Scientific smear campaign?

An anonymous agitator upsets a German misconduct investigation

Dec 22, 2010
Megan Scudellari
An official misconduct investigation at the linkurl:Research Center Borstel;http://www.infection-research.de/who_is_who/institutions/detail/?tx_list_pi1[uid]=16&cHash=38590e0b1343baec04b94508ffa8e904 in Germany has been overshadowed by an anonymous effort distributing accusatory emails to scientists and journalists, and posting documents and allegations online.

Image: Wikimedia commons, michael fosu b.
In July, linkurl:Silvia Bulfone-Paus,;http://www.labome.org/expert/germany/research/bulfone-paus/silvia-bulfone-paus-908801.html head of the department of immunology and a member of the board of directors at Borstel, brought suspicions of data manipulation in several papers from her lab to the attention of officials, Ulrich Schaible, a member of the board of directors at Borstel told The Scientist. Subsequently, an external investigation committee was formed to look into potential misconduct in the lab. "This was formally all done how it should have been done," said Schaible.But also in July, around the same time as the formal investigation began, accusatory emails distributing information about linkurl:Bulfone-Paus;http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%22Bulfone-Paus%20S%22[Author] and details about suspect papers, such as evidence of manipulated figures, were sent by one "Marco Berns" to involved personnel and the press. The accuser also sent copies of emails he/she had sent to editors of the journals who published the suspect papers. The acting director of the Borstel, Peter Zabel, received at least one email, as did journalists, the Leibniz Assocation, and a German research foundation, said Schaible. Similar information was then posted online to linkurl:a Web site;http://www.martinfrost.ws/htmlfiles/sept2010/admission-silvia.html hosted in Panama and operated by a linkurl:Martin Frost,;http://www.martinfrost.ws/htmlfiles/aug2010/intellectual-fraud.html possibly a pseudonym for the same person or people behind the original emails. The anonymous efforts significantly upset the official investigation, said Schaible, and have affected scientists at the Borstel. "It was really, really disruptive," he emphasized. A linkurl:Nature;http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7312/full/467133b.html editorial attacked the "trial-by-Internet," stating: "Claims of scientific misconduct must be assessed in confidence to protect both accused and whistle-blower from rumours that could prejudice the inquiry.""Because of all this, we've tried to be as transparent as possible," said Schaible. The center posted the results of the misconduct commission on their Web site on December 4th, as soon as it was released, fearing the campaign Web site might post it first. "It was an unusual thing, but we were sure someone else would do it anonymously," he said. The investigation found two former postdocs, Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian, guilty of misconduct, and six papers are likely to be retracted, said Schaible. The commission noted that Bulfone-Paus bears "major responsibility" for the misconduct within her lab group. In the end, a total of 12 papers will be investigated, said Schaible. Bulfone-Paus declined to comment for this article. Neither Bulanova nor Budagian could be reached for comment.The six papers, on a variety of cell signaling in immunology, were published between 2001 and 2009 in the EMBO Journal, the Journal of Immunology, the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The Scientist received accusatory emails from "Fernando Pessoa," who declined to speak on the record. The Research Center Borstel has brought formal slander charges against the still-unknown person or people behind the campaign, said Schaible, yet there is little else the institution can do in response to the attack. However, it appears the anonymous campaigner has knowledge of internal meetings at the Borstel: On December 11th, for example, the campaign website described the "audible gasps of horror" from Borstel employees when managing director Peter Zabel shared that the number of papers that are under investigation had increased from six to twelve.Still, someone at the Borstel could be unwittingly leaking information to someone on the outside. "It's really difficult to find out who it is," said Schaible, "though we have suspicions."
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