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Stem Cells - Reyes Side of the Story

From the Star-Tribune:

U researcher tells her side

By Dr. Morayma Reyes

October 8, 2008

I freely admit that errors were made that merit a correction in the Journal. These were honest errors in part due to inexperience, poor training and lack of clear standards and guidelines about digital image handling and proper presentation.

That said I completely disagree with the statement that ‚Äúthe manipulation misrepresented experimental data and sufficiently altered the original research record to constitute falsification‚Ä?.

This incorrect statement stemmed from a difference of opinion about the interpretation of the results which clearly reflects lack of expertise by the UMN panel in the research area in question, stem cell biology.

Indeed I requested UMN to give proper consideration to difference of opinion and to be given a chance to be heard by a second panel with expertise in stem cell biology. The University denied both requests.

UMN was very unfair and failed to follow the appropriate procedures. The panel composition did not include a student, violating University’s policy http://www.policy.umn.edu/groups/ppd/documents/procedure/AcademicMisconduct_proc2.cfm.

Immediately after I received the decision from UMN I requested a meeting with Dr. Mulcahy, the deciding officer, to discuss disciplinary actions and to have the opportunity to request a hearing to challenge the decision of falsification, as per University’s policy http://www.policy.umn.edu/groups/ppd/documents/procedure/AcademicMisconduct_proc3.cfm.

The UMN denied my request for a hearing because I am not a University employee. I think it is very unfair for graduate students or former graduate students to be denied the rights for a hearing and subsequent appeals because of ambiguities of the University’s policy.

One accusation was about a duplicated western blot that appears twice in the paper. The use of a duplicated western blot in reverse orientation was an inadvertent error.

We found the original western blots that should have been used in place and the interpretation of the results would have been the same had we shown the correct western blot.

The other three allegations were related to image manipulation. I acknowledged that the figures in question were manipulated by global changes (e.g. adjustment of brightness and contrast). These practices were well accepted in the scientific community at the time (1999-2002).

Based on the current standards the alleged manipulations could be considered inappropriate (violate the guidelines but do not change the interpretation of the results) but not fraudulent manipulations in which the image is intentionally altered to cause others to believe as true that which is not true.

The UMN panel did not accept the distinction between inappropriate vs. fraudulent manipulation.

The report asserts that images were edited with a photoeditor. Dr. Mulcahy described the findings as "photoshopping things out or adding things in" (www.startribune.com).

If that is true, I not only had nothing to do with such manipulations I did not even have access to photoediting software.

The panel knows this and makes the accusation despite its own conclusion of no evidence that any computer I used at the time could have had photoediting software. I could not have possibly ‚Äúaltered orientation of bands, introduced lanes and covered objects or image density in certain lanes‚Ä? and then merge the figure in Power Point 97 as the UMN panel claimed I did.

They also ignored the findings of two outside consultants, one, Mr. Reis, a major national figure in forensic image analysis, showed that the assertion can not be proven from the available data.

The UMN panel did not have preponderance evidence to prove their allegations and did not give proper consideration to the evidence I brought in my defense that these errors were unintentional and were common and accepted practices at the time.

I am left with concern that the University's findings may have been intended to narrow the issue rather than addressing the standards used at that time by UMN and by other investigators in the field of stem cell biology.

I want to emphasize that this problem continues today and is not just specific to me or to the Verfaillie lab.

I have learned a hard lesson. Image manipulation is a big problem nowadays with the availability of photo editing software such as photoshop and even tools built into many instruments, e.g. confocal microscopes, that offer ample opportunities for improper adjustment of an image without warning.

I personally believe that, just like in my case, in the majority of cases image manipulation results from lack of education, ignorance, inadequate supervision and training of students by mentors who may themselves be unaware of the problems such manipulation can cause. I regret very much these errors and never had the intention to deceive. These errors did not alter the conclusions of the paper and these experiments and research have been reproduced by other independent groups.

As for my future plans I hope that the scientific community will come to the conclusion that these were honest unintentional errors that did not affect the conclusions of the research. I have learned a great deal about proper ways to handle digital images and I have adopted and implemented these new guidelines.

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