellists found more of Melo’s papers to contain some image duplications and discussion has started, as to whether these are also careless mistakes or whether they are serious image manipulations. In a further statement on Retraction Watch, Melo comments, “All concerns were addressed, raw data registered on notebooks was analysed and reports developed for each case. The data was shown to be correct so no further action was taken.”
It is not the first time that EMBO has been compelled to launch an investigation into one of its grant winners. Just recently, it has revoked Olivier Voinnet’s 2009 Gold Medal. But EMBO is taking the investigation into Melo’s publications very seriously. “EMBO will make a decision once a comprehensive and careful investigation has been carried out,” EMBO director, Maria Leptin, told Lab Times.