Karolinska VP Resigns Amid Scientific Misconduct Allegations

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

September 12, 2019

The vice-president of the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institutet, cancer researcher Karin Dahlman-Wright, PhD, has resigned her position as vice president. The university's board agreed with her decision and "relieved her from her assignment," the university said in a statement September 9.

The decision was reached in the wake of allegations of scientific misconduct by Dahlman-Wright. The allegations were submitted to the Karolinska Institutet during the summer of 2018.

"It has been made clear to me that the link that exists between 'misconduct' and my name makes it impossible for me to continue my assignment as vice president," said Dahlman-Wright in a press release.

Gothenburg University, which was requested by the Karolinska Institutet to investigate the complaints so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest, turned to the Expert Group for Misconduct in Research at the Ethics Review Appeals Board to assist in the investigation. The Expert Group then issued the report.

The report, which was submitted at the end of last week, stated that some of the errors in research on which Dahlman-Wright was lead author were so serious as to "constitute misconduct in research," although the authors did not take a stand on "whether the mistake was intentional or due to gross negligence."

"It is not up to us, as the board of Karolinska, to evaluate the criticism that was made in the statement and whether it is or is not correct," Karolinska Institutet Board Chairman Mikael Odenberg told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

"Our role, of course, is to evaluate the vice president's possibility to fulfill her assignment as vice president, and we came to the conclusion that she was correct in her assessment that it is not possible for her to continue," Odenberg said.

The board's decision involves Dahlman-Wright's role as vice president only and does not affect her position as professor at Karolinska Institutet.

Unintentional or Intentional?

Of eight published research articles, the Expert Group flagged three as potentially involving "suspicious of errors in imaging and suspicious of using incorrect images."

The articles appeared in Cancer Research , the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , and the Journal of Endocrinology .

The overall report concluded that in these articles, the errors did not ultimately affect the conclusions of the study and were "not of such a serious nature that they constitute misconduct in research." Moreover, despite "carelessness in research," there were "no strong reasons to assume that the errors were committed intentionally."

Dissenting members of the Expert Group, however, concluded that misconduct had indeed taken place in two of the three studies because the errors showed "carelessness [that] rises to a level that can be considered to be gross negligence [and] thus represents...misconduct in research."

The dissenting opinion also concluded that the "method used to manipulate the image is such a serious departure from good research practices that it constitutes misconduct in research" and that it was "intentional."

Difficult to Spot

Dahlman-Wright denies all allegations of misconduct.

"My role was as the responsible group leader up to 2015, and in that, I constantly followed how the research progressed through individual meetings with scientists, in research group meetings, and project meetings, and I read and commented on multiple versions" of the articles, she told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

"The individuals who actually assembled the figures state that duplications happened by mistake, and in three cases, the correct and the by-mistake incorporated images look very similar, which is why the conclusions are not affected and also why this was not observed when the coauthors read the manuscript," she explained.

However, "in one case, the scientist who is the first author exchanged a figure right before submission without notifying the coauthors, [which] was not noted" when the proof of the final version of the manuscript was read, she said.

"I think none of us had in mind that the first author could possibly have done this," she said.

She said that she submitted a report to Gothenburg University, noting, "As images look very similar, it is difficult to spot actual duplications" and that "in all these cases, one would really have had to look actively for the duplications to find them."

She emphasized, "In no case do the image duplications affect the conclusions."

In a blog, Dahlman-Wright noted that the mistakes "have been corrected in the respective journals."

However, it "has been concluded that the mistakes would not have occurred in a well-run lab and that I must therefore have been negligent during my time as a research group leader, most of it during a period where the role of group leader was delegated to another colleague by the head of the department."

She continued, "Strangely, there has been little evaluation of my conduct as group leader, and I am left with no answer [as to] what I did wrong or what I should have done differently in order to prevent the mistakes that were made by group members."

Platform for Stability

Anders Gustafsson, PhD, professor of periodontology, Committee for Research, Karolinska Institutet, who was appointed interim vice president, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology that he does "not have any opinions on the specific issues at hand, nor would it be appropriate of me to relay them."

Furthermore, he is "not permitted to oversee the alleged misconduct case, which is being handled in accordance with the provisions in the Higher Education Ordinance and where the final decision will be made by the president of KI."

When asked about his goals as interim vice president in bringing stability to the university after this episode, Gustafsson replied, "I sincerely believe that we already built a strong platform for stability by quickly resolving this issue at the University Board meeting."

He continued, "I am already in place as the interim vice president, and the search for a more permanent solution is already initiated."

He added, "Karin was very appreciated [as a] vice president who worked very hard for KI, so I and everyone I talk to are sorry that it had to come to this. My job is to try to take her place for a few months."

An "Ordeal"

Dahlman-Wright described the experience as "an ordeal" that has "severely affected my health and life in a negative way.

"If one has not experienced it, I think it is impossible to understand the stress when one is exposed to allegations of scientific misconduct," she added.

She said she does not currently know what her plans are with respect to future research or career trajectory.

"Being the vice president of a world leading university requires total focus on the tasks at hand. I have therefore no idea what to do next," she said.

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