A row over scientific fraud at the highest level of British academia has led to calls for one of the country’s leading geneticists and highest-paid university chiefs to leave his posts.
David Latchman, professor of genetics at University College London and master of Birkbeck, University of London – a post that earns him £380,000 a year – has angered senior academics by presiding over a laboratory that published fraudulent research, mostly on genetics and heart disease, for more than a decade. The number of fabricated results and the length of time over which the deception took place made the case one of the worst instances of research fraud uncovered in a British university.
Latchman blames junior lab staff for falsifying data, and two investigations at UCL, the first in 2015, found no evidence that he intended to commit, or was aware of, the fraud. A disciplinary hearing in 2018 concluded that there were insufficient grounds for dismissal or for any formal action against him.
But the investigations were deeply critical of Latchman. Both found that his failure to run the lab properly, and his position as author on many of the doctored papers, amounted to “recklessness”, and upheld an allegation of research misconduct against him.
The outcome of the case has riled a number of senior academics, who believe Latchman has taken responsibility neither for the fraud nor for the waste of grant money that happened on his watch. Many of the fraudulent papers covered projects funded by the British Heart Foundation.
He should be fired by UCL because he was leading a lab that published systematically fraudulent science
Professor John Hardy, a fellow of the Royal Society at UCL, and winner of the $3m Breakthrough prize for his work on Alzheimer’s, told the Observer he wanted to go public because he was angry about the situation. “Some minion carries the can. This is how it is, all the time. The powerful get away with it,” he said.
“As the senior author, he has to take responsibility,” Hardy said. “He should be fired from UCL and Birkbeck. He should be fired by UCL because he was leading a lab that published systematically fraudulent science. And at Birkbeck, he sets the tone. He shouldn’t be in that position.”
Before opening its formal investigations, UCL convened two screening panels to review 60 papers from Latchman’s lab dating back to 1997. Fraud had been alleged in all of them by a pseudonymous whistleblower, Clare Francis. One panel, chaired by Hardy, looked at a subset of the papers and found that images had been doctored in eight of them. The panel could only examine fraud where the images had been altered, he said.
In one paper, six images had been flipped or copied and relabelled as new. In a statement retracting the study, one of the authors, Anastasis Stephanou, now at the European University in Cyprus, said he regretted the “inappropriate figure manipulations of which the co-authors were completely unaware”. Dr Stephanou did not respond to a request for comment.
The second screening panel uncovered six more fraudulent papers. In one, an image of rat tissue appeared to be passed off as human. Another paper contained clear evidence of “cloning”, where parts of an image are copied and pasted.
The formal investigations that followed upheld allegations of misconduct against Latchman and two other scientists, whose names were redacted from the final reports that UCL released under the Freedom of Information Act last year. One member of Hardy’s panel was Professor Gudrun Moore, a geneticist at UCL. She said: “The outcome of this has shown, at the very least, that he is a very poor leader of a scientific team, and under his leadership, paper after paper was published with incorrect data.
“I was surprised that he did not resign. Things go wrong in science all the time but the facts and the data have to be sacred. If we are not telling our young researchers that, what are we telling them? That if you don’t get the outcome you want, you can just make it up?”
Two senior scientists familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity, were dismayed at its outcome. One said Latchman should consider standing down – a move that would send a clear signal to the scientific community about the seriousness of research fraud. They said scientists around the world had asked what UCL and Birkbeck planned to do about the papers “well before 2014”, a situation that was “very embarrassing”.Another said: “I expected him to come out and say I am deeply sorry, I behaved inappropriately, and at least admit that he had some responsibility.”
In a statement, Birkbeck said the investigations “had nothing to do with Professor Latchman’s leadership” of the college.
Latchman no longer has a lab and has stopped supervising research, but he is still a part-time professor of human genetics at UCL, and master of Birkbeck. To date, six of the papers have been withdrawn and two more corrected. PubPeer, an online forum used by academics, has raised questions over dozens of studies carried out by Latchman’s group.
The investigations led the Wellcome Trust to tell Latchman he would need to provide evidence of research-integrity training before applying for personal funding in future. Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said he was “extremely concerned by the findings of UCL’s investigations”, adding that the British Heart Foundation was no longer funding the scientists involved. The charity is reviewing the need for further action.
A spokesman for Latchman said the academic had rejected the misconduct claim at the UCL disciplinary hearing, and that his lab management “was not inadequate”. The fraud was, he went on, confined to one sub-group of the lab and would have been apparent only to reviewers actively looking for such deception.
“There have been many instances of frauds by individual lab workers, but in no cases has this led to the head of the laboratory having to resign, except in an instance where they were directly involved in the fraud themselves,” the statement said. “Attempts by individual academics at UCL to promote allegations of fraudulent behaviour against the hearing’s conclusions are unbecoming and a breach of confidentiality and good practice.”