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Fired Researcher Denies Blame For Disputed Data

Research Integrity: Former GSK R&D leader in China claims mix-up in paper was inadvertent

by Jean-François Tremblay
June 20, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 25

CORRECTION: A version of this story published online on June 18 stated Jingwu Z. Zhang was asked not to contact certain people because of a disputed paper. Zhang says the paper was not mentioned, and this story has been revised to reflect that.

A former GlaxoSmithKline executive, Jingwu Z. Zhang, who was in charge of the company’s neuroscience R&D effort worldwide as well as its China research operations, says he is being unfairly blamed for allegedly misrepresenting data in a research paper published in Nature Medicine in 2010 (DOI: 10.1038/nm.2077).

Credit: JF Tremblay
A GSK R&D building in Shanghai, where Zhang built up a 400-person organization in six years.
One of several buildings forming the GSK R&D center in the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Shanghai.
Credit: JF Tremblay
A GSK R&D building in Shanghai, where Zhang built up a 400-person organization in six years.

The paper concerns a hypothesized genetic link for multiple sclerosis. Earlier this month, GSK announced that it had fired Zhang and suspended three other China-based researchers after an internal investigation discovered problems with the data (C&EN, June 17, page 20). GSK says the paper should be retracted. The paper is still on Nature Medicine’s website, however, and a spokeswoman for the journal says it does not comment on retractions that may or may not be in progress.

Appearing shaken by the damage done to his reputation as well as confused by what he characterizes as GSK’s decision to pin the blame on him, Zhang tells C&EN that his conscience is clear. “I do take responsibility for the paper; I was a corresponding author,” he says. “But I was not involved in the minute details.”

Zhang says he was fired for “influencing [GSK’s] investigation,” but he denies doing so. According to Zhang, GSK officials told him not to contact certain people because they were being investigated. Zhang says he was unaware that the investigation concerned the paper and that he was also a target. So he disregarded the order and contacted the people, as well as another manager, in an effort to review all projects in that department. “I was trying to explore what issues might have triggered this investigation,” he says. “This was a manager’s natural reaction.”

Of Zhang’s protestations, GSK says: “We are confident in the thorough investigation we conducted and the actions we have taken as a result of our findings. We will not tolerate activity and behavior that falls short of the high standards expected from our employees.”

The paper included a figure labeled as data from multiple sclerosis patients that were in fact data from healthy patients. The mislabeling of the data, Zhang says, was the result of a mix-up that neither he nor his coauthors noticed. The mislabeled figure was not the key part of the paper, he says. “The other five figures, which were about the animal models, they were the substance.”

Research on multiple sclerosis has formed the basis of his career since 1986, Zhang says. “I’ve been meaning to cure this disease.” When he was hired at GSK in 2007, Zhang says, he formed a project team focused on multiple sclerosis. His goal was to try to explain a connection between the illness and a gene coding for the protein interleukin-7 that had been reported in the literature. “I wanted to know the exact link between this gene and MS and explain it through biology,” he says.

No other multinational drug company has assigned the management of a whole disease area to China, Zhang says of his leadership of GSK’s neuroscience R&D efforts. Now, he worries that the research paper data controversy may adversely affect the development of world-class pharmaceutical R&D in China.


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