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 also married, will be fired if they don’t willingly resign, Blackwell said.
Donghern Kim, a 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.
The swift decision was 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 seven grant proposals and at least 13 published articles authored by the trio. 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.”
The university’s investigation began more than a year ago after an October 2018 story in 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 aim was to identify environmental factors that negatively affect Appalachian Kentucky residents’ health, including what leads to the region’s 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 conducting 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.
The university’s investigative committee members found evidence of “patterns of potential data inconsistencies,” and, in some cases, an “intentional effort to deceive, and in other cases, careless and reckless handling of experimental data” throughout seven grant proposals and 60 published papers from the trio between 2012 and 2019.
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 UK Vice President for Research Lisa 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, their charges will be given to the UK Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure for further action, which will include termination, Blackwell said.