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 The paper was retracted from ACS Nano on Nov. 3 following the university’s investigation.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.