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Multiple Instances of Misconduct in Croce’s Cancer Research Lab

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An investigation in the lab of a prominent cancer researcher uncovered several instances of research misconduct, including data falsification and plagiarism.

Cancer researcher Carlo Croce, MD, is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and professor of medicine at The Ohio State University (OSU) in 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 official investigations by OSU uncovered several instances of research misconduct in papers written by two researchers, Michela Garofalo and Flavia Piciorri, when they were associated with Croce’s lab.

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A third investigation into Croce’s involvement ultimately found him not guilty of research misconduct, but investigators criticized the way he ran his lab. He was commissioned by OSU to retract or correct over a dozen articles containing a variety of issues, including text plagiarism or falsified images.

Two investigators linked to misconduct

The results of these studies were published in the journal Nature at the request of public records. The findings, which came out in 2020 and 2021, are the first in regards to misconduct related to work being done at Croce’s lab.

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The investigation found that Pichiorri was responsible for nine instances of research misconduct in three articles, which included falsifying research data in creating the figures. When one of the papers was published, Pihiorri was doing postdoctoral work in Croce’s laboratory. During OSU’s initial investigation, she said she made mistakes in reusing some of the images because she was overworked and forced Croce to complete the research. She also admitted to being disorganized and having limited skills in imaging software. During the latest investigation, she stated that she was not responsible for the figures indicated in the allegations of misconduct.

Nature reports that it has received a statement from Pichiorri in which she reiterates that she is not responsible for any of the alleged errors and that the scientific results remain valid.

For Garofalo, the committee found 11 cases of research misconduct in eight articles that were published while she was at Croce’s lab, including seven articles co-authored with Croce. Garofalo told the committee that she didn’t understand the meaning of plagiarism until the allegations were made in 2015, and that by then she had left OSU. She stated that she did not understand that sentences could not be copied without appropriate quotation marks and quotations.

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Croce told the committee that his team had been properly trained in plagiarism and research ethics, but many in his lab disagreed. He also said that he reviewed the raw data received from his team, but OSU investigators countered that if he had done so, he would have identified problems with the data.

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Ultimately, OSU recommended that the University be barred from rehiring Garofalo and Pichiorri, who had already left OSU.

Both Garofalo and Pichiorri disputed the results of these studies in statements in the journal Nature. Garofalo called the findings regarding her “false and discriminatory”, while Pichiorri said that the findings regarding her were “biased and discriminatory”. They both also noted that “legal action will be taken.”

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Previous Misconduct Report

Allegations of improper research at Croce’s lab have been circulating for more than a decade.

A 2017 investigation by The New York Times led to the publication of a long list of allegations of data falsification and other scientific misconduct that the paper had obtained from federal and state reports, whistleblower complaints, and correspondence with scientific journals.

In 2013, an anonymous whistleblower under the pseudonym Claire Francis contacted OSU, as well as federal authorities, and reported that 30 of Croce’s articles contained falsified data. At the time, the university declined to investigate. In a letter to a whistleblower, Caroline K. Whitacre, Ph.D., vice president of research, explained that Ohio State University’s Office of Research Integrity has reviewed the situation and determined that “no further action” is required. “Therefore, Ohio State University considers this matter closed,” Whitacre said in her letter.

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In 2014, David A. Sanders, Ph.D., a virologist and associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, also criticized Croce’s work, alleging data falsification and plagiarism. As a result of complaints from Sanders and others, journals began reporting problems with Croce’s articles.

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

However, The New York Times noted that Croce was not prosecuted for misconduct by either federal oversight agencies or OSU. In fact, the university has acquitted him on at least five occasions related to his research or grants.

Some allegations of misconduct are a thing of the past.

In the early 1990s, Croce and a colleague were accused of filing false claims for a grant for research that had never been done. Presumably, this study was overseen by a scientist who left the United States.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health withdrew a grant application submitted by Croce. The reason for the withdrawal was that the main sections of the proposal were essentially identical to the sections of the proposal submitted 4 months earlier by one of Croce’s junior colleagues.

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Croce was acquitted on both occasions.

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

Few denials, more lawsuits

Croce still works at OSU with a salary of over $820,000. He received an $843,904 grant from the National Institutes of Health for cancer genetic research.

However, he was removed from his position last year, and in November 2018 he was removed from his position as head of the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics, Nature reports. Croce challenged in court the grounds for this suspension, but ultimately lost the case.

Although Croce was cleared of misconduct charges, Nature reports that OSU College of Medicine dean Carol Bradford told Croce that investigators were “very concerned about your lab leadership” and that after reviewing the investigation report, she had “deep reservations” about his approach to his duties. as chief investigator.

She demanded that Croce develop a data management plan, that he receive additional training, and that the original research done in his lab be overseen for 3 years by a committee of three faculty members.

In response, Croce filed another lawsuit against OSU, this time seeking damages and reinstatement.

Since he was cleared of misconduct charges, Croce also requested that OSU “advertise in the national media equivalent to the New York Times” that he was cleared of all charges of research misconduct.

Croce’s lawsuit alleges that the OSU investigative committee had a conflict of interest and that the investigation took longer than it needed to come to its conclusions. The board denies these allegations and the case continues.

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

Nature says it’s unclear if the US government’s Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which has been notified of the investigation’s findings, will take further action. The ORI may review university investigations and has the power to order them to continue their investigation, and may also conduct its own investigation. It could also impose sanctions on researchers that would prevent them from receiving federal funding.

Roxanne Nelson is a registered nurse and award-winning medical columnist, a contributor to many major news outlets, and a regular contributor to Medscape.

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