Q&A: After 1 year of investigation, a controversial biology paper was finally retracted

Oct. 31, 2021, 10:29 p.m.

A biology paper co-authored by Ken A. Thompson, current Stanford postdoctoral scholar, was retracted last Wednesday after a year-long investigation. The paper, which describes a way to distinguish plant species through DNA barcoding, was part of Thompson’s work when he was an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. Thompson described that he later doubted the validity of the study when he continuously failed to locate the raw data that had been handed to him. Thompson discussed his experience going from a co-author to a whistleblower with The Daily.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was it like when the work got published? 

Ken A. Thompson (KT): Honestly — I don’t really remember. I am sure I was happy, but this project wasn’t nearly as much work as the others I had published, so it wasn’t as satisfying.

TSD: When was the first time you suspected that something was wrong?

KT: I don’t think there was really “one moment” where I suspected something might be wrong. Rather, it was a slow burn. As I did more and more science, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about this paper didn’t seem right. It was just too clean, and I felt it was odd that I didn’t see the raw data. Eventually, after about five or six years, I finally decided that I needed to look at the raw data. When I tried to, I found that it had never been archived as we said in the paper — I couldn’t find any record of it. This is what ultimately made me decide to go to the University [of Guelph] for an investigation.

TSD: What was your initial response to that suspicion?

KT: I didn’t do anything for years. There is really no incentive in terms of “career”-related things to be honest about this and challenge one of your own papers. It’s kind of paralyzing. Having published a few more papers made it easier to overcome those bad incentives, because I really did want to do the right thing, but it is really a tough ask for a junior scientist to martyr themselves in the name of truth.

TSD: What helped you go through the process of exposing this misconduct? 

KT: The most important thing that got me through was support from mentors and friends. Without them, there is no way I would have been so stubborn to keep hammering at this nail. I was also positive that my concerns were justified and so really was motivated to seek out the truth and get some resolution.

TSD: What was particularly frustrating and what was particularly helpful? 

KT: It was unbelievably frustrating to be repeatedly rebuffed by some of the top people at the University of Guelph, who didn’t take my claims seriously in the slightest. Support from senior faculty was key, but what really turned the tide was sharing the story with the public who turned out to be very supportive.

TSD: In the earlier coverage of this story by “Science,” you mentioned how Jonathan Pruitt’s scandal inspired you to take action. What went into your mind back then?

KT: After the Pruitt situation, I realized that whistleblowers are not treated with admonishment but rather their actions are appreciated. Once I realized that people would likely be somewhat sympathetic to my situation, it was easier to say something. Also, it identified people who[m] I could reach out to for advice, and this was critical for helping me to understand what my options were. In particular, Dr. Emilio Bruna at the University of Florida was a tremendous help back in January of 2020. 

TSD: Looking back, is there anything you would have approached differently? 

KT: I really do think that I did everything right here, knowing what I knew at the time. I regret nothing. To expect an undergraduate to doubt data provided by a tenured professor, especially in a course for credit, is simply not realistic given relative levels of experience and the power differential. 

TSD: How has your scientific journey been since that incident in 2014? 

KT: Fantastic! I find I am more excited about my work now than ever before and am looking forward to, hopefully, decades of enriching science.

TSD: How has this incident affected the way you approach science?

KT: Fortunately, this is the only situation like this I’ve been in. But now I’d pick up on some red flags that I missed earlier, such as data with an unclear origin that tell a very clear story. I now especially always make sure to back up my files because having access to original files from 2014 was key.

TSD: And your attitude towards academia?

KT: I am more cynical, skeptical about the commitment of University administration, especially at the University of Guelph, to their stated goals. It seems to me that the last thing they want to do is uncover an ugly truth, and they would rather make the problems go away. Impartial working scientists should operate these systems, and the power should be taken away from administrators.

TSD: How do you feel about continuing research in academia? 

KT: I feel great about continuing to be a researcher. I love what I do and feel incredibly grateful that I get to do it.

TSD: What is your current research about at Stanford? 

KT: Right now, I am focusing on hybridization, and specifically how ecological processes mediate the growth and survival of hybrid organisms. I am interested in understanding how new species come to be, and studying hybridization is directly relevant to this question. So still biology, but quite different from what I did during my undergraduate [degree]!

TSD: What would you say to junior scientists or trainees in a similar situation?

KT: It’s important to recognize that you’re a victim here. Trust is an essential part of science and always should be. Find impartial mentors who are familiar with COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) guidelines to advise you. Get your friends and colleagues to check your intuition and keep a paper trail. Do your best to play by the rules of the game but recognize that it is an uphill battle. There may be situations where you are truly stuck, and it might get easier to come forward in the future. If you do come forward, in my experience people are very reasonable.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kristel Tjandra is a biomedical scientist who is passionate about science communication and journalism. Contact her at thegrind 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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