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University Of Utah Concludes Investigation Of Controversial 'Nanochopsticks'

Misconduct: Former student solely responsible for manipulated images, committee finds

by Bethany Halford
November 12, 2014

Credit: Nano Lett.
Manipulation of the nanochopsticks in this TEM from the supporting information for a Nano Letters paper initiated a University of Utah investigation.
Credit: Nano Lett.
Manipulation of the nanochopsticks in this TEM from the supporting information for a Nano Letters paper initiated a University of Utah investigation.

Officials at the University of Utah have concluded that a former graduate student, Rajasekhar Anumolu, is solely responsible for manipulated images that appeared in two American Chemical Society publications. ACS also publishes C&EN. The principal investigator in the case, Leonard F. Pease III, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the school, was cleared of any misconduct.

Jeffrey R. Botkin, University of Utah’s associate vice president for research integrity, tells C&EN that the investigation began June 2013, when the university was contacted by editors of the journal Nano Letters regarding images in the paper “Chopstick Nanorods: Tuning the Angle between Pairs with High Yield” (2013, DOI: 10.1021/nl400959z).

The paper, authored by Anumolu, Pease, and a Utah coworker, reported the fabrication of gold nanorods that had the appearance of chopsticks. Their tips touched, forming an angle that the researchers claimed could be tuned. Shortly after publication, readers contacted the journal to point out that transmission electron micrographs (TEMs) in the report appeared to have been manipulated. The so-called nanochopsticks looked as if they’ve been cut and pasted.

The manipulated images came to the attention of the larger chemistry community when they were reported by Mitch André Garcia on Chemistry Blog on Aug. 13, 2013. Garcia, who now works at C&EN, says that he was alerted to the manipulated images by an anonymous tip. Nano Letters retracted the paper on Aug. 15, 2013.

Garcia also combed through other papers authored by Anumolu and Pease. In the supporting information of a 2011 ACS Nano paper (DOI: 10.1021/nn103585f), Garcia found one TEM in the supporting information where an oval and a rectangle appeared to obscure small parts of the image. He informed Botkin of the manipulation and wrote about it on his blog. The paper was retracted from ACS Nano on Nov. 3 following the university’s investigation. Botkin says an investigation committee made up of three University of Utah professors found that Anumolu was solely responsible for the manipulated images. As a result of the misconduct, Anumolu was not awarded his doctoral degree. He did not respond to C&EN’s request for an interview.

The committee also looked at Pease’s involvement, Botkin adds, “but they did not feel there was a rationale for making a determination of misconduct for Dr. Pease.” Pease declined a request to speak with C&EN. When asked in an e-mail why he chose to retract the ACS Nano paper rather than publish a correction, Pease replied, “Because I have no tolerance for any cheating of any kind.”

Although the Nano Letters paper acknowledged funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, and the ACS Nano paper also acknowledged NIH support, Pease subsequently indicated that no federal funds were used for the research. The university’s investigation “confirmed that federal funds weren’t used for the work in question,” Botkin says, although the federal agencies have not yet confirmed that they agree with the university’s determination.



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Goran (November 13, 2014 3:09 AM)
The ever increasing number of submissions and the steady pressure put on students and professors paired with a "strong will for success" will lead to this kind of publication. However, it is not only the student and his professors to be blamed, what about the reviewer? Sometimes, I am baffled when reading publications that have made their way into a journal like Nature or, in this case, Nano Letters.
Ronald (November 13, 2014 9:55 AM)
The professor got off way too lightly and should be severly repremanded. He is negligent, inviolation of scientific ethics, clearly failed to take a close look at the data in his own paper and supervise the data collected by his graduate student. The scientific careers of both these two individuals should be over and held as an example for others.
Fred (November 13, 2014 10:26 AM)
Why did UU throw the student under the bus and take no action against the supervisor? The images are clearly faked, even to a layperson. It strains credulity way past the breaking point to believe that the advisor reviewed the images and helped write the paper without detecting the problem. Will UU now grant tenure to this person?
Marvin (November 13, 2014 9:03 PM)
The professor AND the reviewers got off too easily. It doesn't take an expert to see that at least this image was assembled like a scrapbook page. I wouldn't even venture to say that it was "manipulated" because each of the so-called nanorods still have the solid backgrounds from the image(s) they were cut from. Science is all about obtaining and presenting evidence to support one's assertions. In this case, the persons involved obviously failed to do the most fundamental thing, which was to scrutinize the evidence.
Murli N (November 15, 2014 9:17 AM)
I find it extremely hard to believe that the supervising professor/co-authors could not have detected the forgery. Are they such chumps? Do they actually have legitimate PhDs? I think the university found the easiest path and saved themselves embarrassment in the short term. In the long term, this is going to create a corrosive research atmosphere.
Mams (November 15, 2014 10:56 AM)
First cheating was done by Authors, second mistake was initiated by supervisor and finally what is the job done by reviewer!!! Image clearly shows copy and paste....I can't imagine....Journal is nanoletter so obviously reviwers are well experienced about TEM PHOTOGRAPHY !!!! Were they blind too ?
Pete Gannett (November 15, 2014 1:22 PM)
The student involved should obviously suffer the consequences of falsifying the data. The Faculty member overseeing the student should also be penalized. The data is so obviously the result of cut-n-paste and the PI should never have let this paper be submitted. He is, as the article above states, the PI and therefore is the responsible party. There is the assumption that the communicating author has reviewed the work and is satisfied with the claims. If he was satisfied then he has no business being a PI. If he did not review it, same thing, he has no business being PI.
David (November 17, 2014 5:16 PM)
This professor is either a fool or an oppurtunistic cheat. University of Utah hired him clearly due to his good academic pedegree and education at an ivy league institution but all that has been tarnished due to his embarrasing actions. Shame! He should be fired not rewarded.
A.Chandrasekaran (November 26, 2014 11:14 AM)
Without time travel, I don't understand how it is possible to change past fund uses. This seem to set a precedent about retracting fund assignments! From the PI part, this seems to be more deliberate than not even looking at the TEM, which is THE finding. No excitement about THE finding, not even curious? If one is not curious, they are not doing science. Too obvious to have gone this far but the fund use retraction is the icing on the cake, which is also too obvious to be accepted!
Professor (January 20, 2015 3:23 PM)
Thanks for this comment. If Pease isn't using his federal grant funding on the papers where he claims to be, maybe he shouldn't get grants.
Sally (January 4, 2015 9:36 PM)
This is insane. The PI is not at all responsible for the content of the work? Then why was his name on the paper?

Pease is paid six figures because his lab is his responsibility.

I wonder how objective this investigation committee was.
Update (August 1, 2015 8:08 PM)
He no longer appears on the Department's list of faculty ... perhaps the finding by the University was more about preserving their future ability to gather grants rather than a true "exoneration" of the professor.
Thanks for the update (December 13, 2016 11:32 AM)
I too noticed he isn't on the list of UU faculty any more, although he is still on some UU pages. He appears to have moved to PNNL now. I wonder if they give his group a license to use PhotoShop there too.

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