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Investigation finds Swedish scientists committed scientific misconduct

Probe centered on controversial paper that claimed microplastic pollution harms fish.
Professor Peter Eklöv and Dr. Oona Lönnstedt

Researchers Peter Eklöv (left) and Oona Lönnstedt.

Two Swedish scientists have been found guilty of "misconduct in research" in a paper that they published in Science1 and later retracted. Their highly publicized work had suggested that tiny particles of plastic in the ocean harm fish.

The misconduct ruling was made by an investigative board from Uppsala University in Sweden, where the researchers work.

Marine biologist Oona Lönnstedt and limnologist Peter Eklöv originally reported in their 2016 paper that microplastic particles had negative effects on young fish, including reducing their efforts to avoid predators. The duo's report described a series of experiments on an island in the Baltic Sea. After other researchers raised questions about data availability and details of the experiments, Uppsala conducted an initial investigation and found no evidence of misconduct.

However, an expert group of Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board, which was also tasked with vetting the study, concluded in April 2017 that Lönnstedt and Eklöv “have been guilty of scientific misconduct”. The researchers defended the paper but requested that Science retract it in light of questions about their findings.

To settle the controversy, the university’s vice-chancellor, Eva Åkesson, subsequently handed over the case to the newly established Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research at Uppsala University for further scrutiny.

Charges made

In its decision, announced on 7 December, the board finds Lönnstedt guilty of having intentionally fabricated data; it alleges that Lönnstedt did not conduct the experiments during the period — and to the extent — described in the Science paper.

Eklöv, who was Lönnstedt's supervisor and co-author, failed to check that the research was carried out as described, the board says. However, by the rules in force at Uppsala at the time of the work, which required that misconduct findings apply only to intentional acts, the board said that Eklöv's failure to check the research "cannot entail liability for misconduct in research" .

Both researchers, the board concluded, "are guilty of misconduct in research by violating the regulations on ethical approval for animal experimentation".

On the basis of the board's report, Åkesson rendered a decision that “Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv are guilty of misconduct in research.”

It was only when the new board looked into the matter again that the university fully realized the seriousness of the allegations, says Erik Lempert, chair of the board.

“That long and arduous battle has finally concluded with a reasonable outcome,” says Timothy Clark, an ecologist at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, who was one of the researchers to initially raise concerns about the paper

Eklöv wrote in an e-mail to Nature that he takes full responsibility for the errors in the animal ethical permit. “But most of all I am very disappointed on my colleague to find out that she actually had fabricated data,” he says. “At the same time, it is very good that the committee was able to clarify these circumstances to whether she actually was guilty.”

Lönnstedt did not respond to Nature’s request for comment by publication time.

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References

  1. 1.

    Lönnstedt, O. and Eklöv, P. Science 352, 1213–1216 (2016); retraction 356, 812 (2017).

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