Peter Chen is stepping down as research director of ETH Zurich over allegations of data falsification

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

A cloud of unanswered questions and potential legal difficulties is hanging over the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, following the news that internationally recognised chemist Peter Chen is stepping down as its research director over allegations of data falsification.

The institute made the announcement in a press release issued 21 September, saying ’there are suspicions that scientific data may have been falsified in two publications and a doctoral thesis in 1999 and 2000’ while Chen was group leader. A panel of five chemists was formed earlier this year to investigate, confirming data had been falsified.

Chen, an American and former assistant professor at Harvard University who moved to ETH in 1994, and two doctoral students co-authored papers on the spectroscopic structural clarification of hydrocarbon radicals. All three agreed with the committee that data had been falsified, but all three also denied involvement. The investigating committee failed to determine ’for absolute certain’ who was responsible, as lab books and most of the raw data for the experiments are missing.

The university stated that Chen nonetheless ’acknowledged his responsibility and decided to step down as Vice President (for research) at the end of September 2009.’ He had held the position since 2007. Chen will remain at ETH as a full professor of physical organic chemistry.

The paper with the manipulated data, published in 2000 in the Journal of Chemical Physics, was withdrawn earlier this year. The author of the doctoral thesis initially agreed to withdraw it, but retracted the withdrawal later. With a lawsuit currently pending over the issue, ETH has postponed the planned publication of the commission’s investigative report.

Ethical issues

Two ethics experts contacted by Chemistry World both say that on the basis of currently known information, it appears that Chen and ETH Zurich have conducted themselves properly during and after the initial internal and subsequent committee investigations.

However, Ulrike Beisiegel, director of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at University of Hamburg Medical School, and chair of the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) ombudsman committee for good scientific practice, says she would like to know more about events between 2001, when the first of several efforts by other research teams failed to reproduce the ETH results, and January 2009, when Chen requested an investigation. ’I would definitely ask them what happened between 2001 and 2009. That is something that could be asked.’

The ETH press release does not specifically say when doubts first emerged, stating: ’After the projects were published, however, other research groups working in the same field obtained significantly different results. Subsequently, Chen’s group set about seeking an explanation for the discrepancies in conjunction with a former post-doctoral researcher’s group.’

Jeffrey Kovac, chemist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, US, and author of a book titled The Ethical Chemist: Professionalism and Ethics in Science, says the experiments in question are difficult. Chen and investigators would have needed substantial amounts of time to try to replicate them. ’Work of this nature moves very slowly so I am not troubled by the time delay,’ he says. However, Kovac says attempts should be made to answer the biggest question, and that is which of the three falsified data.

Two key players in the drama declined interview requests from Chemistry World. Chen said: ’At this time, all interview requests should be routed to (ETH Zurich) President Ralph Eichler.’ When ETH was contacted by Chemistry World, Eichler was out of the office and not immediately available for comment, according to ETH spokesman Roman Klingler. However, Klingler confirmed that a lawsuit had been filed, but declined to identify the plaintiff.

University of Basel chemist Andreas Pfaltz, who chaired the five-member investigating committee, said: ’The report of the committee is still confidential due to a court order. Therefore, I cannot talk about this case until the report has been officially released.’

Questions of trust

In an interview published in the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Eichler, when asked whether the question of ultimate guilt for the data falsification can remain an 

open question, replied that ’at the moment’ no other investigatory options are available.

When asked whether Chen’s co-authors have also suffered the consequences, Eichler said that as long as guilt has not been determined, official disciplinary actions are not legally possible. ’That is an unsatisfactory situation, but one I must live with,’ he said, adding that the two other co-authors left ETH long ago. Swiss new articles have said one of the co-authors is now at a German university and one, who was responsible for the doctoral thesis, is a financial analyst at a major investment bank.

Eichler, asked whether Chen can remain an effective ETH professor, said that he continues to have full trust in Chen, adding that what happened to Chen as research group chief can happen to anybody.

Beisiegel agrees, saying that even as department head, she cannot read all theses of doctoral candidates in her department if she is not the designated supervisor. Referring to the departmental professors, she says: ’I have to trust my people.’

Kovac says only a pattern of misconduct would require that Chen resign his professorship. Nonetheless, Kovac says: ’Clever manipulation is hard to detect, but the standards of scientific ethics suggest that the co-authors should have been more careful to examine the original data and make sure that the published results conformed to the raw data.’

Kovac suggests that ETH should be asking itself some serious questions, such as was there appropriate supervision of graduate students, were there meetings where the original data were examined or were results transmitted by students or postdocs as reports or drafts of papers? And referring to the missing lab journals and data, he adds: ’There is clearly a need to review the standards of record keeping.’