A highly-paid, globally-renown geneticist appears to have failed in his duties to oversee lab research which possibly has led to years of widespread scientific fraud. Investigations into this matter at University College London have found data falsification in a total of nine scientific papers published by David Latchman’s lab.
Buzzfeed generated data via a freedom of information request in the UK. The ongoing manipulation and reuse of images to falsify results didn’t include direct Latchman involvement. However, an inquiry into the matter essentially found him to be “reckless” faulting the prominent geneticist for “failure to manage the laboratory appropriately.” Given Latchman was named as the author of the research that included falsified data as we say in some part “the buck stops there with him” as both reports to inadequate management of the scientific research.
What is Going on at University College London (UCL)?
The Buzzfeed story written by Peter Aldhous produces more evidence of an underlying challenge with not research misconduct but the need to monitor and from time to time, corrective action. For example, the news agency dug up evidence of a UCL investigation in 2015 uncovering “prima facie evidence of research misconduct.” The investigators concluded, “In light of the seriousness of the matter…the Panel considered that the mater should be referred directly to UCL’s relevant disciplinary process or other process and bypass the Formal Investigation stage.”
Some of the Activity
Once news of issues with Latchman’s lab started to spread back in 2015 there was a retraction of a paper published in 2002 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, without any explanation. Next another retraction just two months later in Journal of Cell Science which conceded “misrepresentation” of images in the paper published in 2005 and their “misuse and re-use” to represent different scientific results.
The lab team was led by Anastasis Stephanou who at least appeared to take some accountability for the second paper’s misrepresented images. It was stated in the retraction that “The corresponding author, A.S., regrets the inappropriate figure manipulations of which the co-authors were completely unaware.”
UCL documentation obtained by BuzzFeed reveals that at end of 2013 an anonymous whistleblower alleged misconduct in 28 papers from the Latchman lab going back as early as 1997.
A panel of UCL scientists was formed to consider allegations into the UCL labs more thoroughly. Delivering a damning report in March 2015, they concluded there was “prima facie evidence of research misconduct.” The panel suggested all eight research papers from the Latchman lab be retracted—only two have been so thus far.
No Disciplinary Actions
Apparently from 2015 through 2018 nothing happened. UCL issued a statement noting that they reviewed the matter (e.g. the Latchman investigation) and found that there was no deliberate intention to commit misconduct in research and, therefore, there were insufficient grounds for dismissal. Moreover, one of the other scientists involved in the previous incident had left the university so there was no way to address that individual’s behavior.
Possibly Just an Isolated Occurrence in an Otherwise Venerable Institution
It is not clear whether these incidents of research paper manipulation and falsification simply represent isolated incidents or reflect some deeper, more endemic challenges. A prestigious institution ranked 4th in the UK, the elite public research institution goes way back—founded in 1826 as London University. It was the first university institution established in London and the first in England to be entirely secular—admitting students regardless of religion. It claims to be the first University to admit women. As an institution with over a century of accomplishment, it hardly doesn’t need defense.
UK Lawmakers Concerned However about Research Institutions
Reputation and academic history of excellence aside, British lawmakers have in fact some serious concerns about research institutions such as UCL however. These concerns are evidenced by a recent report noting Britain’s research universities may be failing to adequately police research misconduct.
Authored by The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the report titled “Research Integrity Sixth Report of Session 2017-19” reveals the political class’ concern about a “lack of consistent transparency” leading to challenges in assessing the scale of research integrity issues “leading to accusations that parts of the sector are policing themselves in a secretive way in order to maintain reputation, or worse, a perception that investigations are not conducted properly in order to avoid embarrassment.” Although the UK lawmakers believe fraud is rare they are, however, quite concerned that there is a lack of sufficient investigation into claims of research data manipulation, for example.
As TrialSite News is dedicated to research site transparency (focus on preclinical to clinical) we appreciated this UK House of Commons Report; of course, we invite similar types of reports for legislative accountability in places such as the UK and USA as well–but that is another topic.
Looks Like a Dead End
UCL spokesperson Kirsty Walker informed BuzzFeed that “We will not be adding anything further.” Moreover, Shimon Cohen, a PR professional aiding Latchman noted that “Latchman rejected the assertions made in the investigation reports.”
David Latchman Background
Establishing high credentials for studying the genetics of heart disease and cancer, David Latchman has published hundreds of research papers. By 2013 he was made the head of Birkbeck, part of UCL but he was able to remain in control of his lab under a part-time appointment. As Master of Birbeck, He has expressed protest at UK government proposals to cut funding for second degrees. A vocal advocate of part-time degrees, he has been an advocate for part-time degrees pressuring government support for greater access for adults to higher education. A dynamic, engaged and intelligent operator, we suspect Latchman perhaps has taken on too much-leaving gaps in managerial oversight back at his lab.