A day after Switzerland’s tabloid press published headlines like, “Research Chief of ETH Resigns after Data Manipulation,” Switzerland’s top university, ETH Zürich (Swiss Federal Instititute of Technology), is struggling to repair its reputation—and that of professor Peter Chen, the university’s Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations. On Monday, the university announced Chen’s resignation as Vice President after a university investigation concluded that a member of his lab had fabricated data for papers published a decade ago. But the university’s announcement left it unclear who was responsible for the fabrications, sparking the uncomfortable headlines. And for legal reasons, the university said, it could not release the investigative committee’s full report. Today, the report has been widely leaked. It exonerates Chen, a well-regarded organic chemist, as well as a former post doc who was involved in the investigated experiments. It places blame on a former doctoral student, who no longer works in science and, according to Swiss media, is now suing ETH Zürich to block publication of the report.
Chen, who studies the characterization of molecules as they undergo chemical reactions, asked for the investigation after other groups had trouble reproducing results from two papers and a dissertation, all published in 2000.
A five-member investigation committee commissioned by the university found that noise patterns recurred in several figures showing spectral data; each figure’s noise should have been distinct. Chen and his two coauthors involved in the experiments all agree that data must have been manipulated, the university said in its statement on Monday. All three, however, denied to investigators that they fabricated the results. Because the lab notebooks and raw data files dealing with the experiments have disappeared, it has not been possible to legally determine who is at fault, according to the university. Chen told ETH Zürich that as group leader, he took responsibility for what happened in his lab and therefore would resign his post in the administration.
In July, the authors published an Erratum on one of the papers involved, “Zero kinetic energy photoelectron spectra of the allyl radical, C3H5” (The Journal of Chemical Physics 113, 561 (2000)). In the same issue, Chen—this time with different coauthors—published a paper with a new analysis of the allyl radical. Marsha Lester, editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics, says that the October issue of the journal will carry a retraction of the other paper, "The zero kinetic energy photoelectron spectra of the propargyl radical, C3H3" (The Journal of Chemical Physics 112, 2575 (2000)). The commission also found that the dissertation should be retracted. The author of the dissertation initially agreed to withdraw it, but then changed his mind, according to the university’s statement. The Neue Züricher Zeitung reports today (link in German) that the change of heart came at the last minute, scuttling the university’s plan to release the investigators’ report at the same time as they announced the resignation. According to the newspaper, the former student has sued the university, blocking the report’s official release.
A copy of the report obtained by ScienceInsider indicates that the committee does not find fault with Chen or another coauthor, Ingo Fischer, who is currently a professor at the University of Würzburg in Germany. The Ph.D. student at the time left research after receiving his degree and now works as an analyst for an international bank. (An assistant at his office told ScienceInsider that he is on vacation.) The report notes, “We have verified the presence of laboratory notebooks of more than forty former Ph.D.’s and post-docs of the Chen research group. No laboratory notebooks of T. G. [the Ph.D. student] were present in the collection.”
Fischer, who says he and Chen spent “considerable time” trying to find an explanation for the discrepancies, says the university acted properly in its investigation. “In the end, it is a positive message for science. If you cheat, the risk of getting caught does not go away, even a decade later.” He says, however, that he is much more careful about record keeping than he was before the investigation. “All the lab books [of former group members] are kept in my office,” he says.
ETH Zürich President Ralph Eichler expressed disappointment to ScienceInsider that Chen had stepped down but was “very happy” that he was staying on as a professor. Eichler says he is satisfied with the way the university handled the case. “Science would slow down or die in an atmosphere where the professor has to suspect any result from his students or collaborators.” He says he hopes the publicity surrounding the story will serve as a deterrent, however. “The most important lesson of the story is: Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. You cannot hide it forever. In science you live from reproducible results.”