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Dispatch: OSU's Academic side investigated itself & missed Fraud

  • Though some here will find this interesting, it's probably too long and boring of a story for a sports forum.
    If there are corrections to give in this outline, please offer them. but after I skimmed it, here's the gist of it:

    * In 2011 OSU investigated something one of it's professors did in 2010.
    * It found one of its professors actions were the result of disorganization, not “intentional malfeasance,”
    * But a year later,- "after the federal Office of Research Integrity urged the university to reconsider the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to highlight a pattern of falsified images in (college of pharmacy professor, Terry) Elton’s publications over the past decade." - OSU found that Elton had indeed "intentionally misstated figures in several journal articles and in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.
    * OSU removed him from a lot of his responsibilities involving funding.
    * His research technician, Mickey M. Martin, lost her job in October 2011 after Elton’s grant funding ran out.
    * Elton blamed Martin for irregularities in his lab
    * As a result of its follow-up investigation, the pharmacy college committee concluded that Elton, not Martin, falsified data.
    * A Watchdog group gave quote that "Elton’s misconduct is similar to or greater than that of other researchers who lost their jobs" and added “It’s unusual for this level of misconduct to not be punished by either an early resignation or early retirement.”
    * The professor still has his job.

    -
    Probe by OSU missed fraud
    By Ben Sutherly
    The Columbus Dispatch Sunday January 6, 2013 6:18 AM

    Federal officials found evidence that more than 100 researchers nationwide committed misconduct over the past decade, and experts are certain that universities and other institutions underreport that fraud, which comes at an untold cost to taxpayers.Ohio State University came close to becoming an example of underreporting. The university’s investigation of research misconduct by a pharmacy professor failed at first to recognize his deception, according to documents obtained by The Dispatch.

    After allegations surfaced in 2010, the OSU pharmacy department committee concluded that “irregular” images in journal articles were caused by disorganization, not “intentional malfeasance,” on the part of professor Terry Elton.

    That July 2011 report might have ended the OSU probe into Elton’s research.

    But a year later, the university found that Elton had intentionally misstated figures in several journal articles and in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.That was only after the federal Office of Research Integrity urged the university to reconsider the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to highlight a pattern of falsified images in Elton’s publications over the past decade.

    “It is clear from the PowerPoint that Dr. Elton has a long-standing convention of reusing figures to represent both control and experimental conditions,” wrote John Dahlberg, director of the federal office’s investigative oversight division, in an October 2011 letter.“It would also appear that he has copied, resized/stretched/shrunk, darkened and flipped images (horizontally and vertically) ... to conceal similarities.

    ”The images in question include those of proteins and microRNAs — small RNA molecules that regulate gene expression.

    The university ultimately agreed. In a voluntary deal disclosed late last month, Elton agreed to retract five articles; a sixth had been retracted in April. An OSU spokesman said a total of $1.6 million in grant money was associated with the retracted papers, though he said that money went toward broader projects, not just the retracted papers.Elton has published at least 66 peer-reviewed articles during the course of his career, The Dispatch found.

    The handling of Elton’s case, laid out in documents obtained by The Dispatch through a public-records request, raises questions about whether research misconduct inquiries at universities are rigorous enough to root out wrongdoing. Dr. Caroline Whitacre, OSU vice president for research, defended the university’s response to misconduct allegations.

    “Each of these cases is extremely different,” Whitacre said. “There’s no two of them that are even remotely similar.“I do think we have checks and balances in place to determine when misconduct has occurred. This is the first time ORI has come back to us and told us, ‘You need to look deeper.’  ”

    Dahlberg said in a statement issued late Friday that “Ohio State University has a long history of working effectively with ORI to ensure that OSU maintains the integrity of its research programs and that ORI’s regulatory requirements are met.”The Elton case should spur university officials to examine what they can do to make sure such an oversight doesn’t happen, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch and executive editor of Reuters Health.

    “It behooves them to do as thorough a job as possible rather than find excuses for why they didn’t find it the first time,” Oransky said. “If they need to be nudged, why should tax dollars be going to places that have very little accountability?”

    The Office of Research Integrity received an anonymous tip about Elton’s research in July 2010. After Elton was cleared by the pharmacy department’s first investigation, Dahlberg asked that anyone who had a personal or working relationship with Elton be removed from the panel investigating the matter.The letter also requested that OSU officials ensure that the committee had members with expertise in reading Western blots, a lab technique used to detect proteins that Elton had reportedly falsified.

    The university and ORI ultimately found that Elton had falsified data in the six journal articles, published between 2004 and 2010.

    Elton, who is tenured, will keep his job, which pays $130,146 annually. But he’s barred from serving as primary adviser to undergraduate or graduate students, postdoctoral trainees or lab technicians for three years, plus other sanctions.

    His research technician, Mickey M. Martin, lost her job in October 2011 after Elton’s grant funding ran out. Elton blamed Martin for irregularities in his lab in a December 2011 letter to a journal in which he had published some research that has since been discredited.

    As a result of its follow-up investigation, the pharmacy college committee concluded that Elton — not Martin — falsified data. Martin couldn’t be reached to comment.

    Elton’s misconduct is similar to or greater than that of other researchers who lost their jobs, Oransky said. “It’s unusual for this level of misconduct to not be punished by either an early resignation or early retirement.”

    But Whitacre described Elton’s sanctions as “severe.”“He’s essentially cut off from doing research,” she said.

    Elton instead will focus primarily on teaching and service responsibilities.

    “They doled out what they thought was an appropriate punishment,” Whitacre said. “I don’t think tenure, per se, played a role here” in Elton keeping his job.

    Elton did not return calls seeking comment.In an undated letter on OSU letterhead obtained by The Dispatch, Elton wrote, “Although I strongly disagree with the conclusions of the College of Pharmacy Investigation Committee Report and the severity of the proposed sanctions, I take full responsibility for the figure irregularities in manuscripts outlined by (the National Institutes of Health).”

    Roughly 7,100 university faculty, staff and graduate research associates take part in research at Ohio State, according to the university.

    In response to a Dispatch inquiry, OSU officials disclosed two other investigations of research misconduct over the past five years. One began in 2009 but has not been completed by the Office on Research Integrity, a university spokesman said. The other probe, which began in 2011, involved a pharmacy graduate student who the university will not name. He falsified lab data, according to a university report.

    The last record of any federal findings against an OSU researcher was in 2001, when the U.S. Public Health Service found that an assistant professor in the College of Dentistry plagiarized another researcher’s data in a federal grant application.

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/01/06/probe-by-osu-missed-fraud.html

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  • Thanks a lot. My hair turned white when I thought it was related to football team. Ha. Interesting article, though. I'm surprised that the professor would keep his 130k job. Should have his pay cut big time.

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