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Scientist gets 10-year ban from federal research in Wayne State University misconduct case

A former Wayne State University and Karmanos Cancer Institute scientist falsified data in nine federally funded cancer research projects, 14 published papers and his own Ph.D. thesis, a federal oversight agency has determined.

The federal Office of Research Integrity found that Zhiwei Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the WSU Department of Pathology and Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, falsified or fabricated dozens of images used to show results of his research on breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer.

The agency's findings were recorded in the Federal Register, the government's official daily record, on Aug. 12.

According to the federal agency, Wang agreed to a 10-year banishment from any federally funded research. Wang appears to be working at Soochow University in China and could not be reached for comment.

The federal probe of Wang's research was triggered by an internal Wayne State University investigation that resulted in revoking Wang's Ph.D. and the retraction of 13 articles from scientific journals, including Cancer and the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. He agreed to request the correction or retraction of a 14th publication as part of his agreement with the Office of Research Integrity. 

Wayne State wouldn't say when his Ph.D. was revoked, or when and how he left the Detroit university.

The Wang investigation came in the aftermath of a separate Wayne State probe, concluded in 2015, into 263 individual allegations of research misconduct made against former Department of Pathology Professor Fazlul H. Sarkar, who ran the lab where Wang worked. 

Wang was among several researchers working in Sarkar's laboratory who were named as additional respondents in Wayne State's Sarkar investigation, all of whom co-wrote papers with the professor.

University investigators substantiated 204 of the allegations made against Sarkar, all of which involved images that were manipulated, re-ordered, re-used or otherwise falsified. 

In its final report, the WSU Investigation Committee recommended that 42 papers be retracted and that the scientific record be corrected in another 10. Wang was listed as a co-author on 24 of the publications recommended for retraction, including 12 that listed Wang as the first author. He was listed as an author on seven of the 10 corrected papers. 

The committee concluded that Sarkar's laboratory focused on high productivity in publishing and grant applications while disregarding checks on record keeping and data integrity. 

Attempts to contact Sarkar through his attorney were unsuccessful. 

"Dr. Sarkar demonstrated his reckless research practices by so pervasive a pattern of falsification and fabrication and plagiarism among so many people over an extended period of time that the Investigation Committee determined that it is highly unlikely that Dr. Sarkar could not have known about the repeated copying, re-use, manipulation and relabeling of images and figures," the report concluded. 

Wayne State University would not comment on Wang or Sarkar beyond issuing a statement. Karmanos Cancer Institute referred questions about Wang and Sarkar to the Wayne State University Medical School. 

"Wayne State University takes all such allegations seriously," the university said in its statement to The Detroit News. "The university thoroughly investigated these issues several years ago and initiated the appropriate actions then. The researcher (Wang) is no longer affiliated with the university and has not been for some time."

Asked about Sarkar, the university referred The News to its statement about Wang.

'Not a minor case'

Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that focuses on retracted scientific papers and related topics, said research misconduct is common at large universities across the country — but most research misconduct is never investigated.

He gave credit to Wayne State University for investigating the allegations against Wang and Sarkar and noted the Office of Research Integrity only investigates cases that are first substantiated by the involved research institution. 

"Most of the time, these cases don't go anywhere," he said. "The most likely outcome for someone who commits scientific misconduct is a long and successful career." 

The federal Office of Research Integrity makes about a dozen finding a year, Oransky said, noting the agency only acknowledges investigations that result in a positive finding of misconduct.

"Based on our experience (at Retraction Watch), we see all kinds of cases that are almost certainly misconduct that no one ever prosecutes. Either they go away quietly or people just stay in their roles," he said.

Oransky described the misconduct at Wayne State as "higher-end" compared with other cases he's seen across the country.

"This certainly isn't the most egregious case I've ever seen," he said. "But I can very comfortably say it's not a minor case."

'Maybe ... a little harsh'

According to Oransky, scientists can leave anonymous tips about research misconduct at the nonprofit website, which played a role in the pursuit of Sarkar's misconduct. Oransky is a member of the group's Board of Directors. 

Scientists have faced increased scrutiny in recent years as studies are widely circulated and vetted on the internet, he said.

Sarkar sued PubPeer after posts appeared on the website alleging research misconduct at his laboratory. He'd accepted a position at another institution, which withdrew its job offer after seeing the posts. 

An attorney for Sarkar subpoenaed PubPeer for the identity of the person who posted the allegations. PubPeer successfully fought the subpoena with legal representation by the American Civil Liberties Union, bringing the case to an end. 

Oransky noted that the Office of Research integrity did not come to a finding in Sarkar's case. It's impossible to know whether the ORI investigated the case because it doesn't make investigations public unless misconduct is found.

"We have to wonder why there hasn't been a finding in the actual Sarkar case, because we know there was a finding by Wayne State; we have the final report; the ACLU obtained that report in the course of defending PubPeer," he said. 

"We know that ORI can only afford to go after a few cases a year, so we just don't know what happened.

"...It was curious to us to see a finding related to Sarkar, without actually seeing a finding about Sarkar."

Nick Roumel, the attorney that represented Sarkar in his lawsuit against PubPeer, said the loss of a career in science was devastating for his client, whom he believes is no longer living in the United States. 

"At the time the anonymous accusations were made against Dr. Sarkar on PubPeer, he was an extremely well-respected researcher, I believe with something like 350 published papers in his field," Roumel said. "He had an outstanding job offer from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and things were looking very positive for him. 

"He honestly believed that the anonymous comments were false and defamatory."

Roumel said his client won a "small victory" in the trial court, allowing him to subpoena PubPeer for the name of one particular commenter. 

"That made literally worldwide news in scientific journals and the Economist and sent some shockwaves through the scientific community because a lot of these folks that make anonymous comments, they don't believe that peer-reviewed research is effective because they think it's not rigorous enough."

The trial court's ruling was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which quashed the subpoena, Roumel said. 

"After we lost the appeal, or during that process, then the research misconduct finding against Dr. Sarkar came out, which admittedly made his case a little weaker because it made it look that there was some truth to the allegations about his research," he said.

Roumel said Sarkar's argument in the case still stands, that people can make anonymous comments online that can destroy a person's career. Sarkar lost his job at Wayne State, his job offer in Mississippi, and, as Roumel believes, he was forced to leave the country because he could no longer work in the United States. 

"Some would say that's what he gets, for being allegedly sloppy in his research," he said. "Others would say maybe the outcome was a little harsh." 

Banished from science

Universities rarely are required to return federal money spent on fraudulent research, and researchers seldom are criminally prosecuted, Oransky said. But institutions, including Harvard, Columbia and others, have been successfully sued for fraudulent research under the False Claims Act, he added.

"Duke just went through that, a little more than a year ago," said Oransky, noting that case was settled for $112.5 million. "Duke definitely paid a price for that — what do you take that out of, other than your endowment."

Though criminal prosecution is rare, Oransky noted researchers who engage in substantiated misconduct are punished by banishment from science. 

"That's why a number of researchers sue, even when there are just allegations," he said. "To a lot of researchers, their whole identity is their science ... their whole self-worth is wrapped up in it, so to them, losing a job or not being able to do research anymore is a pretty severe punishment."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN