Biologists cleared of misconduct

A University of Missouri probe of a Science paper exonerates the lead author and two co-authors, but a fourth author is on the lam, and still under scrutiny

Feb 14, 2007
Kerry Grens

An investigation into possible scientific misconduct in the laboratory of R. Michael Roberts at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) has exonerated Roberts and two MU co-authors of a 2006 Science article that challenged developmental canon by demonstrating two-cell embryos expressed distinct cell lineages. A fourth author, former MU postdoc Kaushik Deb, is still under investigation and has not responded to requests from the investigation committee to appear or participate in hearings.

"I have no idea where he is," Rob Hall, MU's Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, told The Scientist. "To my knowledge the university has not been able to contact Kaushik Deb."

Hall said the university will continue to proceed with the investigation, but Deb's absence means that he gives up certain rights, including the rights to call witnesses and present evidence. The investigation began several months ago after an unnamed scientist outside MU wrote to Science and urged the editors to reconsider certain figures. In October, Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy issued an editorial expression of concern. A spokesperson for Science was unavailable for comment as to the fate of paper.

In opposition to the long-held view that blastomeres in early-stage embryos are equivalent, the 2006 paper produced evidence that Cdx2 expression at the two-cell stage was localized to blastomeres at the vegetal pole of oocytes, and that these differences lead to distinct cell lineages. The finding rocked developmental dogma, but was irreproducible in other laboratories. "Ultimately," Roberts told The Scientist, "I expect the entire paper will be withdrawn."

Because the investigation is on-going, Roberts would not comment further on details of which figures have been altered, but he did say there is evidence of manipulation in a significant number of them. A hearing to determine whether Deb fudged the data is scheduled for March. If he is found guilty of scientific misconduct, the most serious penalty he could face is termination of employment, though Deb is no longer a postdoc at MU. Hall said that "if someone had done something egregious enough that their employment has been terminated," making that decision public "is the best the institution can do."

Roberts and the other authors Mayandi Sivaguru and Hwan Yul Yong were dismissed from the case last week. According to a university statement, Sivaguru and Yong were dropped from the case because "there was not enough evidence available to file misconduct charges." Additional scrutiny examined whether Roberts might have encouraged others to fabricate or manipulate data, but the investigation committee did not find Roberts's actions "constituted a significant departure from accepted practices of a relevant research community."

Sivaguru, former associate director for the molecular cytology core at MU, is now based at the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yong returned to Korea for a research position there. Roberts said he is relieved to be exonerated, but remains "convinced that there were images manipulated in the Science paper." Roberts would not say whether he believed Deb was responsible. "I'm not casting blame here. This was done in my laboratory under my watch and I am taking responsibility." Roberts said he likely trusted his lab members with too much independence, and encouraged them to venture into scientific territory Roberts was unfamiliar with -- both factors that likely helped create an environment where misconduct could occur.

Editor's note (posted February 15): When originally posted, the first sentence of this story contained misleading language. We have corrected the wording to eliminate any confusion.