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Oversight of BU cancer researcher accused of misconduct is questioned

A 2010 report by a Boston University investigating committee obtained by the Globe reveals the types of evidence gathered to show that an assistant professor had fabricated data. The report also raised the question of whether there was sufficient oversight by those that mentor junior faculty.

Last summer, the federal Office of Research Integrity issued a finding that Sheng Wang, a BU cancer researcher, had fabricated data in two published papers. The papers were retracted from the journals, and as of July 15 last year, Wang no longer worked at BU.

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The report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, provides a deeper look at the evidence used to support the case against Wang, including logs of his presence at work, anecdotal reports that he had never been seen using some of the equipment needed to produce the data in question, and a lack of records that supplies had been ordered that would have been necessary to do the research. The report also sounds a warning note to those who are responsible for helping supervise junior researchers.

“The Committee of Inquiry expressed a concern that the administrative oversight of Dr. Wang’s research by the Boston University Cancer Research Center and/or by the Boston University Office of Sponsored Programs, in these or in other matters, was lax,” the report stated. “The Committee would like to stress the important role that must be taken by departmental chairpersons and by research center directors in the oversight and mentoring of junior faculty, in particular in regard to proper research record-keeping and to maintaining the highest level of ethical and academic standards.”

In a statement provided to the Globe, Ara Tahmassian, associate vice president of research compliance at BU, said, “The University continues to emphasize to all faculty the importance of mentoring new scientists, both students and junior faculty, in the areas of research integrity and in the proper maintenance of complete and accurate laboratory records.”

He expressed gratitude to Wang’s colleagues, who brought the problems to light. “The integrity of scientific research ultimately depends on the accuracy of the data reported by the individuals who are engaged in the research, and the University is confident that this finding of misconduct represents the actions of a single individual,” Tahmassian wrote.

Much of the information is redacted from the report for privacy reasons, but investigators gathered testimony from members of the BU Cancer Research Center. Three people “each reported that they have rarely seen Dr. Wang perform laboratory work during recent years. ... They judged that the amount of work done by Dr. Wang (and his students) was not at all sufficient to produce the amount of data published in” at least some of his recent papers.

The investigating committee found that Wang had received training on one of the machines used to generate data, but that he had not been observed using it. Another machine called the sonicator, which is very noisy, had not been heard being used, nor had colleagues observed him using incubators necessary for the research.

In an e-mail to a dean, Wang said that he worked beyond ordinary business hours, and suggested that experiments might have occurred when colleagues were not there, according to the report. In particular, he wrote that sonicator experiments occurred “at the times when others are not present or briefly stepped out.”

The committee reported that entry logs to his laboratory indicated that he did not work on weekends.

As the investigation proceeded, Wang submitted his lab notebooks and files associated with the research -- a standard step in investigations of research misconduct. Some were found to be missing.

In another e-mail sent to a provost, Wang wrote that he had “discovered that our research records stored in the shared lab have been disturbed and many of them are stolen. Other items including computer have also been reported stolen,” according to the report. The committee did not have additional evidence of a theft, and recommended an investigation to determine whether records were stolen. However, the report adds: “The Committee notes that entry logs show that Dr. Wang entered and left the R-9 laboratory 13 times” the day after he was asked to collect all his lab notebooks and records and provide them to the university, “far in excess of his normal patterns.”

Last July, Wang entered into an agreement with the US Department of Health and Human Services, prohibiting him from receiving grants from federal agencies for two years, and he agreed not to serve in an advisory capacity to committees of the federal government.

The two retracted papers included fabricated figures involved charts used to show the outcomes of experiments that measured gene activity or the interactions between proteins and DNA.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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