The University of Utah is investigating whether chemical engineering researchers altered images in an academic paper. The journal Nano Letters withdrew the paper on August 15th due to concerns over the integrity of the data.
The U investigation started after a chemistry blog raised questions about images in the paper. The research proposes a new method of orienting tiny man-made structures known as nanorods. This could lead to the creation of synthetic antibodies, among other things. The blog highlighted pictures of these pill-shaped structures which appear to be spliced or pasted on.
Assistant professor of chemical engineering Leonard Pease and graduate research assistant Rajasekhar Anumolu are listed on the paper. The U is also looking into allegations of photo manipulation in another paper published by the same team in a separate journal from 2011. The University’s chief of medical ethics Jeffrey Botkin says it’s premature for this case to be discussed until the investigation is completed.
“In general, we think that confidentiality of the individuals involved is important to protect until we have something definitive to say about the case,” Botkin says.
A peer-review committee is expected to come to a conclusion about whether misconduct has occurred within 4 months. Botkin says these cases of image manipulation are not unique to the University of Utah.
“It does appear to be a growing problem. Currently the majority of allegations of research misconduct in general are due to manipulated images,” Botkin says.
Earlier this month, the university released a report on a separate, investigation also related to image manipulation in a biology lab. One researcher was fired and one retired after investigations found data had been mishandled in 11 papers.