LEXINGTON — Two professors and a staff research scientist are responsible for significant research misconduct in a number of scholarly papers, an internal investigation at the University of Kentucky has concluded.
As a result, UK will seek retraction of the publications in question and, absent their agreement to resign, begin a University process to terminate the employment of professors Xianglin Shi and Zhuo Zhang in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology in the College of Medicine, said UK Provost David Blackwell in a Friday press release. The university has already terminated the employment of Donghern Kim, a staff research scientist who worked in Zhang's lab.
The faculty labs were shut down Thursday, the release notes, and their access to university equipment has been discontinued. Furthermore, without University Legal Office approval, the three researchers are not permitted to contact members of the university community or come on campus except for medical care.
Because College of Medicine Dean Robert DiPaola is a co-author on a paper with Shi, Zhang and Kim that was examined by the investigation committee, he recused himself from the process. DiPaola was not a respondent in the investigation, and the committee found that he was not responsible for direct oversight of the research in the paper. However, that paper will be retracted.
The measures being taken are the result of a more than yearlong internal investigation, according to the release, by a team of scientists at UK with expertise in the methods of the research being reviewed. The investigation committee produced a more than 1,000-page report that demonstrated several examples of falsified or fabricated data that were among numerous irregularities in seven grant proposals and at least 13 scholarly papers sampled from their work.
"As the University of Kentucky supports outstanding research to address Kentucky's most significant and protracted challenges, we are committed to a continual examination of our processes, policies, and procedures to protect against research misconduct. Our research must be conducted in an ethical and responsible manner, consistent with our published policies and standards," Blackwell and UK Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis said in a joint statement. "In the rare instances when researchers violate our expectations and standards, the University will act forcefully and without hesitation to investigate the misconduct, correct it, and take steps to prevent recurrence."
UK was alerted to the potential of misconduct from a source outside the university. Cassis immediately initiated an inquiry committee that determined there were sufficient concerns for the process to continue to a full investigation.
The investigation and findings were turned over Thursday to the federal Office of Research Integrity, which will determine next steps, such as whether further review is warranted or regarding the status of grants on which Shi and Zhang were principal investigators. Additional notifications to federal funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, will also occur.
Background regarding those charged with misconduct includes:
• Xianglin Shi is a professor in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology but has been removed as the William A. Marquard Chair in Cancer Research and Associate Dean for Research Integration in the UK College of Medicine.
• Shi also was Principal Investigator (PI) and program director on a P30 grant from the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which established the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES). UK has asked NIEHS to accept that UK is replacing Shi as PI/director, and an interim director has been named, Ellen Hahn, College of Nursing, who has been affiliated with the grant since its inception.
• Zhuo Zhang is a professor in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology.
• Donghern Kim was a research scientist in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology.
UK will work with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the labs in question to minimize disruption to their academic career progression.
With the closure of the two labs, the positions of five additional staff have been eliminated because they are supported by research grants that must be terminated. UK Human Resources is working with those impacted on a transition from the university and appropriate assistance packages, according to the release.
More details about the results of the UK investigation include:
• From seven grant proposals submitted to the NIH and 60 manuscripts published from 2012-2018 by Shi, Zhang and Kim, the committee identified patterns of potential data inconsistencies. This served as the basis for further review of data for a selection of 19 items (seven grants and 12 manuscripts), plus three manuscripts which were retracted during the investigation.
• Overall, nine distinct classes of significant departures from accepted practices of research were detected, the investigation found.
• Very little of the original data requested was provided, which the committee concluded was inconsistent with NIH or UK expectations and resulted in an inability to validate the mode in which it was represented in the publications and grants.
• A lack of organization and oversight in the research allowed for unsupported falsified and fabricated data to be presented in grants and publications.
• The committee found some instances of an intentional effort to deceive, and in other instances, careless and reckless handling of experimental data and figure construction for grants and publications.
•In two instances, the committee found that one or more of the respondents generated and provided falsified and fabricated documents to the committee to justify their responses to committee inquiries.
Absent their agreement to resign, a detailed summary of charges and a recommendation for dismissal of the two faculty members will be prepared by Blackwell. Those charges will be presented to the Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure. According to UK's Governing Regulations, at least one other faculty committee, empaneled by the University Senate Council, could also review charges and recommend termination to President Eli Capilouto. Ultimately, the UK Board of Trustees would decide whether to accept a recommendation to dismiss the faculty members, the release notes.