Multiple Instances of Misconduct in Croce's Cancer Research Lab

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

July 25, 2022

An investigation into a prominent cancer researcher's lab has revealed multiple instances of research misconduct, including data falsification and plagiarism.

The cancer researcher, Carlo Croce, MD, is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and is a professor of medicine at the Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus. Allegations of misconduct and data manipulation have surrounded Croce for decades, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News.

Now a report in Nature has revealed that formal investigations conducted by OSU found multiple instances of research misconduct in articles authored by two researchers, Michela Garofalo and Flavia Pichiorri, while they were affiliated with Croce's laboratory.

A third investigation into Croce's involvement ultimately found that he was not guilty of research misconduct, but the investigators criticized how he managed his laboratory. He was instructed by OSU to retract or correct more than a dozen articles containing a multitude of problems that included plagiarized text or falsified images.

Two Researchers Linked to Misconduct

The findings of these investigations were released to Nature under a public records request. The findings, which came to light in 2020 and 2021, are the first regarding research misconduct that relates to work conducted in Croce's lab.

The investigation found that Pichiorri was responsible for nine cases of research misconduct in three articles that involved falsifying research data when generating figures. Pichiorri was conducting postdoctoral work in Croce's lab when one of the articles was published. During the initial OSU inquiry, she said that she had made mistakes when reusing some of the images, having been overwhelmed with work and pressured by Croce to complete the research. She also admitted being disorganized and having limited skills with imaging software. During the final investigation, she stated that she was not responsible for the figures referred to in the misconduct allegations.

Nature reports that it received a statement from Pichiorri in which she repeated that she was not responsible for any of the alleged errors and that the scientific results remained valid.

For Garofalo, the committee found 11 cases of research misconduct in eight articles that were published while she was part of Croce's laboratory, including seven that were co-authored with Croce. Garofalo told the committee she had not understood the meaning of plagiarism until allegations were raised in 2015 and that by that time, she had left OSU. She stated that she didn't realize that sentences shouldn't be copied without appropriate quotation marks and citations.

Croce informed the committee that his team was given adequate training concerning plagiarism and research ethics, but many members of his lab disagreed with that. He also said that he reviewed the raw data generated from his team, but the OSU investigators countered that if he had done so, he would have identified problems with the data.

OSU ultimately recommended that Garofalo and Pichiorri, both of whom had already left OSU, be banned from being rehired by the university.

Both Garofalo and Pichiorri challenged the findings from these investigations in statements made to Nature. Garofalo called the findings that related to her "false and discriminatory," while Pichiorri said the findings related to her were "biased and discriminatory." They both also commented that "legal action will be taken."

Previous Report of Misconduct

Allegations of research misconduct at Croce's laboratory have been circulating for more than a decade.

A 2017 investigation by The New York Times led to the publication of a lengthy list of allegations of data falsification and other scientific misconduct that the newspaper had obtained from federal and state records, whistle-blower complaints, and correspondence with scientific journals.

In 2013, an anonymous whistle-blower, using the pseudonym of Clare Francis, contacted OSU as well as federal authorities and reported that 30 of Croce's articles contained falsified data. The university declined to investigate at that time. In a letter to the whistle-blower, Caroline C. Whitacre, PhD, vice president for research, explained that the Office of Research Integrity at OSU had reviewed the situation and had decided that "no further action" was needed. "As such, the Ohio State University considers this matter closed," Whitacre stated in her letter.

In 2014, David A. Sanders, PhD, a virologist and associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, also criticized Croce's work, alleging falsified data and plagiarism. As a result of complaints by Sanders and others, journals began posting notices of problems with Croce's articles.

According to Retraction Watch, by 2017, when The New York Times reported its investigation, Croce had logged five retractions. In addition, multiple articles have been questioned on PubPeer, a website that allows users to discuss and review scientific research. Several of these articles were co-authored with Alfredo Frusco, MD, an Italian cancer researcher who was under investigation for scientific misconduct. Nine articles authored by Frusco have been retracted.

However, The New York Times noted that Croce had not been penalized for misconduct by the federal oversight agencies nor by OSU. In fact, the university cleared him regarding at least five cases that involved his research or grant money.

Some accusations of misconduct go back further in time.

In the early 1990s, Croce and a colleague were accused of submitting false claims for payment of grant money for research that was never conducted. This research was supposedly overseen by a scientist who had left the United States.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health withdrew a grant proposal submitted by Croce. The basis of the withdrawal was that major sections of the proposal were essentially identical to those in a proposal submitted 4 months earlier by one of Croce's junior colleagues.

Croce was cleared in both cases.

He subsequently filed a lawsuit against The New York Times claiming defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also filed a a defamation lawsuit against Sanders. A judge dismissed most of his claims against The New York Times, and he lost the defamation case against Sanders.

Few Retractions, More Lawsuits

Croce remains employed at OSU with a salary of more than $820,000. He holds an $843,904 grant from the National Institutes of Health for research into genetic variants in cancer.

However, according to Nature, he was stripped of an endowed chair last year, and he was removed as chair of the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics in November 2018. Croce contested in court the grounds for this removal but ultimately lost the case.

Although Croce has been cleared of misconduct, Nature reports that the dean of OSU's College of Medicine, Carol Bradford, told Croce the investigators had been "very troubled by the management of your laboratory" and that after reviewing the investigation report, she had "deep reservations" about his approach to his obligations as a principal investigator.

She has stipulated that Croce develop a data-management plan, that he undergo extra training, and that original research generated in his laboratory be monitored for 3 years by a committee comprising three faculty members.

In response, Croce has filed yet another lawsuit against OSU, this time seeking damages and requesting to be reinstated to his endowed chair.

Because he was exonerated of charges of misconduct, Croce has also demanded that OSU "advertise in national media outlets equivalent to the New York Times" that he was cleared of all charges of research-misconduct allegations.

Croce's lawsuit argues that the OSU investigation committee had conflicts of interest and that the investigation took longer than it needed to reach its conclusions. The board denies these allegations, and the case is ongoing.

Thus far, only a few of the articles that are said to contain plagiarism, instances of data falsification, or other errors have been retracted or corrected.

Nature reports that it unclear whether the US government's Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which was notified about the finding of the investigation, will take further action. The ORI can review university investigations and has the authority to order them to investigate further, and it can conduct its own investigation. It can also issue sanctions against researchers under which they would be banned from receiving federal funding.

Roxanne Nelson is a registered nurse and an award-winning medical writer who has written for many major news outlets and is a regular contributor to Medscape.

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