Fraud accusations hit prize

Winner of prestigious German scientific award under scrutiny after anonymous allegation

By | March 4, 2005

A winner of one of Germany's most prestigious and financially generous scientific research prizes did not participate in the award ceremony this Wednesday (March 2) after being accused in an anonymous letter of publishing false data.

Stefanie Dimmeler, a 37-year-old biologist at the University of Frankfurt, was named in early December as one of 10 winners of the German Research Foundation's (DFG's) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize for her work in atherosclerosis. Each Leibniz Prize carries a cash award of €1.55 million (USD $2.05 million).

But a few days after Dimmeler was named as a prize winner, DFG President Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker received an anonymous letter referring to a November 2003 article in Nature Medicine coauthored by Dimmeler that included a wrongly labeled panel image of mouse cells. A copy of the letter to Winnacker also was sent to German scientific journal Laborjournal, which printed excerpts.

DFG spokeswoman Eva-Maria Streier told The Scientist that a committee had been formed at the University of Frankfurt to study the allegation against Dimmeler and then to file a report to the DFG. Streier said the foundation takes any allegation of falsifying research data seriously. In order to protect the integrity of the Leibniz Prize, it was decided that Dimmeler should not attend the award ceremony in Berlin.

On the DFG's Web site, Dimmeler remains on the list of prize winners, but she is absent in the photo of the other nine happy winners celebrating at the ceremony. Streier said: "She remains a Leibniz Prize winner." After the university committee's final investigatory report is issued, a decision will be made by summer whether to officially award the Leibniz Prize to Dimmeler or to withdraw it.

Streier said the DFG would not release the letter publicly. However, she said the false image was the only allegation against Dimmeler in the letter.

The note sent to Winnacker was not the first anonymous letter concerning the wrongly labeled image. In an interview this week with The Scientist, Dimmeler said that an anonymous letter had also been sent last April to Nature Medicine, informing editors that the exact same panel in the November 2003 article had appeared in an August 2003 article by Dimmeler in Blood. But in the Blood article, the image had a different description.

Dimmeler said she confirmed that the image in the Nature Medicine article was wrong, but was a simple mistake. She said a subordinate "coworker" had inadvertently pulled the wrong image of mouse cells "from hundreds of images" and included it with the article submitted to Nature Medicine.

Dimmeler then provided Nature Medicine with the correct image to match the description. In September 2004, the journal published an erratum, saying: "In the original version of this article, Fig. 2b was incorrect," and published the correct panel.

Dimmeler said that she had then felt the matter was settled. Then came the thrill of learning she had been awarded the Leibniz Prize, followed a few days later by the second anonymous letter questioning her honesty.

"For a scientist, it the worst thing that can happen to you," Dimmeler said. "Honesty is one of the important things in science. What is happening now is the worst point of my life. I live for science. I love science. It's not my job, it's my life."

Dimmeler said she believes the same person wrote both letters, but does not know for certain the identity of the person. "Of course, one has some ideas," she said.

Asked why someone would have written the anonymous letters, Dimmeler said: "It must be someone who is extremely jealous, extremely aggressive. Someone who has a lot of hate."

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