Uppsala University (UU) in Sweden released a long-awaited, damning report yesterday about two researchers who published a high-profile study about the dangers of microplastics—particles less than 5 millmeters in size—to fish in Science last year.
An investigation by UU’s Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research found that postdoc Oona Lönnstedt fabricated data for the paper, purportedly collected at the Ar Research Station on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Her supervisor, Peter Eklöv, bears responsibility for the fabrication as well, the board said, but his behavior didn’t meet UU’s criteria for misconduct at the time the paper was published. (It would today, the board’s chairman, Erik Lempert, tells Science.) Both researchers were found guilty of misconduct for not obtaining a permit from an ethics review panel before conducting the experiments in Gotland.
Accusations against the duo were leveled a week after the paper was published by Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and UU’s Josefin Sundin, with the help of five colleagues elsewhere in the world. Jutfelt and Sundin had seen Lönnstedt at work on Gotland, and claimed she didn’t perform the experiments described in the paper.
This is the third, and most damning report about the case; a preliminary investigation by UU last year dismissed the allegations, while a study by an expert group at Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN), published late April, said the duo committed “scientific dishonesty” but stopped short of saying the data were made up. (Science published a feature story about the saga in March, and retracted the paper in May.)
Lönnstedt did not respond to a request for an interview, but Science talked to Eklöv this morning about the affair. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What is your reaction to the board’s report?
A: I take full responsibility for the [issues] with the ethical permit. We have looked at our routines now, and it should not happen again. … But most of all I’m very disappointed by my colleague—to find out that she actually did fabricate data, which is very serious. This is a person I very much trusted, and now it’s been shown that she was dishonest, not only to me but also to the whole scientific community.
Q: About that ethical permit: The board says you did obtain one, but only after the study was done, and for different animal collection sites, a different research facility, and a different experimental design. Why hadn’t you applied for a permit for the studies at the Ar Research Station as described in the Science paper?
A: The idea was to do the study at the department here; that was what we primarily discussed. But then Oona went to Gotland to do a bunch of studies, and I wasn’t really sure what she was doing actually. It became clear later that she had started on this study. That was the reason.
Q: She claimed the permit was your responsibility, and that she was used to different procedures during previous work in Australia.
A: Yeah, in a way that was easy to say for her because she was a Ph.D. student [in Australia], and maybe she didn’t have to think about the responsibility of having an ethical permit. It’s different when you are a postdoc, I would say. I am not saying I don’t bear responsibility because it was my name on the permit. That’s why the report drew the conclusions it did.
Q: The CEPN’s Expert Committee previously concluded that you provided false information about the permit during its investigation. Did you?
A: No, I always provided them with the information I had. I never provided them with false information.
Q: One important issue in this affair was that the data behind the Science paper weren’t available; they should have been posted in an online repository, but that didn’t happen. You claimed that was because Lönnstedt’s laptop was stolen, and the data had not been backed up. Do you stand by that part of the story?
A: The thing that happened there was that after the publication, there was a request for the data. I told Oona several times, “You have to send in the data and upload the data on the website or at [Science],” which I thought she had already done. But then that took some extra time, and then the laptop was gone.
Q: Didn’t it strike you as an extreme coincidence that Lönnstedt reported that the laptop was stolen from her car almost immediately after Science requested the data?
A: Yes, of course. And I also confronted her about that several times. She was devastated. She was sitting here in my office completely devastated about this computer. … We talked about it, and I thought it could have happened; I could not exclude that. But it seemed strange, of course.
Q: The most important finding in the new report is that Lönnstedt didn’t carry out the experiments as described in the paper; the data were fabricated. How could that have happened?
A: It is very strange. The history is that I trusted Oona very much. When she came here she had a really good CV, and I got a very good recommendation letter—the best I had ever seen.
Q: But isn’t it your responsibility as a co-author and senior researcher to check her data set to make sure it’s real and valid before it’s published?
A: Yes, of course, I’m putting my name on that paper, so I have a responsibility. The thing was that from the start, I was not very much involved in her study. Oona wanted me to be a co-author, so I said: “I can be a co-author, if I can give input on the paper.” And then I read the manuscript and the data were very convincing, I was surprised by how convincing they were. At that point I didn’t really have reason to scrutinize the raw data.
Q: So you weren’t very involved in the data collection or the study design? You never went to Gotland yourself?
A: No, I was never there, I was very little involved. We discussed the design, and what she wanted to do, but then it was completely her project. The reason is I actually wanted her to do something else. I had suggested she look more at the evolutionary trade-offs with pike. … I tried to arrange and facilitate her research, that was my role.
Q: But in one of the documents you wrote in your defense last year, you said you were in almost daily contact to discuss the experimental setup and execution. That sounds different from what you’re describing now.
A: It was not really daily contact. We had contact a couple times during that period, but not really daily.
Q: The central piece of evidence in the report is the timeline. The whistleblowers had pieced together Lönnstedt ‘s whereabouts using their own records, text messages, Facebook posts, etc. They claimed that she arrived on Gotland to do her study on 4 May 2015, and then left the island on 15 May, which meant she could not have done the 3-week study as described in Science. The board did the same thing using receipts, travel records, and emails, and they arrived at almost exactly the same timeline.
A: Exactly. The difference between the board and the previous investigations is the board actually had all of the evidence.
Q: But why you didn’t ask Lönnstedt about the timeline after the accusations were first made?
A: But I did, I confronted her with the timeline. She said she was there and she gave details around the whole timeline, and then I believed her.
Q: The new report also says she and you met in Uppsala on 19 May; after that she went to Stockholm. In other words, she was no longer at the island, but it was only 14 days after the experiments began.
A: It wasn’t really clear when she actually started the experiment. She had a whole bunch of experiments. She claimed that because all the data were lost, she couldn’t say exactly when the experiment had started. There was a little bit of confusion there. That was something she leaned on all the time, that the computer was stolen and that all the documentation of the experiment was gone.
Q: You have strongly defended your postdoc in the past, saying she was a “meticulous researcher” with a “brilliant career” ahead of her. Now you seem to distance yourself from her. It may look to some as if you threw her under the bus after the case became hopeless.
A: No, I had trust in her, very much, but it takes a lot before you really change your opinion. … It takes some time to going from trusting her to accusing her. That is very difficult. … During the Central Ethical Review Board investigation, it became clear there were some big holes in her story, And then I confronted her with the travel documents, and asked her about that, and said you have to supply me with the travel documents, otherwise I cannot believe you. And she never did.
Q: During the preliminary investigation last year, you said that you have repeated the microplastics studies on other fish species, with similar results. Will those data be published?
A: Those are Oona’s studies. I have not been involved in them.
Q: So you’re no longer doing research on microplastics?
A: I have never done research on microplastics and I probably will never do research on microplastics.
Q: Do you know if the university will take sanctions against you?
A: I have no idea.
Q: Lönnstedt has reportedly lost her funding from Formas, the Swedish Research Council, as a result of the report. Is that something that might happen to you as well?
A: I have no idea.
Q: You have said some harsh things about the whistleblowers. In your response to the preliminary investigation, you called the accusations “deeply unethical” and said that to construct a timeline using personal messages was “highly distasteful.” You also suggested that they were “obsessed” and acted out of professional jealousy. Do you owe them an apology?
A: Those were Oona’s words. I mean, I signed those replies, because I trusted her, but she wrote them.
Q: If you signed them, do you think you owe them an apology? Because those words can damage their reputation.
Q: Yeah, of course, even if it’s Oona’s words and I signed them. … It is something that I can actually, you know, apologize for.
Q: This experience seems to show that it can be quite difficult and risky to blow the whistle on misconduct. And it takes a huge amount of time and effort.
A: Yes, of course, I completely sympathize with that. The thing is, these accusations came from seven scientists, only two of whom had been to Gotland. This looked a bit weird to me, I must say.… Most of them appeared to be supporting [Sundin]. And it appeared not to be about the science; I thought it was more of a personal thing.
Q: A personal thing between Lönnstedt and Sundin?
A: Well, they were all friends. … I was really confused, I didn’t know what to think about it actually. But I’m not saying that as whistleblowers they didn’t have the right to make these accusations. And it’s a good thing that they did. But the process has taken too long.
Q: One reason it took so long was that the preliminary investigation absolved you and Lönnstedt last year. Do you think that the investigation wasn’t thorough, that it didn’t dig deep enough?
A: That’s likely. I don’t know.