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Volume 89 Issue 28 | p. 4 | News of The Week
Issue Date: July 11, 2011

Reports Detail A Massive Case Of Fraud

Misconduct: Documents reveal Bengü Sezen’s winding trail of deception
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Research misconduct, scientific fraud, Bengu Sezen

Download the report from the Department of Health & Human Services here.

Bizarre new details of the Bengü Sezen/Columbia University chemistry research fraud case are revealed in two lengthy reports obtained by C&EN last week from the Department of Health & Human Services. The documents—an investigative report from Columbia and HHS’s subsequent oversight findings—show a massive and sustained effort by Sezen over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results.

Sezen was found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which is housed at HHS, in late 2010 (C&EN, Dec. 6, 2010, page 10). A notice in the Nov. 29, 2010, Federal Register states that Sezen falsified, fabricated, and plagiarized research data in three papers and in her doctoral thesis. Some six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Columbia chemistry professor Dalibor Sames have been withdrawn by Sames because Sezen’s results could not be replicated. The ORI findings back Columbia’s own investigation.

The Sezen case began in 2000 when the young graduate student arrived in the Columbia chemistry department. “By 2002, concerns about the reproducibility of Respondent’s [Sezen’s] research were raised both by members of the [redacted] and by scientists outside” Columbia, according to the documents, which were obtained by C&EN through a Freedom of Information Act request. The redacted portions of the documents are meant to protect the identities of people who spoke to the misconduct investigators.

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

[+]Enlarge
This NMR spectrum from Sezen’s doctoral thesis—also presented in published research papers—shows the peaks of desired reaction products that she created whole cloth from merging simple spectra and applying correction fluid.
Faked NMR from Sezen thesis/research papers.
 
This NMR spectrum from Sezen’s doctoral thesis—also presented in published research papers—shows the peaks of desired reaction products that she created whole cloth from merging simple spectra and applying correction fluid.

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity, and a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young colleagues of Sezen’s: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

In this matter, the reports echo sources from the Sames lab who spoke with C&EN under conditions of anonymity when the case first became public. These sources described Sezen as Sames’ “golden child,” a brilliant student favored by a mentor who believed that her intellect and laboratory acumen provoked the envy of others in his research group. They said it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Sames retaliated when other members of his group questioned Sezen’s work.

Attempts to reach Sezen for reaction to the detailed reports have been unsuccessful. Sames also has not responded to requests for comment.

After leaving Columbia, Sezen went on to receive another Ph.D. in molecular biology at Germany’s Heidelberg University. At some point during the Columbia investigation, however, Sezen vanished. Her legacy of betrayal, observers say, remains one of the worst cases of scientific fraud ever to happen in the chemistry community.

 
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