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Further Fallout From Fraud Case

7 March 2001 7:00 pm
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An expert panel has criticized Roland Mertelsmann, one of Germany's best known cancer researchers, for failing to detect data falsification and manipulation that allegedly occurred in his department and in some papers on which he was listed as a co-author. Mertelsmann, head of the University of Freiburg's oncology and hematology department, immediately called the inquiry "unfair" and vowed to mount a vigorous defense.

Last June, a task force found that 94 papers co-authored by former cancer researcher Friedhelm Herrmann between 1988 and 1992 contained likely falsifications or instances of suspected data manipulation (ScienceNOW, 20 June 2000). Herrmann, who quit his post at the University of Ulm in the wake of the allegations, had worked in Mertelsmann's department at Freiburg.

Now a panel has investigated Mertelsmann's role in the questionable work. It found no evidence of falsifications by Mertelsmann, who was listed as a co-author on 58 of the Herrmann papers the task force called into question. But the panel faulted Mertelsmann for failing to monitor his department's research closely enough to detect the alleged misdeeds. The panel, headed by Albin Eser--director of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg--announced its findings on 1 March.

The panel also cited "serious irregularities" related to two articles co-authored by Mertelsmann that did not involve Herrmann: a September 1994 paper in Blood and an August 1995 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. According to the panel, these shortcomings showed "reckless violation of the rules of good scientific conduct." In a statement last week, Mertelsmann complained that he had been denied adequate access to key documents related to the allegations and had not been given the opportunity to respond before the report was made public.

At a 1 March press conference, University of Freiburg rector Wolfgang Jäger said he has asked the state of Baden-Württemberg's Research Ministry to initiate a disciplinary proceeding "to clarify the extent of [Mertelsmann's] personal responsibility" for the questioned research. A decision from the ministry is expected in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the Freiburg medical center's supervisory board has asked Mertelsmann to withdraw voluntarily from clinical research for the duration of any disciplinary hearing.

Related sites

Press release from the expert panel (in German)
The University of Freiburg