An independent panel of researchers claims to have uncovered fraud and malpractice in the research of Milena Penkowa, the controversial neuroscientist who was in 2010 given a three-month suspended sentence by Copenhagen City Court for forging documents and making unfounded allegations against her students.
The findings, which further vindicate the University of Copenhagen's decision to suspend her in 2010, come after a year-long investigation during which the panel claims to have found 15 instances of scientific malpractice in Penkowa’s 79 published articles. The malpractice includes missing data, irregularities in the number of recorded tests of animals, and the manipulation of photographs that illustrated the neuroscientist's results.
“It is important to differentiate between unforeseen errors and deliberate falsifications,” Hans Lassmann, a professor from Vienna University who led the panel, wrote in a press release. “The panel of international researchers is in no doubt that there is justified suspicion of deliberate scientific malpractice in 15 of Penkowa’s articles. They are particularly from her early years as a researcher.”
The university is now passing on the panel’s findings to the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), the official committee for assessing scientific malpractice, which is already processing several other claims of malpractice that have been filed against Penkowa by the university.
Penkowa may lose both her PhD and doctorate if the DCSD establishes that articles written to support her PhD contained falsified data.
Brain researcher Elisabeth Hock from the University of Copenhagen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper that the panel’s report demonstrates the lack of control and guidance given by the university to young researchers such as Penkowa. Hock also claims that the malpractice would have been discovered earlier if there were better guidelines and protocols to follow.
“Fraud has taken place at the university," Bock said. "This also happens at other top global universities, and management cannot always stop it. But they can ensure that once a suspicion of fraud has been raised, it is handled properly. The University of Copenhagen’s leadership did not in this case."
While she praised the panel’s work, she wondered why Penkowa’s articles were not also investigated for plagiarism.
“You cannot read this report and think that you have an insight into Penkowa’s malpractice. There may yet be more to discover.”
A spokesperson for the Socialistiske Folkeparti in the area of research, Jonas Dahl, also criticised the university’s handling of the case – especially as research has been identified as an industry that will help support the Danish economy in the future.
“It is in the interest of the entire research world to stay transparent and avoid fraud," Dahl told Jyllands-Posten. "This case has been harmful to Danish research, and unless the University of Copenhagen assumes responsibility and makes precautions against future cases like these, then other universities need to place pressure on the university.”
Penkowa would not comment, but did direct Jyllands-Posten to a written comment on hjerneeksperten.dk.
"No-one is perfect, not even me, and there is no doubt that unforeseen errors could have been committed since I started working in a laboratory in 1993 and for that I apologise deeply," Penkowa wrote. "'Deliberate malpractice' is another matter and something I have never done. I therefore do not think it is reasonable to infer that my research has been fraudulent as the press is doing these days."