KU Leuven completes research on possible breach of research integrity

At the end of 2019, KU Leuven’s Research Integrity Reporting Desk received a complaint about possible image manipulation in publications of which the Leuven professor Catherine Verfaillie was a (co-)author. Following investigation, the university’s Commission on Research Integrity concluded that there were no breaches of research integrity in the publications examined.

In 2019, the university’s Research Integrity Reporting Desk received complaints about possible image manipulation in a number of publications. Even the media reported on this. KU Leuven took these reports very seriously, as it does with all reports about possible breaches of research integrity. The university’s Commission on Research Integrity (CRI) has investigated these complaints over the past months and has now completed its final report.

A laborious task
“The integrity of research is essential for trust in research as a reliable source of information. Integrity is inherent to who we are and what we stand for,” says Rector Luc Sels. “If, at any point, doubts arise about that integrity, we as a university must take our responsibility. This means, among other things, that the university must analyse each complaint in great detail, check whether there is indeed a problem and examine whether there is an impact on the conclusions of the academic research or the publication.

“For each dossier, the CRI sets up an investigation committee that carries out the actual investigation. The investigated publications are often the result of many years of work, and reviewing and analysing the original data requires time and patience. Moreover, the CRI applies a strict procedure that allows those involved to be heard and exercise their right of response. In this dossier, the Commission also involved a renowned external expert who confirmed the Commission’s findings,” adds the Rector.

No breach
In accordance with the applicable regulations, the CRI examined four recent publications. Other universities have examined those publications for which they were competent.

From the investigation conducted by the Leuven Commission and the confirmation thereof by the external expert, it is apparent that there was no breach of research integrity in the publications investigated. It is true that a limited number of figures contained an inaccuracy that is not in line with the high standards that are rightly set for scientific figures. Nevertheless, a thorough study of all aspects of the case has shown that these figures were composed in good faith and that there can be no question of an infringement of research integrity.

Professor Catherine Verfaillie was explicitly mentioned in the media as co-author of the publications and supervisor of the researchers concerned. She had already rectified problems that she had noticed in the publications under investigation before any mention was made of them. She was not aware of the other problems until the time of the complaint. The CRI also points to the efficiency of the quality assurance system used by Professor Verfaillie. Thanks to this system, the investigation committee had access to all the raw data of the publications concerned and the experiments could be checked in detail. The investigation showed that there was no intention to misrepresent results.

On the basis of these findings, the CRI has concluded that Professor Verfaillie cannot be blamed for any breach of research integrity.

Transparency, but no need for naming and shaming
“Over the past few years, we have put a great deal of effort into guarding that integrity, and further developing a culture of integrity. This goes far beyond analysing and following up complaints,” emphasises rector Sels. “It does not start with remedial work such as starting a procedure after a complaint. At that moment, it is actually already too late. Developing a culture of integrity implies, above all, an extensive preventive process, including – among others – compulsory training on research integrity for all PhD researchers and new professors, training and mentoring, as well as measures aimed at an open dialogue, the transparent handling of breaches – the anonymous summaries of the complaints handled can be found on the integrity website of KU Leuven – a good whistle-blower policy, and so on. We have been building on this intensively for several years now, together with the Commission on Research Integrity. It is always our intention to take further steps, such as providing powerful and user-friendly follow-up tools and continuing to focus on awareness and training.”

“Wherever appropriate, the CRI will identify breaches that may vary from minor to serious. I am in favour of transparency about those breaches, but I do regret that the complaints were made public so early on in the process, which was beyond our control, before our Commission could do its work,” he adds. “The CRI must be allowed to carry out its investigations with due respect for privacy and the rights of defence, without preconceptions or influence of other parties. These have been turbulent times for the researchers involved. Either way, no one benefits from naming and shaming or a witch-hunt, regardless of the phase of the investigation. We therefore want to protect our researchers against gratuitous reports or complaints via public forums even before an investigation could be carried out. There is an essential difference between expressing a suspicion and openly naming and shaming. Moreover, the support for and efforts to stimulate and monitor integrity are at risk of being compromised in the process. That, too, is dangerous. However, that does not change the fact that every breach is one too many. We will continue to take any report or complaint seriously and, if necessary, take appropriate action.