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Leibniz prizewinner cleared

Researcher whose award was threatened by misconduct claim is found innocent

By | July 6, 2005

Stefanie Dimmeler, a 37-year-old biologist at the University of Frankfurt, has been cleared of scientific wrongdoing by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and can now belatedly receive one of Germany's most prestigious scientific research prizes.

After being named last December as one of 10 winners of the DFG's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize for her work in atherosclerosis, Dimmeler was accused anonymously of publishing false data. While investigating the allegations, the DFG decided that Dimmeler should not attend the Leibniz award ceremony in March, and not receive her cash award of €1.55 million (USD $2.05 million). She did however remain an official winner.

The DFG announced on Tuesday in a written statement that investigations by the University of Frankfurt and a DFG committee of scientists had found no evidence of scientific misconduct by Dimmeler.

"I'm very, very happy that this nightmare is now over," Dimmeler told The Scientist, adding that she and colleagues had celebrated the good news with champagne.

The issue had arisen when anonymous letters were sent to DFG President Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker and German scientific journal Laborjournal, referring to a November 2003 Nature Medicinearticle coauthored by Dimmeler that included a wrongly labeled panel image of mouse cells.

Dimmeler told The Scientist in March that an anonymous letter also had been sent to Nature Medicine, informing editors that the exact same panel had appeared, differently labeled, in an August 2003 article by Dimmeler in Blood.

Dimmeler at that time confirmed the mistake, saying that a coworker had inadvertently pulled the wrong image of mouse cells "from hundreds of images." In September 2004, Nature Medicine published an erratum with the correct panel. Dimmeler said she thought the matter had been settled.

The DFG's statement on Tuesday said that an "experienced post-doc" in Dimmeler's working group had been solely responsible for submitting the wrong panel to the journal. Eva-Maria Streier, spokeswoman for the DFG, said that the prize money would be made available immediately to Dimmeler.

The DFG had no choice but to investigate the allegations in order to protect the integrity of the Leibniz Prize, Streier said. "You do not want a shadow hanging over the Leibniz Prize."

The DFG occasionally receives anonymous letters accusing scientists of scientific misbehavior, but usually does not find them worth investigating, she said. But in Dimmeler's case, "there were irregularities and we had to find out in the end who was responsible."

Now that a thorough investigation has been conducted, the DFG is happy that Dimmeler has been cleared of wrongdoing, she said. "As of now, the case is closed."

Dimmeler said she was relieved. In recent months she had felt as if a "huge weight" were on top of her, and also felt bad because her colleagues were suffering as a consequence of the controversy.

However, she said did not have hard feelings toward the DFG for excluding her from the award ceremony and for putting her prize on hold. "I think they had to investigate," she said.

As for who made the accusations, Dimmeler said she had some ideas who was responsible, but would rather not discuss it. "I just want to forget it," Dimmeler said. "I want to be a scientist again."

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