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Task Force Uncovers Abundant Fraud in German Lab

20 June 2000 6:00 pm
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A new report paints a darker picture of what may be the highest profile case of scientific fraud in postwar Germany. Former hematologist and cancer researcher Friedhelm Herrmann, a well-known and decorated member of the German research establishment, co-authored 52 papers that "contain falsifications," a task force concluded in a report released on 19 June. An additional 42 papers are suspected of containing manipulated data. Herrmann and one co-author have left their academic posts, but the new revelations could place other careers in jeopardy.

The initial allegations emerged in January 1997, when a postdoc in Herrmann's lab claimed that Herrmann, then at the University of Ulm, and his colleague Marion Brach, then at the University of Lübeck, had fabricated data in as many as four research papers appearing in 1994 and 1995. Investigators zeroed in on autoradiograms--dark bands, resembling bar codes, whose patterns reflect protein and RNA production in cells under various experimental conditions. The panels found that individual bands and entire assemblies had been recycled to pose as results from other experiments. After an August 1997 report detailing alleged falsification and data manipulation in 37 publications, Herrmann and Brach resigned their positions.

The new report, the product of a 2-year investigation of all 347 scientific articles co-authored by Herrmann, claims that the scope of the fraud is far more extensive than previously thought. The task force, jointly sponsored by Germany's main granting agency, the DFG, and the country's largest cancer charity, examined articles that appeared in journals such as Blood, the Journal of Immunology, Leukemia, Cancer Research, and EMBO Journal. The panel scanned every single autoradiogram and compared them with each other using image-processing software to alter orientation, intensity, and contrast. All together, team leader Ulf Rapp of the University of Würzburg says, the task force found 357 apparent manipulations and fabrications.

The investigators also found evidence of fudged figures in the "habilitations," German post-Ph.D. qualifying papers written by aspiring professors, of three researchers in Herrmann's former hematology and oncology department at the University of Freiburg Medical Center. The panel also analyzed one randomly chosen paper co-authored by department chief Roland Mertelsmann but which does not include Herrmann as a co-author. The task force found "no conclusive proof of conscious falsifications," although "data may have been manipulated."

Any sanctions stemming from the report would come from the universities involved, the granting agencies that funded the fraudulent work, state and federal science ministries, and public prosecutors. "This is not the time yet to heave a sigh of relief and consider the matter closed," says DFG Secretary-General Reinhard Grunwald.

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