“Data or it didn’t happen” is a mantra of academic science. But when Anastasis Stephanou, who led a research group at University College London studying the biology of heart disease, was asked for the data behind a 2006 paper whose results were being called into question, he was unable to provide it.
The incident, described in a 2007 email obtained by BuzzFeed News, shows that some UCL officials were aware of concerns about data fraud in research overseen by leading geneticist David Latchman, in whose lab Stephanou worked, more than a decade before launching a formal investigation.
The email adds to concerns that UCL dragged its feet in investigating data falsification in Latchman’s lab and ultimately failed to hold anyone to account.
“The allegations you refer to were not raised under UCL’s formal complaints procedure at the time,” UCL spokesperson Kirsty Walker told BuzzFeed News by email.
“As a world leading university, UCL is committed to maintaining and safeguarding the highest standards of integrity in all areas of research,” Walker added. “We take any allegations of research impropriety very seriously and have rigorous systems in place to ensure that all allegations are investigated thoroughly and that they are constantly reviewed to ensure the highest standards are met.”
By 2018, two formal investigations had concluded that Latchman’s research group had published nine scientific papers that contained falsified data. Stephanou was held directly responsible for much of the falsification but resigned from UCL before disciplinary action could be taken against him. He has denied falsifying data.
Latchman was faulted for “recklessness” and “failure to manage the laboratory appropriately.” But UCL took no disciplinary action against him. He continues to hold the part-time position he has had at UCL since 2003, when he was appointed head of Birkbeck, also part of the University of London, just a few blocks away.
“Two separate disciplinary processes into Professor Latchman found that there was no deliberate intention to commit misconduct in research and, therefore, there were insufficient grounds for dismissal,” UCL said in a statement released last year.
The 2007 email describes meetings between Stephanou, Andrew Copp, who was then the dean of UCL’s Institute of Child Health (ICH), where Latchman’s lab was based, and Peter Scambler, another senior scientist at the ICH. The meetings were held after Scambler was contacted by a member of Stephanou’s research unit, who suspected that results in the paper purportedly describing heart muscle cells isolated from adult rats were fraudulent.
Given the difficulty of working with these cells, “it seemed very unlikely to him that the data included in this paper using these cells could have been obtained in a bone fide [sic] manner,” Copp wrote in the email, sent to Stephanou and cc’d to Latchman and Scambler.
The email describes a meeting on Sep. 26, 2006, when Stephanou told Copp and Scambler he didn’t have the underlying data, which he said had been prepared by Lauren Valentim, the first author of the paper. She had already returned to her home country, Brazil.
Copp’s email said he and Scambler had made “strenuous efforts” to contact Valentim to determine whether she had the data, but were unsuccessful. (BuzzFeed News was also unable to reach her for comment.) After a second inconclusive meeting with Stephanou on Jan. 22, 2007, Copp closed the matter but warned Stephanou that his explanation was not acceptable.
“It is essential that everyone who leads a group at ICH is able to fully validate their published data,” Copp wrote. “As group leader, it is your responsibility to ensure that you have copies of all data that support papers in your name.”
Stephanou, who is now deputy dean of the School of Medicine at the European University Cyprus in Nicosia, told BuzzFeed News by email: “I still stand with the results of the 2006 paper.”
“I told all individuals working in my group to keep all their laboratory note book/data and to make sure that they leave this with me before departing to another position,” he added.
Yet in 2014, Stephanou told an internal panel of three senior UCL scientists responding to other allegations of widespread misconduct in Latchman’s lab that he had no primary data for any experiments conducted before 2010. He again blamed researchers who had departed with their data, together with a lab move, which had reduced storage space.
In March 2015, the panel concluded there was “prima facie evidence of research misconduct” in eight papers from Latchman’s lab. Stephanou was involved with six of these papers, including one published in 2010, for which he was again unable to provide the underlying data.
“Professor Latchman noted that he had spoken to Dr Stephanou in the past about keeping primary data, as this was an area of concern,” the panel’s report said.
In a statement issued through his PR consultant in response to queries from BuzzFeed News about the 2007 email, Latchman said Stephanou was working independently by that time.
“As his mentor, Professor Latchman advised Dr Stephanou that it was important he followed Professor Copp’s instructions,” the statement said. “Professor Latchman would not be able to speak to why Dr Stephanou chose to ignore these clear instructions.”
No action was taken against Stephanou nor Latchman in 2015. But in 2016, two more screening panels considered further allegations of data fraud in dozens of other papers from Latchman’s lab published between 1990 and 2013. They decided that formal investigations were necessary.
In April 2017, before those investigations got started, Copp forwarded his 2007 email to Rex Knight, then UCL’s vice provost for operations, who was overseeing the process.
“Your enquiries relate to historical accounts of meetings and correspondence which we are unable to verify as they involve a number of individuals who no longer work at UCL,” Walker, the UCL spokesperson Walker told BuzzFeed News by email. (Knight has since retired, but Copp and Scambler are still at UCL.)
The investigations’ reports were not released until last summer in response to FOIA requests from BuzzFeed News and other media outlets. Latchman had been told in October 2018 that he would not face disciplinary action.
That Stephanou’s work was flagged back in 2006 adds to the frustration felt by many UCL scientists, who are already upset that the long-running probe into widespread fraud in Latchman’s labs ultimately led to no disciplinary sanctions.
Some of those who participated in the process told BuzzFeed News they are concerned that Latchman, as the only author common to all the papers and the senior scientist responsible for all the work in his lab, was not being held to account.
“Sixty-eight of his papers have been criticized as having incorrect data in them,” said Gudrun Moore, a geneticist at the ICH who was a member of the original 2015 screening panel, referring to the comments that have accumulated on PubPeer, a website where scientists anonymously pick apart controversial papers.
“But nothing happens,” Moore added.
“I am impatient about the whole thing because it’s been going on for 5 years and he is still in post,” said John Hardy of UCL’s Institute of Neurology, who chaired the 2015 panel.
In his statement sent to BuzzFeed News, Latchman said a “thorough UCL investigation” had already made its conclusions. “The attempts by individual academics at UCL to promote allegations of fraudulent behaviour against the hearing’s conclusions are unbecoming and a breach of confidentiality and good practice,” he said. “Such attempts merely perpetuate a personal agenda.”
So far, just six papers from Latchman’s lab have been retracted. They do not include the 2006 paper that was the subject of Copp’s 2007 email.
Mauro Albano contributed reporting to this story.