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The University of Utah is investigating whether chemical engineering researchers studying nanorods altered images in a now-retracted academic paper to show their theory worked.
The journal Nano Letters withdrew the paper Aug. 15 "due to concerns over the integrity of the data," according to a statement on the journal's website.
Titled "Chopstick Nanorods: Tuning the Angle between Pairs with High Yield," the paper published in June proposes a new method of orienting man-made microscopic structures, similar to a process used by plants during photosynthesis. If successful, the method could help create synthetic antibodies, among other implications, according to the paper.
It includes transmission electron microscopy images of pairs of nanorods turned to each other at an acute angle, somewhat like chopsticks, purportedly oriented by the researchers' new method.
But on close inspection, several of the pill-shaped rods appear to have a square outline around their rounded ends, allegedly as if the images were spliced and oriented using Photoshop or another image-manipulation program.
The U. is also looking into allegations of photo manipulation in another paper published by the same team in a separate journal, according to Jeffrey Botkin, chief of medical ethics at U. Health Care.
The investigation started after the Chemistry Blog raised questions about images in both the Nano Letters paper and a second paper titled "Fabrication of Highly Uniform Nanoparticles from Recombinant Silk-Elastin-like Protein Polymers for Therapeutic Agent Delivery," which was published in June 2011 in ACS Nano. It has not been withdrawn.
The senior author on both studies is Leonard Pease, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. Graduate research assistant Rajasekhar Anumolu is also listed on both papers. Neither the authors nor staff from the journals responded to requests for comment.
Botkin said the university investigation should take about four months.
"We haven't made any determinations about this, obviously. We have concerns enough to prompt a thorough investigation, but we haven't made a determination yet about what happened," he said.
Earlier this month, the university released a report on a separate, year-long investigation into data manipulation at the respected Kaplan Lab. One biology researcher was fired and a pathology professor retired after investigations found data had been "recklessly" mishandled in 11 papers published over the course of five years. The Kaplan papers were on the regulation of iron in the blood, but their problems also were related to manipulated images.
Botkin said the U. isn't the only one with such problems.
"What the national information indicates is about 75 percent of current research misconduct allegations relate to images," Botkin said. "It may be because people feel they can manipulate images without getting caught."
The retracted "Chopstick" study was funded by taxpayer dollars from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and U. start-up funds, according to the paper. The NSF funding is part of a three-year grant worth about $175,000, while the NIH money is a $183,000 grant won by a Washington state-based company, Novo Contour, for the development of a fiber mesh to treat incontinence in elderly women.
Pease also filed a patent application for the process described in the "Chopstick" paper. A five-year veteran of the U., Pease earned a doctorate of philosophy from Princeton University.