Exclusive: Investigators discovered plagiarism and data manipulation in work from a major cancer lab

Over the last decade, concerns have circulated over the work of Carlo Croce’s famed US cancer-research group at Ohio State University (OSU). Croce, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, rose to prominence with his research on the impact of genes in cancer. However, he has faced claims of plagiarism and manipulated photos in research from his group for years. Eleven of the publications he co-authored have been withdrawn, while 21 have needed changes.

OSU in Columbus launched an investigation into Croce’s lab papers five years ago. Although the university has not released the findings, Nature has learned that they were followed by formal investigations, two of which discovered multiple instances of research misconduct — including data falsification and plagiarism — by scientists Michela Garofalo and Flavia Pichiorri in papers they wrote while working in Croce’s laboratory. The results, issued in 2020 and 2021, are the first decisions of scientific misconduct linked to work done in Croce’s lab. OSU provided them to Nature in response to a public records request.

Nature has also learned via legal procedures Croce started following the results that a third official inquiry found last year that Croce was not guilty of scientific misconduct. However, investigators faulted his laboratory management, and OSU ordered him to withdraw or modify more than a dozen articles that had errors such as plagiarized text or faked photos. Croce was deprived of an endowed appointment, the John W. Wolfe Chair in Human Cancer Genetics, by OSU in September. He is still working at the institution and earns more than $820,000 per year. He also has a $843,904 grant from the US National Institutes of Health to study genetic changes that may contribute to cancer.

Garofalo and Pichiorri questioned their separate OSU research in remarks to Nature. Garofalo labeled hers “false and prejudiced,” while Pichiorri called hers “biased and discriminating.” Both said that “legal action would be taken.”

Croce, meantime, is suing the university’s board of trustees to reclaim the chair, claiming more than $1 million in damages for its conduct. He told Nature that, although he acknowledges that there are inaccuracies in some of his lab’s articles, which he claims will be fixed, the overall frequency of error in his lab’s output is minimal. “My lab has always done excellent work,” he adds.

According to Elisabeth Bik, a research-integrity consultant in California, the findings of OSU’s probes have been eagerly awaited by scientists who examine misbehavior, mistakes, and other issues with research articles. “This looks to be a lab where there has been a significant lot of pressure on lab members to generate particular findings, with minimal mentoring and checks for the integrity of the data.” “Croce should accept responsibility for any outcomes published in his name,” she argues.

OSU’s actions in reaction to the results are unique. It is unusual for a university to pursue such disciplinary measures over work from the lab of such a distinguished and highly recognized researcher; Croce has won more than $100 million in US federal funds as a principle investigator over the course of his career, as well as hundreds of accolades.

And, despite the fact that OSU ended its investigations last year, several of the publications in which investigators discovered flaws have yet to be withdrawn or updated.

The first accusations

Concerns about Croce’s laboratory work first gained widespread attention in 2017, when The New York Times reported on allegations of research misconduct against Croce — including e-mails sent to journals about some papers as early as 2013 — and reported that multiple OSU inquiries had cleared Croce of wrongdoing. Croce later filed a slander suit against the Times. He also sued David Sanders, a biologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who was cited in the newspaper report and voiced concerns about the study. Croce eventually lost both lawsuits.

Following the Times piece, Sanders, who had already contacted journals to express his concerns, addressed some claims directly to OSU. Other complainants voiced same concerns, and the university launched further investigations into Croce’s lab activities.

Garofalo and Pichiorri had already departed the institution at that point. Garofalo joined the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institution at the University of Manchester in 2014, but the institute states she departed in 2020; she refused to comment on her present location. Pichiorri works at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, where she has been since 2016. She now has government funds totaling more than $2 million to research therapies for the bone marrow malignancy myeloma. (Nature contacted City of Hope, which refused to respond; Pichiorri underlined that her own remark was a personal one.)

Misconduct findings

OSU’s inquiry led to official investigations by a committee. According to the committee’s final report, by April 2020, it had held Pichiorri liable for nine counts of research misconduct in three articles, all involving misrepresenting research data while creating numbers. One of the findings was published when Pichiorri was a postdoc in Croce’s group (she later became a principal investigator at OSU). In response to the original OSU inquiry, Pichiorri said that she had made errors in repeating some photographs, was swamped with work, and was under Croce’s pressure to complete the report. She admits to being unorganized and having minimal experience with imaging software. During the final inquiry, however, she said that she was not responsible for the statistics in the misconduct charges. She also said that she had had no instruction on how to create numbers and that she had worked under Croce’s supervision. In her response to Nature, she reaffirmed that she was not responsible for any apparent flaws in the research at question, and that their scientific findings remained legitimate.

In Garofalo’s case, a committee discovered 11 instances of scientific misconduct — seven instances of plagiarism and four instances of image fabrication — in eight publications published while she was in Croce’s laboratory (of which 7 were co-authored with Croce). According to the final report, dated October 2021, Garofalo told the committee that she didn’t understand the meaning of plagiarism until allegations were raised in 2015 — by which time she had already joined the University of Manchester — and didn’t realize that sentences shouldn’t be copied without appropriate quotation marks and citations. She went on to say that there was a lack of supervision at the Croce lab. According to the report, Croce, who was questioned for the inquiry, said that he had made researchers aware of the danger of plagiarism and that there was enough training in the lab. OSU investigators suggested that Garofalo and Pichiorri be barred from rehiring at the institution.

Garofalo told Nature that in certain cases, OSU “deliberately disregarded” data that revealed she wasn’t responsible for some of the instances of plagiarism they assigned to her in order to “build up a case of misconduct.” She also said that some of the plagiarism was small and should not be considered misbehavior, and that image defects in publications had no bearing on the study.

OSU refused to comment on Garofalo’s remark and had not responded to Pichiorri’s by the time Nature went to press.

Croce investigation

OSU also undertook an inquiry into Croce, and he e-mailed the final report to Nature (after the university said it could not release the findings). According to this report, dated July 2021, the committee found that Croce’s charges did not merit findings of research misconduct since he had not directly copied material or misrepresented numbers. However, investigators found flaws in numerous articles, including those in which Garofalo or Pichiorri was found to have committed data falsification or plagiarism. The committee also said that it “believes that the improper behavior of individuals working in Dr. Croce’s laboratory, which resulted in the incidence of picture falsifications or text copying, was attributable in part to Dr. Croce’s inadequate mentoring and lack of monitoring.”

Croce told investigators that his staff had proper training on plagiarism and scientific ethics, but the committee stated several of his laboratory workers rejected this. He also said that he evaluated raw data from his team, but the committee stated that if he did, he would have discovered that several members had improperly organized their data.

According to a September 2021 letter included in Croce’s later lawsuit against the OSU board of trustees, Carol Bradford, dean of the university’s college of medicine, told Croce that the investigators had been “very troubled by the management of your laboratory” and that after reviewing the investigation report, she had “deep reservations” about Croce’s approach to his obligations as a principal investigator.

Bradford wrote that she was withdrawing Croce’s endowed chair, as recommended by investigators. (According to OSU, the chair was not paid.) This was Croce’s second chair removal: in November 2018, the university informed him that he will be removed as chair of the department of cancer biology and genetics. He challenged the basis for the removal in court, but eventually lost.

Bradford also asked Croce to create a data-management strategy, get further training, and have his laboratory’s original study data evaluated for three years by a committee of three academic members.

However, Croce, via his attorneys, disputed these measures in court, demanding damages and reinstatement to his endowed chair. He also requested an injunction ordering the institution to “advertise in national media channels akin to the New York Times” that he had been cleared of research misconduct claims. Croce claims in the complaint, case number 2022-00187JD in the Ohio Court of Claims, that the OSU investigative committee had conflicts of interest and that the probe ran longer than it should have. The university’s board of trustees disputes any allegations of inappropriate behavior on its or OSU’s behalf. The investigation is underway.

Croce claims in his response to Nature that just one of the 11 retracted publications he co-authored was a core scientific piece from his group.

Journal articles were not withdrawn.
Very few of the articles in which OSU discovered plagiarism, data falsification, or other mistakes have been withdrawn or amended.

The final report from Pichiorri’s misconduct inquiry, released in April 2020, suggested that two previously corrected manuscripts — one in Cancer Cell and one in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) — be withdrawn. They hadn’t been by July 2022. According to an OSU spokeswoman, the relevant journals were contacted in January 2021 and again in November 2021, and “the choice to withdraw, revise, or issue an expression of concern is up to the journal editorial team and publisher.” JEM editors did not answer to Nature’s inquiries, and a spokesman for Cell Press, which publishes Cancer Cell, stated the company could not comment on specific instances.

The OSU investigations that Nature has seen discovered flaws in 18 additional studies and propose that at least 15 of these be fixed or, in some circumstances, withdrawn if numbers cannot be checked against research records. (Six of these studies had already been rectified, but investigators stated they required more.)

So far, one manuscript has been retracted, two papers have been revised, and one paper has gotten an editor’s notice. Garofalo told Nature that she had contacted every publication she had been requested to contact.

The retraction was published in the journal PLoS ONE1 in April of this year; it states that Garofalo and the paper’s corresponding author, Gerolama Condorelli — a cancer researcher at the Federico II University of Naples in Italy — “did not agree” with the retraction and that all other authors have not responded directly or could not be reached; it also states that Garofalo and Condorelli had responded to say that the investigation by OSU “is being When asked whether it was accurate in July, an OSU official stated, “the data are not being questioned at this time.”

It’s unclear if the US government’s Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which OSU claims it alerted about its findings of wrongdoing, would take any additional action as a consequence of the university’s investigations. The ORI, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), may evaluate university investigations and occasionally compel them to be redone. It can also reach its own conclusions on malfeasance in research funded by HHS. The HHS may then impose punishments on researchers, including prohibitions on receiving government funds. When asked for comment on the OSU investigations, a spokeswoman for the ORI informed Nature that the ORI cannot comment on prospective cases.