Ohio State just released a 75-page report finding misconduct by a cancer researcher. What can we learn?

Today, the Ohio State University (OSU) announced that Ching-Shih Chen, who resigned from a professorship there in September, was guilty of “deviating from the accepted practices of image handling and figure generation and intentionally falsifying data” in 14 images from eight papers. Chen had earned more than $8 million in Federal grants, and his work had led to a compound now being testing in clinical trials for cancer. (For details of the case, see our story in Science.)

Ching-Shih Chen

OSU — which has been involved in several high-profile cases of misconduct recently — released a lightly-redacted version of their investigation report, and we asked C.K. Gunsalus, who has decades of experience reviewing similar cases, to examine it for us. A Q&A follows.

Retraction Watch (RW): What’s your impression of the case? How does it compare in significance with others you’ve looked at?

C.K. Gunsalus (CKG): This research is clinical, and was covered by an investigational new drug application (IND). Any time you have translational research that has been or is in the process of human use, the significance is high.

RW: OSU is releasing their investigation report. In our experience with universities, that’s rare, even when we file public records requests. Would you agree?

CKG: Yes, it is rarer than it should be, and is to be commended.

RW: We — meaning you and two of our co-founders — and a number of others recently developed a checklist, published in JAMA, to allow for peer review of reports like this. How does the report perform on that checklist?

CKG: Some strengths come through clearly and unaddressed questions surface. The virtue of a checklist is that it can quickly highlight important issues about the investigation and the institutional response. Applying the checklist developed by a convened group of experts in this area and applying it to this report raises some questions. The university may well have strong answers for all of them. They are not answered in the report that was released.

RW: What did OSU do well?

CKG: They received an anonymous allegation, assessed it for its factual basis–not always done–and responded by applying their procedures, sequestering data promptly, appointing first an inquiry, and then an investigative committee. They released the final investigation report. The report contains a good deal of detailed information about specific papers and figures. The report clearly states findings and how they relate to conclusions, and in at least in one instance, the committee expanded their work based on the evidence they were examining. They make recommendations that seem to respond to the seriousness of the findings.

Overall, this is a very tightly focused, internal investigation that examined some itemized issues in detail and with apparent care and rigor for those issues.  As indicated above, a procedural review of the report raises questions that may well have been addressed in other contexts; there just is not information in this document one way or the other to answer those questions, some of which involve serious matters.

Please see more information