In October 2020 and 2021 I reported a total of 21 papers published by Professor Vojtěch Adam that contained image problems. Vojtěch Adam is a professor in chemistry, and head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, at Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic. He is a top Czech researcher in cancer and nanotechnology.
Today, a day before his appointment as the new Rector (Dean) of Mendel University, a committee released a report of their findings from an investigation into twelve of these papers. Their conclusions came as a big surprise.
Update February 12: Professor Adam resigned from his position as rector-elect on January 31, 2022, one day before his start date.
If they receive allegations of scientific misconduct, universities sometimes carry out internal investigations. Unfortunately, many such cases are swept under the rug. Even if multiple papers have been flagged with strong evidence of image manipulation, research institutions like to keep up appearances and to protect their star researchers, especially if these researchers bring in a lot of grant money and prestigious authorships. Examples of instances where top researchers have walked away unscathed after allegations of science misconduct investigated by their institutions are plentiful (here, here, and here).
But the Czech/German committee that investigated the Vojtěch Adam et al. papers came to a surprisingly different conclusion. The committee found issues ranging from gross negligence to clear cases of data manipulation, and recommended the retraction of between six and nine papers.
A prolific author
Aged 42, Professor Vojtěch Adam has been a very prolific writer. His faculty page lists a whopping 720 records as of today. The scholarly website Dimensions.ai is a bit more modest, but still shows he has published 579 papers. That’s roughly one a week for the past 10 years.
Adam has also been awarded a large Starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This 2018 article states he had earned a million euros in cancer research grants, matching this Cordis record of a 2018 ERC grant of almost 1.4 million euros.
First image problems found in 2019 and 2020
In October 2020, a PhD student brought to my attention a 2018 paper published by Dr. Adam in Oncotarget. It appeared to contain some duplications. I agreed, and posted the concerns on PubPeer, supplemented with an additional finding by Petr Svoboda via Twitter.
After this first example, I examined a couple of other papers from the same author, and found an additional seven with image concerns. Problems in two other papers had already been found by PubPeer users Thallarcha lechrioleuca in November 2019 and Actinopolyspora biskrensis in March 2020.
I did not have time to do an extensive search. With such a big oeuvre and a steady stream of requests to look at other papers, I only searched a subset of papers from the Adam lab. By the end of 2020, nine papers co-authored by Vojtěch Adam had PubPeer posts.
Elected to be the new Rector, but more problems arise
In October 2021, Professor Adam was elected as the new Rector of the Mendel University in Brno, with his appointment starting in February 2022. During a Twitter discussion, it was brought up that about a dozen of his papers had been discussed on PubPeer for image problems. A good question was asked. Should someone suspected of misconduct be elected as the Dean of a university?
After this discussion I decided to examine a larger set of papers from Adam’s group, and found several more with image problems. All of these — now making a total of 21 papers — were posted by me on Pubpeer. Others joined the search.
Leonid Schneider summarized the concerns about most of these papers in a blistering blogpost on For Better Science. He wrote:
“Adam, a holder of a €1.4 million ERC research grant, whose ORCID record shows over 900 co-authored papers, himself claims to “have never fraud or falsify data.””
The Investigation and the Report
Because of the upcoming Rector appointment, the image concerns found in 26 Adam et al. papers, and a lot of media attention, the three institutions with which Prof. Adam is affiliated — MENDELU, Brno University of Technology (BUT), and Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) — announced that they would form a committee to investigate the reported allegations.
As per the Investigation Report released today, the committee consisted of six members representing the three affiliated institutions, as well as a broader scientific community.
The committee investigated a subset of twelve papers on which Dr. Adam was the corresponding author. The members came to the strong conclusion that six of these papers should be retracted, and that another three could be retracted.
The report mentions experiments that could not be found in the lab notebooks, “raw” images created with Powerpoint, “original” images that were low resolution scans unlikely to have originated from a microscope, and blot images without markers and labels. It’s a fascinating read.
For each paper, the Report describes the original allegations, whether or not raw data was found or supplied by Professor Adam, what the committee thought of the supplied replacements, and a recommendation about correction or retraction.
The Report ends with some strong words. It states: “Whenever discrepancies are so obvious that they can be discovered simply by visual inspection, a doubt is cast on the entire piece of work.” They describe some of the findings as a “clear case of scientific misconduct“.
And, with a clear reference to Adam’s prolific career, they write “Adaptive behaviour towards high volume publishing is detrimental to the quality of science.“
Compliments for a job well done
A great many things went well here, and I have to commend the committee members for how they handled this case.
- The committee investigated with rigor and speed. The investigation was started at the end of October 2021, and the report was released today, just three months later. This is fantastic, compared to the years and years that other universities take — often never reaching an endpoint at all.
- The report includes many details about the process, the findings, and the data obtained from Dr. Adam. It provides an openness I have never seen before about the process and the note book findings.
- The investigation was not handled internally and independently by each of the individual research institutions behind closed doors, but by a collaborative team of scientists from the three Czech research centers, as well as from other Czech and German institutions. This made it less likely that each institution might try to hide any concerns they found from the outside world.
- The committee members did not blindly accept the ‘raw data’ provided by Professor Adam. Instead, they found that these ‘original’ figures did not match the published images, or that they appear to have been recently created or assembled.
- The committee members made better decisions than the journal editors, some of whom naively accepted the author’s new figures and issued corrections for some papers. For example, in this Chemical Papers article, where an image panel appeared to contain duplicated parts, the journal accepted a new figure panel supplied by Adam et al. and issued a Correction. The committee, however, was less gullible, and now recommends a retraction. They wrote: “This does not inspire confidence that the replacement image is coming from the same set of microscopy experiments and therefore the Committee recommends a retraction of the paper.“
A big compliment, therefore, to the Czech/German committee members for the way they handled this investigation. I am so grateful to see that there are some research institutions and communities that truly value scientific integrity.
This is a remarkable report.