It took more than 10 months, but today the scientists who blew the whistle on a paper in Science about the dangers of microplastics for fish have been vindicated. An expert group at Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) has concluded that the paper’s authors, Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University (UU), committed “scientific dishonesty” and says that Science should retract the paper, which appeared in June 2016.
Science published an editorial expression of concern—which signals that a paper has come under suspicion—on 3 December 2016, and deputy editor Andrew Sugden says a retraction statement is now in preparation. (Science’s news department, which works independently of the journal’s editorial side, published a feature about the case in March.)
The report comes as a “huge relief,” says UU’s Josefin Sundin, one of seven researchers in five countries who claimed the paper contained fabricated data shortly after it came out.
Sundin was at the Ar Research Station on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea, at the time Lönnstedt supposedly carried out her research. She and Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who also spent several days at the research station, said the research simply never took place. But a preliminary investigation by UU published in August 2016 dismissed their claims and suggested they should have brought up their issues with the authors themselves instead of crying foul. Given the weight of the evidence against Lönnstedt and Eklöv, that was a “remarkable” conclusion, the CEPN panel now writes.
Lönnstedt and Eklöv did not respond to a request for comment today, although in the past they have suggested the accusations were driven by professional jealousy. UU officials also didn’t respond. A statement posted on the university’s website acknowledges the differences between the two reports and says—according to a machine translation—that “[b]oth reports now form the basis for the university’s forthcoming decision” on whether misconduct took place.
In their Science paper, Lönnstedt and Eklöv claimed that European perch larvae prefer to eat tiny beads of polystyrene over natural food, which slows their growth and makes the larvae more likely to be eaten by predators. But Sundin and Jutfelt said Lönnstedt hadn’t spent enough time at the station to do the studies described in Science. They pointed out many other problems in the paper as well, including the fact that the full data weren’t posted in a public repository, as Science requires. (Lönnstedt and Eklöv claimed the data were lost on a laptop that was stolen from a car soon after the paper was published.)
The CEPN group hired fish researcher Bertil Borg of Stockholm University to delve into the case. His report, sent to CEPN in February, made clear that Lönnstedt and Eklöv didn’t have answers to many problems and said they had made false statements. But Borg’s conclusion was somewhat ambiguous: “The suspicions of deceit cannot be denied.”
The CEPN group now does away with that ambiguity. Answers provided by the accused “have been in all essentials deficient, at times contradictory and have not infrequently given rise to further questions,” the statement says. It declares the duo “guilty of scientific dishonesty” for not having posted the data, and also for making false statements about obtaining ethical approval for the study, both in the Science paper and in their contacts with the committee. Although Lönnstedt was responsible for carrying out the experiments at Ar—Eklöv didn’t visit the station—the report does not absolve him, noting that “in his role as a senior researcher, [he] bore significant responsibility for what transpired.”
In a written defense to Borg’s February report, Lönnstedt and Eklöv had questioned his impartiality and the reliability of witnesses because they had ties to the whistleblowers. The panel says it is “unavoidable in a relatively narrow field of research for individuals in that field to be acquainted” and that this didn’t disqualify Borg or the witnesses.
The panel also has some stern words for Science. The journal was “deficient” in enforcing its open data policy, the authors say. They add that even if the research had been conducted as described, it would not have proved anything. The microplastics supposedly used in the study were mixed with detergents, according to the report, and the authors didn’t say they had removed these detergents. They, and not the plastic beads, could have caused the effects on fish larvae.
That Science accepted the paper is “remarkable,” the group says. Sugden says that for now, he can’t comment on the panel’s report.