ETH president talks to Chemistry World about the allegations of research fraud within Peter Chen's research group

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

Last week’s announcement that chemist Peter Chen is stepping down as head of research of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich over allegations of data falsification in his research group triggered headlines around the world. Two research papers, published in 2000 and authored by Chen and two members of his research group, a postdoctoral researcher and a doctoral candidate, were withdrawn from publication earlier this year after Chen realised the data had been falsified.

Despite a lengthy statement on the matter from ETH Zurich, many questions over the affair remain unanswered, partly because the university is under court order not to release a report compiled by an independent investigative panel of five chemists.

In an interview with Chemistry World, ETH president Ralph Eichler is asked some of those questions.

CW: It was known as early as 2001 that another research team had failed to reproduce the ETH results in question. But Chen did not request an investigation until January of this year. Can you please explain why it took about 8 years to request an investigation?

Eichler: You do not suspect a fraud in the first place. Many other explanations of the discrepancy with the other measurements have been searched for, such as e.g. miscalibration. Time was also lost because the whole laboratory was moved to another part of the town. In 2008 finally the original experiment was rebuild and the data could not be reproduced. Only then came the suspicion of data manipulation.

CW: Can you please tell me when you first learned about possible doubts about the paper? And when did you first learn that data might have been manipulated?

Eichler: Chen asked me in January 2009 to install a committee to investigate the case and retracted a first paper.

CW: Was Chen the supervisor for the doctoral candidate’s thesis?

Eichler: Yes

CW: Your press release says the doctoral candidate first agreed to retract his thesis, but later changed his mind. Can you tell me approximately when he first agreed to retract the thesis and when he changed his mind?

Eichler:  We were informed about the change of mind concerning the retreat of the doctoral theses one working day before we informed the public about the data manipulation.

CW: Can you confirm that a lawsuit has been filed against ETH Zurich in an attempt to stop publication of the investigating committee’s report?

Eichler:  A lawsuit has been filed against ETH Zurich in order to prohibit any publication of the report. In Swiss law, the publication of the document is therefore not allowed until a final decision is taken as to whether the document can be published or not. Swiss law gives individuals the right to request a court to prohibit a publication of a document if they feel that their personal integrity (in German: Pers?nlichkeit) is likely to be damaged by such a publication. The court competent in our case is the Federal Administrative Court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht). I don’t know when the court will decide.

CW: Have any other lawsuits have been filed in connection with the data manipulation case? If yes, can you please tell me more about these lawsuits? Can you tell me who filed the lawsuits and whether anyone in addition to ETH is named in the lawsuits?

Eichler:  I hope you understand that given the pending legal procedure, I won’t be able to answer your question. 

CW: 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 attempts should be made to answer the biggest question, and that is which of the three falsified data. Can you say whether there are any legal options under Swiss law open to ETH, either in criminal or civil court, to help discover who is responsible for the manipulated data?

Eichler:  Despite a thorough and independent investigation, crucial documents [lab notebooks and the raw data] are missing. For the same reasons as mentioned above, I can’t make any more comments on this point.

CW: You are head of one of the top scientific universities in the world. In the world of science, fraud sometimes occurs. Do you expect your research group leaders to always uncover fraud if it occurs? Or would this be asking too much of leaders who also need to trust their people?

Eichler:  Trust is absolutely essential for any research activity. It is not possible for the group leader to control every detail of a doctoral thesis. The task of the group leader is on one hand to ascertain that the work as a whole is consistent and free of contradiction. On the other hand the rules and regulations concerning the supervision of academic work must be respected. 

CW: Do you feel Chen, as group leader, bears any responsibility for being a co-author of a paper with falsified data?

Eichler:  Chen has taken his responsibility for the manipulation of data that happened in his group ten years ago. He did so because he thought that in his current position as vice-president for research and corporate relations his ability to act would be compromised. We understand his decision which merits respect. We regret on the other hand to lose a very competent member and a highly valued colleague of the Executive Board at ETH Zurich.

CW: Kovac also has posed several questions he feels ETH should now be asking itself, such as was there appropriate supervision of graduate students. And referring to the missing lab journals and data, he says, ’There is clearly a need to review the standards of record keeping.’ Can you please respond to Kovac’s comments?

Eichler:  Many of the questions are answered in the report we are not allowed to release. There is no evidence so far that the rules of record keeping were not respected at the time. We have found out that the missing notebook is the only one of all PhD students of Chen. As far as the standards of record keeping are concerned, they are settled in our Guidelines for Research Integrity and Good Scientific Practice which became effective on 1 January 2008.

CW: Are there any additional comments you would like to make?

Eichler:  This incidence made clear, that manipulation of data can theoretically occur in every research team. It cannot be completely avoided with stronger regulations. On the other hand there is a great likelihood that manipulation in science will be discovered one day. This is the other lesson of this case. Finally, trust remains an important and basic value in any research team.