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Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Researchers Accused of Manipulating Data

A data investigation blogger accused four senior Harvard cancer researchers of research misconduct across dozens of papers last week.
A data investigation blogger accused four senior Harvard cancer researchers of research misconduct across dozens of papers last week. By Joey Huang
By Veronica H. Paulus and Akshaya Ravi, Crimson Staff Writers

Four senior researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute allegedly falsified data in multiple papers, a data investigation blogger claimed last Tuesday.

In a post on research integrity blog For Better Science, data sleuth Sholto David alleged DFCI President and CEO Laurie H. Glimcher ’72, Executive Vice President and COO William C. Hahn ’87, Senior Vice President for Experimental Medicine Irene M. Ghobrial, and Harvard Medical School professor Kenneth C. Anderson committed research misconduct across dozens of papers.

David, who holds a doctoral degree in biology from Newcastle University, alleged that three papers authored by Glimcher, 12 by Hahn, 10 by Ghobrial, and 16 by Anderson contained “data forgery,” including five co-authored by both Anderson and Ghobrial. As is typical for scientific research, all of the papers referenced by David have several co-authors, though his post focused on the four DFCI researchers.

The papers, published between 1999 and 2017, most commonly have duplications of blots, bands, and plots within images, David alleged. In a Saturday interview, David said he used a combination of artificial intelligence image analysis software ImageTwin and manual detection to look for errors in the papers.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson Wednesday, Ghobrial wrote that she was “aware” of the allegations and had submitted corrections to the journals Clinical Cancer Research and Blood — in which most of her disputed papers were published — but chose not to respond to David. She wrote that editors of the journals to which she had submitted corrections had not yet responded as of Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the Journal of Clinical Oncology wrote that Hahn had already submitted a corrected version of an image from a 2011 paper and that the journal was in the process of publishing an erratum.

Glimcher, Hahn, and Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.

The allegations come amid increased scrutiny of scholarly work across elite higher education. Former Stanford President Marc T. Tessier-Lavigne resigned this summer following allegations of research misconduct first publicized by the Stanford Daily. Around the same time, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino was accused of data fabrication, leading the University to begin a formal review into her tenure.

And in December, former Harvard President Claudine Gay was accused of dozens of instances of plagiarism spanning her entire academic career, adding further fuel to calls for her resignation following her controversial congressional testimony. She resigned early last week.

Several of the papers have comments pointing to alleged errors on PubPeer, a peer review website that allows users to anonymously comment on scientific papers. At least six had responses from Ghobrial or another of the paper’s co-authors agreeing to look into the alleged errors, including a response from Roche Chief Medical Officer Levi A. Garraway saying the authors had requested a correction on the 2011 paper in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

In his blog post, David said that three papers co-authored by Anderson had previously been retracted in 2010 due to a mix-up in the cell lines.

David sent the allegations to the research integrity offices at DFCI and HMS, which confirmed Monday that they had received the complaint.

HMS spokesperson Ekaterina D. Peshava declined to comment on the allegations, citing policy against discussing individual circumstances, but wrote that HMS is “fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of its research.”

“Any concerns brought to our attention are reviewed thoroughly in accordance with our institutional policies and applicable regulations,” she added.

In an emailed statement, DFCI spokesperson Ellen Berlin wrote that Dana-Farber is “fully committed to rigorously maintaining the integrity of research under its oversight,” and allegations of errors are “reviewed thoroughly and authors are supported in submitting corrections, when necessary.”

Elisabeth M. Bik, a data manipulation expert, said the concerns of data manipulation and image duplication that David raised were “spot on.”

Mike Rossner, the president of Image Data Integrity, said the allegations “had merit.”

“The data are questionable enough that if I were a journal editor, or if I were a research integrity officer, I would want to see the source data for comparison for the published data,” Rossner said.

Matthew S. Schrag, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that “there is a large enough pattern of problems in this set of papers that would justify an investigation.”

Still, Bik said it may be difficult to formally review the allegations, as lab storage limitations may prevent authors from being able to provide original data on older papers.

Though both Bik and Schrag declined to speculate on the intentionality of the alleged misconduct, Bik said that a large volume of data issues in a scholar’s work can be “very suggestive for an intention to mislead.”

“If it’s one or two, that could still be an honest error,” she said. “If it’s 10 overlaps, then you have to ask yourself, that is pretty sloppy if you make that many errors.”

Spokespeople from Molecular and Cellular Biology, Clinical Cancer Research, the British Journal of Haematology, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences wrote that the allegations are being processed according to their respective journal guidelines.

A spokesperson for Cancer Cell declined to comment on the individual case but wrote that “we take reader concerns seriously.”

The other 13 journals containing relevant articles did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction: January 12, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that three paper co-authored by Kenneth C. Anderson were retracted in 2010 due to errors in the figures. In fact, they were retracted due to a mix-up in the cell lines.

—Staff writer Veronica H. Paulus can be reached at veronica.paulus@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @VeronicaHPaulus.

—Staff writer Akshaya Ravi can be reached at akshaya.ravi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @akshayaravi22.

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