Published online 13 December 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.671


German research centre widens misconduct probe

Investigation digs deeper after finding images were manipulated in six papers.

Manor House BorstelThe Research Center Borstel may start a deeper investigation after a panel uncovered evidence of image manipulation by two researchers.FZB

Rocked by revelations of long-running scientific misconduct in its immunology department, the Research Center Borstel in Germany is to broaden its investigation into the work of a pair of former scientists suspected of systematic image manipulation in a number of research papers.

An external investigation, launched in July and chaired by Werner Seeger, a biomedical researcher at the University of Giessen, Germany, found that two former postdocs with the centre's immunology group were guilty of using pictures of protein blots from unrelated experiments to support their findings on signalling in cells involved in allergic reactions such as asthma. The pair's supervisor, Silvia Bulfone-Paus, who chairs the centre's immunology and cell biology department, bears "substantial responsibility" for the manipulations, the committee found, but added that they found no evidence of data fabrication.

The investigation committee found manipulation of images in six papers1,2,3,4,5,6 produced between 2001 and 2009 by Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian. Bulfone-Paus is listed as either senior or corresponding author of the six incriminated publications. The relevant journals have been informed and the papers are likely to be retracted.

But the committee has only carried out spot checks on the group's larger research output. A co-director of the centre says that a more wide-ranging investigation is needed to establish whether such manipulation took place in other papers too.

"This case threatens to harm our reputation," says Ulrich Schaible, head of molecular infection research at the centre. "It must be cleared up entirely."

No response

Bulanova and Budagian could not be reached for comment and, according to Schaible, both have since left research. Bulfone-Paus, who also holds a position at the University of Manchester, UK, declined to comment on the committee's findings concerning her responsibility for the misconduct. A spokesperson for the University of Manchester said that the university will not comment on the preliminary findings either.

Few laboratory heads have complete oversight over their group members' daily research activities, says Schaible. But as co-author of scientific publications resulting from her postdocs' experiments, Bulfone-Paus does bear partial responsibility for their misconduct, he adds.

The research centre's board of curators will next month decide whether to take disciplinary action against Bulfone-Paus, says Schaible.

Silvia Bulfone-Paus.

Meanwhile, Germany's main research funding agency, the DFG, which funded some of the group's work, has launched a separate investigation into the case.

If that investigation confirms that poor oversight was partly responsible for the misconduct, Bulfone-Paus could face sanctions. The DFG has previously temporarily excluded scientists found guilty of misconduct from applying for funds or from acting as grant reviewers. Depending on the severity of such cases, the DFG can also cancel grants or demand repayment of spent funds.

In recent months, Bulfone-Paus has also been exposed to a high-profile Internet smear campaign that distributed information about suspect papers and individual scientists to science journalists working for key international newspapers, magazines and journals. The Research Center Borstel has brought formal charges against the as-yet-unnamed person or people behind the campaign. 

  • References

    1. Budagian, V. et al. EMBO J. 24, 4260-4270 (2005). | Article
    2. Bulanova, E. et al. J. Immunol. 167, 6292-6302 (2001).
    3. Bulanova, E. et al. J. Immunol. 170, 5045-5055 (2003).
    4. Bulanova, E. et al. J. Immunol. 174, 3880-3890 (2005).
    5. Bulanova, E. et al. J. Leukoc. Biol. 85, 692-702 (2009). | Article
    6. Bulanova, E. et al. J. Biol. Chem. 282, 13167-13179 (2007). | Article
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