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The tail's tale. Møller's studies suggest that traits such as symmetrical tails of barn swallows are an indicator of genetic fitness.

Ecologists Rocked by Misconduct Finding

By: 
Gretchen Vogel
Fiona Proffitt
Richard Stone
2004-01-28 (All day)

A Danish government committee has ruled that one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, Anders Pape Møller, is responsible for data fabricated in connection with an article that he co-authored in 1998 and subsequently retracted. Møller has denied that his data were fabricated and has told Science that he plans to sue his chief accuser, Jørgen Rabøl, or the panel that issued the ruling, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), for defamation.

Møller, a professor at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, is a towering figure in the field. He has been a key proponent of the idea that traits such as long symmetrical tails in barn swallows, which attract potential mates, are a sign of beneficial genes. Møller has also shown that stress caused by environmental factors such as parasites can lead to the development of asymmetrical body parts. The failure to overcome such stress is a sign of weaker genes, he theorized, and therefore asymmetric traits are less attractive to potential mates.

At the center of the controversy is a study that Møller undertook in the mid-1990s. The study tested the idea that the action of herbivores nibbling at the leaves of the stone oak triggers a stress-induced reaction in which later leaf growth is asymmetric--reflecting potential developmental weakness. A lab technician, Jette Andersen, measured asymmetry of the leaves. Møller and Florentino de Lope of the Universidad de Extremadura in Badajoz, Spain, published their findings in the June 1998 issue of the journal Oikos. Andersen was credited in the acknowledgment.

In 1999, Andersen and Rabøl, then an associate professor at the Zoological Institute at the University of Copenhagen, alleged in an "opinion" sent to Oikos that the paper was based on fabricated data rather than on Andersen's data. The editor-in-chief, Nils Malmer, launched an investigation and in a 24 November 2000 letter demanded the paper's retraction. Møller and de Lope agreed, stating: "It now appears that the measurements and analyses behind the data in the article were flawed and misinterpreted, implicating [sic] that the conclusions drawn are invalid."

But the March 2001 retraction failed to satisfy Rabøl, who according to DCSD felt that it cast unjustified suspicion on Andersen. In a 29 March letter to DCSD, Rabøl filed a formal complaint against Møller. On 25 September 2002, a DCSD committee stated that it "is convinced" that data files Møller supplied to the committee as support for the paper's conclusions "are at least partly fabricated and cannot be based on authentic measurements." (Documents on the case were recently posted on the Zoological Institute's Web site.)

Møller has followed with a series of rebuttals. In a 12 November 2003 letter, he assailed the committee for "blatantly erroneous and morally and legally unjustified" conduct and claimed that an unnamed expert, working with the data files he had given the committee and without his guidance, had arrived at the findings published in the original paper. In a statement that Møller distributed widely to colleagues earlier this month, he claims his accusers were motivated by a grudge.

Most observers are reserving judgment until Møller gets his day in court. "He has to go through hell now if he's going to get his name cleared," says evolutionary biologist Paul Harvey of the University of Oxford.

A more detailed article about this case will be published in the 30 January issue of Science (www.sciencemag.org).

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