A journal's published retraction of a scholarly article in February cited an "internal review" by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. A university spokesman said UAMS conducted an internal investigation involving a review of laboratory data that resulted in a finding of research misconduct.
No one has been disciplined, but a professor resigned in November, said Leslie Taylor, the university's vice chancellor for communications and marketing. The university has notified the federal Office of Research Integrity about the case, Taylor said, but the office neither confirms nor denies whether any investigation is ongoing.
Since the retraction by the journal PLOS One, another academic publication, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, in March attached an "expression of concern" to three articles co-written by former UAMS professor Fusun Kilic, a researcher whose work involves studying the biochemical serotonin.
Kilic has said to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that any errors were unintentional.
Typically about 30 cases of research misconduct each year get confirmed by federal authorities, said Nicholas Steneck, a research integrity consultant. But not every case gets reported as specified by federal policy, said Steneck, estimating that the proper authorities are alerted perhaps in only one out of every 100 cases of actual research misconduct.
Research misconduct raises questions about how institutions and universities respond to information regarding the possible falsification of experiments, said Steneck.
"The biggest question is, can we trust the university, once it happens, to do something about it?" Steneck said, adding that it's important to ask "what the institution is doing to make sure that this doesn't happen again."
Federal agencies can seek the repayment of research grants if federal money helped pay for the work in question.
While Steneck said it's rare for agencies under the federal Department of Health and Human Services -- like the National Institutes of Health, a major funder of research -- to go after repayment, Taylor said the research flagged by UAMS involved work supported with federal grant money.
In March, Duke University in North Carolina agreed to pay $112.5 million to the federal government to settle allegations that falsified research had been used in grant applications and progress reports. The allegations were raised in a whistleblower's lawsuit by a former Duke employee.
Taylor said no grant repayments have been requested of UAMS.
The university began an inquiry after a graduate student attended a classroom lecture where Kilic "presented data from various papers she had published in peer-reviewed journals," Taylor said.
The PLOS One retraction, dated Feb. 1, refers to images in the original published paper that are known to scientists as "Western blot figures."
David Knutson, a spokesman for publisher PLOS, explained that Western blots are common methods to detect and analyze proteins.
Taylor said the student attending the presentation by Kilic "noticed that the same Western blot image had been used in multiple studies." The student then went to a professor with concerns, Taylor said.
Kilic resigned after the UAMS investigation "did determine that research misconduct occurred," Taylor said, doing so before any decision by the university about "potential disciplinary action."
The university, which defines research misconduct as involving "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism," declined to release its investigative report to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In an email dated Nov. 30 and released by UAMS, Kilic, 61, wrote that "my resignation should not be mistaken for acceptance, as I still do not accept the false claims brought against me."
In a text message to the Democrat-Gazette, Kilic wrote that "even if there are some errors detected by investigation committee, they were unintentional human errors that had no influence at all on the conclusions of the scientific papers."
The PLOS One retraction states, in part: "The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences performed an internal review of this work and recommended retraction in light of concerns about the Western blot figures. The University noted that the original data are not available, and that the conclusions of the article are not supported by available data."
Knutson said in an email that images reporting Western blots "typically appear as a photo or scan in which there are black or gray bands on a lighter background."
These bands "typically have some variation," Knutson said.
If data in different panels are highly similar, Knutson said, "this can raise questions about the integrity of the data and whether the bands shown truly represent distinct experimental results."
The published retraction lists multiple, specific instances of "similarities," stating that there are "similarities between data shown within and across a number of Western blot figures." The retracted article was first published in 2009.
Kilic joined UAMS in 2001, according to a UAMS write-up since deleted from the university's website. Her research on serotonin -- a biochemical "messenger and regulator," as described by the National Library of Medicine -- has included studying its role outside the brain.
She was promoted in 2017 to professor from associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, according to University of Arkansas System board of trustees documents.
Taylor said Kilic's yearly salary was $119,650.
The retraction came after another journal, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, in January reported the withdrawal of a Kilic paper and that an "investigation by the Journal" had found some "duplicated" data. The article was first published in 2012.
The Journal of Biological Chemistry in March published three "Expression of Concern" notices to "inform readers that credible concerns have been raised regarding some of the data and conclusions in the article listed above." The articles with the appended note were first published in 2003, 2008 and 2016.
Emails released by UAMS show that PLOS One conducted its own review of the article and that Kilic asked the journal for an opportunity to replicate the experiments.
"However, in light of your investigation's findings, our own assessment of the article, and the nature and extent of issues in this case, we are declining the author's request and have decided to retract the article," Renee Hoch, the journal's senior editor for publication ethics, wrote to Larry Cornett in an email dated Jan. 18. At the time, Cornett was UAMS' top research official.
Taylor said 15 articles were examined as part of the review, and emails released by UAMS show Kilic writing to various journals to say that some published figures are "problematic."
Taylor, in an email, said students and postdoctoral fellows are trained in research integrity and "the prevention of research misconduct."
As a result of this case, we are planning to extend this training to faculty researchers, as well," Taylor said.
A National Institutes of Health database shows Kilic listed as the principal investigator for about $2.5 million in grants awarded over several years.
The retracted paper lists funding sources that include the Dallas-based nonprofit American Heart Association. The project listed in the retracted article was funded with a $143,000 grant to UAMS in 2006, said Cyd King, communications director for the American Heart Association-NWA.
In cases of research misconduct, federal regulations allow for administrative action against researchers, such as issuing letters of reprimand or adding supervision requirements.
Metro on 05/19/2019