Married UK professors, scientist lose jobs over major health research misconduct

Two University of Kentucky professors and a staff research scientist have lost their jobs after being found guilty of ‘significant research misconduct’ in several published papers, according to the university.

The university has begun the termination process for professors Xianglin Shi and Zhuo Zhang in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology in the College of Medicine, UK Provost David Blackwell said Friday morning. The pair, who are married, will be fired if they don’t willingly resign, Blackwell said.

Donghern Kim, a roughly eight-year staff research scientist who worked in Zhang’s lab, has already been fired. Unless approved by the University Legal Office, the trio has been barred from contacting any members of the UK community or visiting campus, except for medical care. Although Shi, a faculty member since 2006, and Zhang, who started in 2007, will no longer be working at UK, the logistics of how the university will sever its ties with both has yet to be determined.

The swift moves were announced less than a day after a university investigation committee submitted more than 1,000 pages of findings that showed “several examples of falsified or fabricated data” throughout the articles and grant applications they investigated. UK is seeking a retraction of the papers.

In a Friday morning letter to UK faculty and staff, Blackwell and Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis said, “this matter involves a serious breach of ethics fundamental to who we are as members of an academic community.”

Only one other time in the last decade has research misconduct led to faculty termination proceedings, the university said. In 2012, Eric J. Smart, an associate professor and vice chairman of UK’s pediatrics department, resigned after officials alleged he falsified data in at least 10 published papers and multiple grant applications. He also was a Barnstable-Brown Chair in Diabetes Research.

In the “rare instances when researchers violate our expectations and standards, the university will act forcefully and without hesitation to investigate the misconduct, correct it, and take steps to prevent recurrence,” UK said in a statement.

The university’s investigation of Shi, Kim and Zhang began more than a year ago, after it received an allegation that they had falsified data in a grant application. In September, Cassis notified the trio they were being investigated for a research misconduct allegation. In an academic setting, research misconduct means material that’s fabricated, falsified or plagiarized.

The investigative committee consisted of three faculty members: Dr. Sanda Despa from the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences; Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Dr. Sidney Whiteheart of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.

Committee members investigated roughly 60 papers, including grant applications, that Shi, Zhang and Kim published between 2012 and 2018. Nineteen — seven grants and a dozen published articles — were flagged and investigated further by the committee.

Investigators found 109 pages of falsified or fabricated data, according to a large report released by UK late Friday afternoon. Of the data requested by and provided to the committee by Shi, Zhang and Kim, 117 pages were falsified or fabricated.

The committee chided the trio for “an intentional effort to deceive” and a “reckless handling” of data that was used for grants and publications, calling the behavior a “systemic problem,” the report read.

In his response to the report, dated July 16, Shi said there were “several flaws” in the committee’s findings, including how the committee issued its findings “without providing any opportunity ... to express [our] views.” Had that happened, he said, “most of these issues could have been addressed.”

Many of the fabrications and falsifications the committee noted, he said, were “honest errors or mistakes.”

He also criticized committee members for flatly accusing them of misconduct “without considering the fact that students or postdocs performed the study, analyzed the data, and generated the figures.”

Misconduct was first alleged publicly in October 2018, when Retraction Watch noted Shi had retracted three papers from the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The papers were about the cancer risks from toxic chemical exposure. The article cited “image duplication” in his papers published between 2014 and 2017.

At the time, Shi was heading a five-year, $7.4 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to establish the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES). Its aimed to identify environmental factors that negatively affect Appalachian Kentucky residents’ health. The region has disproportionately high rates of colorectal and lung cancer; cardiovascular disease; obesity; and diabetes.

Shi was removed Thursday as lead researcher of the center and replaced by Ellen Hahn of the College of Nursing, who has been researchingconducting research for the NIEHS grant since it was awarded in 2017. Shi was also stripped of his titles as the William A. Marquard Chair in Cancer Research and associate dean for research integration in UK’s College of Medicine.

In addition to fabricated information, UK’s investigation yielded several examples of “irregularities” in the work from Shi, Zhang and Kim.

Repeatedly, Zhang, Kim and Shi demonstrated “significant departures from accepted practices of research,” including their inability to provide original data used for their research when it was requested by the investigative committee, the university said.

Twice, when they provided information to the committee in response to a question, the data was found to be falsified or fabricated.

The report triggered the shutting down of both faculty members’ labs on Thursday, and included the elimination of five staff positions, the university said. The federal Office of Research Integrity will decide the status of the grants led by Shi and Zhang and whether or not further review is needed.

Blackwell and Cassis said in a joint statement that the university is “committed to a continual examination of our processes, policies, and procedures to protect against research misconduct. Our research must be conducted in an ethical and responsible manner, consistent with our published policies and standards.”

Should Zhang and Shi not agree to resign, the charges against them will be given to the UK Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure for further action, which could include a recommendation from UK President Eli Capilouto that the couple be fired. UK’s Board of Trustees ultimately would decide whether to accept that firing recommendation.