University of Washington School of Medicine researcher Andrew Aprikyan was fired for misconduct last Friday (May 21) after a judge denied his petition to delay such action until the case, which has been under investigation for more than 7 years, was reviewed further.
Aprikyan's work on inherited blood diseases has been under investigation since 2003, after errors in some of the digital images of a paper he published in Blood were identified. During the past 7 years, Aprikyan has been investigated for misconduct, both by the university and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), according to The Seattle Times, during which time he has stayed employed by the university, published 11 papers, and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding.
The judge's decision last week is "disappointing," Aprikyan told The Scientist in an email. Aprikyan acknowledges the errors in the images, but denies any intentional wrongdoing, chalking it up to his own and others' "mistakes" and "miscommunication," according to The Seattle Times. "From the very beginning, I have been clear that I have never committed scientific misconduct," Aprikyan said in an email to his colleagues at the American Association of University Professors.
Furthermore, "several violations of University policies and procedures for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct occurred as the investigation ground on," Aprikyan said. The initial investigation was handled by a UW-appointed committee of three scientists, which, "contrary to the 90 day limit that the University Handbook places on such investigations," he said, took 3 years to issue their report—a more than 450-page document detailing their findings. A year later, dean of the UW School of Medicine Paul Ramsey concluded that Aprikyan was guilty of academic misconduct, having falsified seven figures and tables in two research papers on neutropenia, a blood disorder characterized by abnormally low white blood cell counts. (The Blood paper was retracted in 2004. The other paper, published in Experimental Hematology in 2003, was not retracted, but the journal published an erratum in 2006 detailing several corrections to the original article.)
But that wasn't the end. Ramsey, along with Provost Phyllis Wise, then turned the case over to another faculty panel, including professors from disciplines outside of biology and medicine, to decide whether Aprikyan should be fired. Upon Aprikyan's request, and in the face of objections from UW administrators, the panel reopened the entire case, and concluded (after 2 more years) that there was no evidence that the falsifications were deliberate. Despite these new findings, UW President Mark Emmert decided that the second panel had no authority to re-review the case, so the original committee's findings of misconduct would stand. And with Aprikyan's petition denied, his employment was officially terminated on Friday, 7 years after the investigations began.
But "this case is not over yet," he said. Aprikyan will return to the court November 15, when a hearing is scheduled to determine once and for all whether he is guilty of scientific misconduct. If he is exonerated of the charges, he plans to seek damages from the university, according to UW's The Daily. The university "did not" commit any violations during the course of its investigation, spokesperson Norm Arkans told The Scientist.
"Ultimately, this was a search for the truth," Arkans told The Seattle Times. "Sometimes that takes a long time."
Correction: In the original version of this article, it was stated that the university had no comment about Arpikyan's allegations of violations to university policy during the course of its investigation. In fact, the university did comment, saying that "it did not" commit any such violations. The Scientist regrets the error.