Findings of Research Misconduct

As reported earlier in the week by Retraction Watch when the Federal Register notice came out, we have a case involving something more than a reseach coordinator, grad student, or postdoc …

Based on the report of an investigation conducted by SUNY Upstate Medical University and additional analysis conducted by ORI in its oversight review, ORI found that Michael W. Miller, PhD, former Professor and Chair, Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, SUNY UMU, engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data that were included in grant applications R01AA07568-18, R01AA07568-18A1, R01AA006916-25, and P50AA017823-01 and in the following:

    Miller, M.W., Hu, H. “Lability of neuronal lineage decisions is revealed by acute exposures to ethanol.’ Dev. Neurosci. 31(1-2):50-7, 2009 (“Dev. Neurosci. 2009′)
    Bruns, M.B., Miller, M.W. “Functional nerve growth factor and trkA autocrine/paracrine circuits in adult rat cortex are revealed by episodic ethanol exposure and withdrawal.’ J. Neurochem. 100(5):1115-68, 2007 (“J. Neurochem. 2007′)

      A prepared manuscript submitted to PNAS for publication.

    As a result of its investigation, SUNY UMU recommended that Dev. Neurosci. 2009 and J. Neurochem. 2007 be retracted. Both publications have now been retracted:

    Specifically, ORI finds that the Respondent:

    Falsified Figure 5 in NIH grant application R01 AA07568-18A1 by altering the bar graphs to make the experimental results appear valid and consistent with his hypothesis that ethanol exposure in-utero alters the transition of cells from Pax 6 expression to Tbr2 expression, which is critical to normal brain development. Specifically:

      a. In the VZ/SZ panel (upper row, right), Dr. Miller decreased the values by 50% for the bar graphs representing control and treated mice for “Tbr2,’ “both,’ and “both/Ki-67,’ to falsely report an equivalent frequency of Tbr2 expressing cells in the right and left panels; this result was required for the experiment to appear valid;
      b. In the MGE panel (lower row, right), Dr. Miller altered the bar graphs representing control and treated mice for “Ki-67,’ “Pax6,’ and “both’ to falsely report that ethanol increased the frequency of K-67+ cells and to report an equivalent frequency of Pax expressing cells in the right and left panels.

    Fabricated bar graphs in Supplemental Figure 2 in a manuscript submitted to PNAS and text in the manuscript also appearing in the grant application AA00616-25 to support the hypothesis that ethanol exposure during postnatal weeks 1 and 2 causes specific neuronal cell death in layers II/III and V of the cortex. Specifically, Dr. Miller:

      a. Fabricated bar graphs in Supplemental Figure 2 and related text in the PNAS manuscript to show that in select layers of the cortex, ethanol induced neuronal death occurred in post-natal day 10 (P10) mice;
      b. Included fabricated text in the PNAS manuscript and the grant application citing results of experiments using 15-25-day-old mice treated with ethanol during the second postnatal week, when these mice were never generated.

    Falsified Figure 6 in a manuscript submitted to PNAS by altering data points for the labeling index of caspase3 and TUNEL in cortex layers II/III and V after exposure to ethanol in postnatal day 7 (P7) mice, such that the two assays confirmed each other. The same data were also included as Figure 4 in NIH grant application R01 AA06916 and as Figure 7 in a poster presentation at the 2009 Research Society on Alcoholism.

    Falsified the figure legends and/or text in a published paper and multiple grant applications to support the primary hypothesis of the published paper that gestational alcohol exposure had an effect on brain development by affecting the way neurons differentiate and migrate into the cortex, rather than by changes to cell growth or death. Specifically, Dr. Miller falsely reported the number of animals (n) that were used in figure legends and/or text in the following:

      Figures 2 and 5, Dev. Neurosci. 2009, also included as Figures 3 and 4, respectively, in R01 AA07568-18;
      Figure 4 and Table 2 in P50 AA017823-01

    Falsified Figures 4 and 6 in J. Neurochem. 2007 by altering bar graphs to increase the significance of the effect of ethanol exposure and/or withdrawal on NGF or trkA protein expression, thereby conforming with the paper’s hypothesis that ethanol exposure and withdrawal affect the normal NGF/trkA circuits in cortical layer V. Specifically, Dr. Miller:

      a. Increased the value of the ethanol treated NGF expression in Figure 4 and decreased the value of withdrawal NFG to alter the difference between the two from approximately 2.2% to 11.6%, thereby falsely reporting significance where there was none;
      b. In Figure 6:
      (a) Increased the value of withdrawal trkA data by approximately 70% to falsely report significance with relation to the ethanol treated value and increase significance with relation to the control;
      (b) Increased the value of the ethanol treated phospho-trkA data by approximately 100% to increase the significance with relation to the control;
      (c)Falsely reported the results for Figure 6 as showing a nearly doubled ratio of p-trkA to total trkA after ethanol exposure when there was no increase at all.

    Dr. Miller has entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement. Dr. Miller neither admits nor denies committing research misconduct but accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct as set forth above. Dr. Miller has voluntarily agreed:

    (1) To exclude himself voluntarily from any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government referred to as “covered transactions’ pursuant to HHS’ Implementation (2 CFR part 376 et seq) of OMB Guidelines to Agencies on Governmentwide Debarment and Suspension, 2 CFR part 180 (collectively the “Debarment Regulations’) for a period of one (1) year, beginning on February 6, 2012;

    (2) To have his research supervised for a period of two (2) years immediately following the one (1) year period of exclusion; Respondent agrees that prior to the submission of an application for U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) support for a research project on which the Respondent’s participation is proposed and prior to the Respondent’s participation in any capacity on PHS-supported research, Respondent shall ensure that a plan for supervision of Respondent’s duties is submitted to ORI for approval; the supervision plan must be designed to ensure the scientific integrity of Respondent’s research contribution as outlined below; Respondent agrees that he shall not participate in any PHS-supported research until such a supervision plan is submitted to and approved by ORI; Respondent agrees to maintain responsibility for compliance with the agreed upon supervision plan; the requirements for Respondent’s supervision plan are as follows:

      A committee of 2-3 senior faculty members at the institution who are familiar with Respondent’s field of research, but not including Respondent’s supervisor or collaborators, will provide oversight and guidance for two (2) years immediately following the period of exclusion; the committee will review primary data from Respondent’s laboratory on a quarterly basis and submit a report to ORI at six (6) month intervals setting forth the committee meeting dates, Respondent’s compliance with appropriate research standards, and confirming the integrity of Respondent’s research; and
      The committee will conduct an advance review of any PHS grant applications (including supplements, resubmissions, etc.), manuscripts reporting PHS-funded research submitted for publication, and abstracts; the review will include a discussion with Respondent of the primary data represented in those documents and include a certification to ORI that the data presented in the proposed application/publication is supported by the research record;

    (3) That any institution employing him during the two (2) years during which the supervisory plan is in effect shall submit, in conjunction with each application for PHS funds, or report, manuscript, or abstract involving PHS-supported research in which Respondent is involved, a certification to ORI that the data provided by Respondent are based on actual experiments or are otherwise legitimately derived and that the data, procedures, and methodology are accurately reported in the application, report, manuscript, or abstract; and

    (4) To exclude himself from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant for a period of three (3) years, beginning on February 6, 2012.

5 Comments »

  1. Beaker said

    The whistleblowers in this case were people in Miller’s lab. Indeed, this case is more than just a “bad egg” postdoc. Miller has now retired, so the restrictions on his future behavior are largely painless for him. Not quite a “golden parachute, but perhaps the academic equivalent.

  2. DrugMonkey said

    P50 Center….R37 MERIT award….who knows how many of his other awards based on prior fakes not yet detected.

  3. DrugMonkey said

    Beaker-

    It should be made clear that Miller’s coauthors seem to have been uninvolved in the frauds.

  4. Beaker said

    I did not mean to imply that anybody beyond Miller shares the guilt in this case. My knowledge of the case is not first hand–it it is based only on what I read on the innertoobz.

  5. DrugMonkey said

    Yeah, I figured you meant those other cases in which some trainee or assistant always seems to take the fall, but it read a bit funny.

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