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MIT investigation finds former brain researcher falsified data

A former neuroscience researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology falsified data in a published study, according to an internal inquiry. The paper, which described a method to visualize interactions between molecules in brain cells, has been retracted.

Associate chemistry professor Alice Ting, the senior author of the paper, wrote in a retraction notice published Thursday that her lab discovered that the technique described in the journal Cell in 2010 could not be reproduced, sparking the internal inquiry.

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“MIT found that the first author, Dr. [Amar] Thyagarajan, falsified or fabricated figures in this publication,” Claude Canizares, associate provost and vice president for research at MIT, wrote to the journal. “MIT’s investigation also found that Dr. Thyagarajan was solely responsible for the scientific misconduct that resulted in the falsified or fabricated data.”

Thyagarajan did not sign the retraction notice. He is no longer at MIT, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Allen.

In response to questions about the retraction, Ting e-mailed a new paper published Thursday in the journal PLoS ONE that, she said, “addresses the technical aspects” of the original technique. The new study reports the details of her lab’s unsuccessful efforts to reproduce the first technique, called BLINC. The technique, the new paper says, did not work as described, so scientists redesigned some of the procedures and tools to make it work. The paper also introduced a new method called ID-PRIME that she said was a more versatile way of studying molecular interactions in kidney and brain cells.

Retraction Watch, the blog that first reported the retraction, received a statement from Thyagarajan, who now works for Clark & Elbing, a patent law firm in Boston.

“I was not contacted by Cell about their decision to retract the paper. I want to be clear that the retraction was done over my objection,” Thyagarjan said. “I stand by the data that was published and the methodology that I developed. . . . The findings against me were the result of a deeply flawed and sloppy investigation that ignored evidence that someone had tampered with and deleted my data, after the publication of the paper, and made it look as if I had falsified data.”

Thyagarajan said the matter is now being investigated by the federal Office of Research Integrity, which looks into allegations of misconduct when the research has been supported by federal funds.

“I expect to have a full and fair opportunity to be heard before impartial factfinders and am confident that my innocence will be established,” Thyagarajan wrote.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.
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