Published online 7 January 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.703


Fraud investigation rocks Danish university

Neuroscientist quits after accusations of academic misconduct.

Milena PenkowaNeuroscientist Milena Penkowa has left her post at the University of Copenhagen.Michael Bothager/ Scanpix

A high-profile neuroscientist in Denmark has resigned after facing allegations that she committed research misconduct and misspent grant money. Meanwhile, the administration at the university where she worked has been accused of ignoring her alleged misdeeds for the better part of a decade.

Milena Penkowa, a 37-year-old researcher who was lauded in 2009 by the Danish science ministry, denies all the accusations against her and stands by her work, but left her post as a full professor at the University of Copenhagen in December.

In response to questions that Nature sent to her, Penkowa says that she left so that she could focus fully "on the only relevant thing in life — research. I felt I had to obtain the necessary calmness to secure that the questions regarding my research could be handled properly and objectively."

In an open letter released on 22 December 2010, 58 Danish scientists have called for a transparent review of the alleged misconduct, which spans much of Penkowa's career. Details were first reported by the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

"We will try to convince the board of this university that there has not been a thorough investigation," says Per Soelberg Sørensen, a clinical researcher at the University of Copenhagen who signed the letter. He also sat on Penkowa's first doctoral thesis committee in 2002, which, he says, failed her in part because of suspicions about whether the results she presented were genuine.

The university contends that it dealt with that incident adequately, and that more recent allegations of misconduct are being handled by the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, which is independent of the university.

"A parallel internal investigation aiming to uncover other possible suspicions about scientific dishonesty would create confusion," said University of Copenhagen chairman Nils Strandberg Pedersen in a statement.

Rapid rise

Penkowa has published nearly 100 peer-reviewed papers, and her research focuses on brain-repair mechanisms and the role of a metal-binding protein called metallothionein.

Penkowa climbed the ranks of academe quickly, becoming a full professor in 2009. Last year, she was named an elite young researcher by the Danish government. The IMK General Fund, a private foundation that funds medical research, awarded her 5.6 million Danish kroner (about US$1 million) in funds.

At the same time, Penkowa maintained a visible public profile, frequently appearing on radio and television, and in glossy magazines.

Questions over Penkowa's research began at least as early as 2002 with suspicions over her doctoral thesis. For instance, Sørensen says, Penkowa claimed to have performed experiments on around 1700 rats over several months. The committee rejected her thesis.

According to Sørensen, the university's then dean of faculty Ralf Hemmingsen intervened and sought an external review of Penkowa's thesis by two other researchers. They were critical of the committee's decision, arguing that there was no clear evidence of research misconduct. Penkowa resubmitted her thesis to a different committee of researchers not based at the University of Copenhagen and passed, Sørensen says.

"In 2003 I provided the necessary information, study facts, and relevant documentation relating to these particular animals," Penkowa said in her statement. "There was not and there is still nothing reprehensible about this issue."

Mysterious mismatch

Several years later, according to Weekendavisen, a colleague of Penkowa's, Elisabeth Bock, told an internal university committee that students from Bock's laboratory were having difficulty replicating results obtained in Penkowa's laboratory. The university committee looked into the discrepancies, but exonerated Penkowa of any wrongdoing in 2008.

Penkowa says that the experiments were performed in different labs, using different techniques, and that this naturally produced outcomes which were not identical. She has asked the students to repeat their work, and offered the use of her lab.

The most recent allegations centre on a paper submitted to the Journal of Clinical Oncology in July 2010. According to Weekendavisen, two of Penkowa's students approached the head of the university's Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, Albert Gjedde, over concerns that data they had generated on the abundance of proteins in tissue from lymphoma patients and controls did not match the results in the manuscript Penkowa submitted in July. Penkowa says that the results in the paper came from later experiments that were not conducted by the students. The paper has so far not been published.


The University of Copenhagen has also recently paid back more than 2 million Danish kroner of the IMK General Fund grant that the foundation awarded to Penkowa. Pedersen says the repayment was made because the money had been spent for research purposes not described in the grant application.

Penkowa flatly denies misusing grant money, as well as the research misconduct allegations. "I look forward to have my name cleared as this 'case' against me is completely groundless," she writes.

In recent weeks, the University of Copenhagen has come under increasing fire for its handling of the case. Sørensen and other researchers who signed the public letter are set to meet with the university's board next week. "We want a full investigation into her whole academic career," says Sørensen. "If this can happen once, it can happen again if the university does not have any strategy to handle situations like this." 

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