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The Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus

Denis Tangney Jr./

Why The Ohio State University decided to go public about misconduct

In an unusual move, The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus last week released a detailed account of the scientific misbehavior of one of its former faculty members. The 75-page report was damning: It concluded that cancer researcher Ching-Shih Chen—once lauded as an "Innovator of the Year" and the winner of millions of dollars in federal funding—had committed misconduct in eight papers. The problems prompted the university to suspend a clinical trial of an anticancer compound Chen had identified, and led to his resignation last September.

Typically, the public might not have learned any of these worrying details for months or years. Most institutions conduct misconduct investigations privately and then—if the federal government funded any of the affected research—forward the results to the relevant funding agencies. The agencies can then take their time in deciding how to respond, and when to release the findings.

In this case, however, OSU officials opted to short-circuit that process. In their report, they announced Chen was guilty of "deviating from the accepted practices of image handling and figure generation and intentionally falsifying data" in 14 instances. OSU recommended all eight affected papers be retracted immediately.

The report's release won praise from advocates of transparency. But the applause came in the wake of criticism of how OSU has handled other recent cases of alleged and proven misconduct. In 2011, for example, federal officials asked the university to redo an investigation of a pharmacy researcher, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The school had initially concluded that problems with some published images were due to the researcher's disorganization, but the re-examination concluded they were the result of misconduct. Last year, a former associate professor resigned after an investigation into a now-retracted paper that incorrectly reported injuries related to the CrossFit workout program, prompting lawsuits.

And in March 2017, The New York Times reported that OSU had conducted at least five probes of Carlo Croce, a star oncologist whose published findings have been called into question. To date, he has retracted eight papers and issued 15 corrections. The university has not censured Croce, but school officials, stung by the article, hired a law firm to conduct a review of how the institution dealt with allegations of research misconduct, including those against Croce. The school has declined to share the full report, but did release a summary that stated OSU had "reached reasoned and supportable conclusions" about Croce's work. Croce, meanwhile, is suing The New York Times for defamation.

OSU's proactive disclosure about Chen was a turnabout. The findings were likely to affect many co-authors and others, so the school saw no reason to wait, says Jennifer Yucel, the university's research integrity officer. "We thought it was very important for the community to have this information," she says. OSU is sending its findings to the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which handles misconduct cases involving researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health, as Chen was. But ORI "can't overturn the institution's determination," Yucel notes. Plus, she adds, "There is a push for better transparency and better understanding of these investigations."

The move was part of OSU's ongoing efforts to find better ways to tackle research integrity problems, says Susan Garfinkel, the university's assistant vice president for research compliance, who oversaw investigations at ORI until last year. "It's not surprising that any major institution wants to be proactive in managing these [misconduct] problems," which exist at many institutions, Garfinkel says. "In fact, it's what everyone should be doing."

OSU is also sponsoring a 1-day summit on research integrity this fall for researchers, funders, publishers, and others. It is also providing electronic lab notebooks to all researchers and instructors, to ease record keeping and make researchers' tracks easier to follow.

C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics at the University of Illinois in Urbana, says OSU officials may have decided on openness because it was the best way to burnish their public image. But, she says, "It's to their credit that they're making their judgment on their own standards" and not waiting for ORI to validate their findings. She can recall just "a handful of times" that other universities have opted for such prompt transparency.

Unfortunately, Gunsalus doesn't expect many other institutions to follow suit. "I wish I thought so," she says. But "institutions right now are sufficiently risk-averse and publicity-aware," Gunsalus says. "If they can avoid releasing [investigation reports], they do."

Chen, meanwhile, has also resigned from Academia Sinica in Taiwan, where he directed the academy's Institute of Biological Chemistry from 2014 to 2017, according to the Taipei Times. That institution is planning its own investigate of his work.

The suspended clinical trial involving Chen's anticancer compound can resume, according to an outside consultant that examined the issue. The consultant concluded that, despite the flawed papers, the trial could proceed "without any risk to patients."