ORI finds Steven Leadon guilty of falsifying additional data; Leadon maintains his innocence
By Clementine Wallace | June 12, 2006
The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) last week released the findings of its investigation of Steven Leadon, a former molecular biologist at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, and found him guilty of falsifying research results, including in additional papers not reported in an earlier investigation by UNC. Leadon maintains he did not engage in scientific misconduct, but he has agreed to retract three additional figures, and to withhold from applying for federal funding for five years -- a relatively long penalty.
"The regular exclusion period is three years, but because Dr. Leadon's conduct extended over quite a few papers, quite a few years, we decided to take this exceptional action," John Dahlberg, director of the ORI's division of investigative oversight, told The Scientist.
Since one of Leadon's PhD students raised suspicions about his findings in 2001, the number of publications alleged to contain or rely on altered or falsified data has grown to four grant applications, eight studies, and an unnamed manuscript. According to the ORI, the researcher "falsified DNA samples and invented figures" to support his laboratory's findings concerning cellular processes of DNA repair.
In 2003, Leadon resigned as director of UNC's molecular radiobiology program, after an internal investigation accused him of falsifying data for an antibody assay he developed to test how breast cancer gene BRCA1 encodes a protein to repair DNA damage, Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research at UNC, told The Scientist. Journals then started retracting studies co-authored by Leadon, including Science, which retracted two highly cited papers.
Following the UNC's allegations, the investigation was taken over by the ORI, who last week concluded that figures should also be retracted from PNAS, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Mutation Research. After receiving the ORI's notification, PNAS has already entered the retraction process, the journal's publisher, Kenneth Fulton, told The Scientist. Representatives at the other two journals did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
"At first some suggested that all 17 papers dealing with the technique and to which Leadon had contributed be retracted, but we felt it was inappropriate -- in many cases his contribution wasn't significant enough, and we had to be fair to his co-authors," ORI's Dahlberg said. "Those are the difficult consequences of large scale misconduct; it damages a lot of people."
Priscilla Cooper, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who co-authored several papers with Leadon, including one of the retracted Science studies, said her team spent more than two years scrutinizing the body of data. "Even though the basic hypothesis is right, this has obviously kept the field from progressing," she told The Scientist. "It's been devastating to a lot of people, it's been damaging to their careers."
Leadon maintained his findings resulted from a systematic error introduced in his experiments. "I did not engage in scientific misconduct -- an error was discovered in the experimental protocol," he said in a statement provided to The Scientist. "Errors are not unusual when you are doing very complex scientific research at the molecular level."
He added that he chose not to appeal the agency's ruling, despite his claims of innocence. "Like most hard working people with families, I cannot afford the huge legal costs to fight with a government agency," he said.
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Office of Research Integrity
ORI ruling on Steven Leadon
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A Wayne State University probe into allegations of research misconduct leveled against pathologist Fazlul Sarkar has found the scientist guilty of multiple instances of image manipulation, among other infractions.