MIT Professor Fired for Faking Data

MIT biologist and HMS grad may also have falsified data in work at Harvard

A professor who conducted research at MIT and Caltech after graduating from Harvard Medical School (HMS) has admitted to falsifying data in at least one published paper and has been fired from his post at MIT.

Luk Van Parijs, an associate professor of biology at MIT until last week, is also the subject of an inquiry at Caltech. The MIT investigation concluded that he fabricated and falsified research data in a published scientific paper, as well as grant proposals and manuscripts.

A subsequent article published online Friday in the New Scientist also said that Van Parijs, who specializes in immunology, may have falsified data in papers he published while at HMS and Caltech.

Van Parijs “has admitted to falsifying data,” MIT spokesperson Denise Brehm said.

The improprieties came to light when members of Van Parijs’ research group at MIT raised questions about “research misconduct,” according to an MIT statement, which added that none of his colleagues at MIT were implicated in the misconduct.

MIT has not yet specified which of the papers Van Parijs published during his time at the university contained fabricated data.

The New Scientist article identifies two studies published while Van Parijs was conducting research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital, and one published while he was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech as questionable.

The New Scientist investigation identified “uncanny similarities between supposedly different results presented in at least three highly regarded immunology papers authored by Van Parijs” during his time at Harvard and Caltech.

Caltech began an inquiry into Van Parijs’ work on Oct. 6, Director of Media Relations Jill E. Perry said.

In one of the questionable papers printed during Van Parijs’ time at Harvard, three graphs were captioned as if the data was gathered from three different research subjects. On closer examination, the data appears to be gathered from the exact same research subject, the New Scientist article said. That article appeared in the journal Immunity in 1998.

Van Parijs wrote in an e-mail to the New Scientist that “none of the data for the figures you mention have been falsified.” Van Parijs did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital is still “assessing” the “questions about the integrity of Van Parijs’ research,” hospital spokeswoman Melanie Franco said in a statement. HMS spokesman John Lacey also said that HMS was assessing the information.

Possible responses to concerns about Van Parijs’ methods could include an investigation into all of his research, inquiries into “specific papers that have been questioned,” and the issuance of retractions to the papers, said Dr. Abul K. Abbas, who was a faculty member in the HMS pathology department with Van Parijs.

“If we have to go back and investigate all his prior work, if that’s the institutional decision, it’s going to have to be a lot of time and effort and energy on the part of whoever does the investigating,” said Abbas, who is now chair of the pathology department at University of California San Francisco.

BEFORE THE STORM

By all accounts, Van Parijs was well on his way to an influential career before researchers working with him raised questions about his methods.

Abbas described Van Parijs as “bright, charming, gregarious, a nice guy,” and a winter 2003 article on Van Parijs in an MIT development office publication described him as one of the field’s “top young researchers.”

At Caltech, Van Parijs worked in the lab of Nobel laureate and Caltech President David Baltimore, Perry said.

Abbas said he can’t understand why Van Parijs chose to fabricate data.

“In this particular case, I have absolutely no idea, none at all,” Abbas said.

Abbas said that the problematic aspects of the papers addressed by the New Scientist article are “quite subtle. It’s hard to pick up the problem. It’s very puzzling why he did it if he did do it.”

According to the official statement, MIT’s investigation of Van Parijs’ research began in August 2004. Van Parijs has been on leave since then and “he has not had any access to his lab or his office,” Brehm said.

MIT must also issue a report on Van Parijs to the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which supervises these investigations, according to the MIT statement.