DENMARK: Brain scientist accused of scientific fraud

Denmark has been rocked by a science fraud case involving Milena Penkowa, a high-profile professor of medicine specialising in brain research. The case has also embroiled the rector of Copenhagen University, the previous minister of science and a number of co-authors, and has undermined the public view of science.

Penkowa, 37, is under investigation by the police for allegedly falsifying research protocols in animal experiments for her DMSc thesis submitted in 2001 and rejected in 2003. In 2004 she submitted another doctoral thesis, which in 2006 was defended publicly resulting in her DMSc degree.

She was suspended in April 2010 from her position as professor and research group leader in the neuroprotection section of the faculty of health sciences at Copenhagen University, and later left that post.

Minister of Science Charlotte Sahl-Madsen had to answer questions in parliament for a panel investigating the case, and ordered Copenhagen University to clarify all matters in the case of Penkowa's doctoral thesis and subsequent suspicions of falsification of scientific articles.

Following a media outcry that started last year, she is now also under investigation by the police. Penkowa has several times refuted all accusations in what is developing into the largest Danish scientific fraud case ever.

She has maintained a high media profile, giving interviews on television and to newspapers and women's magazines. Penkowa claims that the negative reactions towards her are due to professional envy and the Scandinavian 'Law of Jante', an unwritten value-nomenclature saying individuals should not expose themselves publically as being better than anybody else.

She told University World News she was "optimistic regarding the future, the claimed allegations regarding my work, and in general concerning the current press campaign."

Penkowa said the allegations derived primarily from one person, "my counterpart, who in the press is the 'anonymous source' (with different addresses). Nevertheless, I trust that the claims are being handled properly by the proper organs, which remain independent from the press.

"Thus, sooner or later I expect that the facts will be known as well as the truth regarding the 'anonymous source' (his lack of decorum)." She said some of the claims, for instance allegations of personal relationships, were "rubbish" and that "the number of press variations within this theme is becoming more and more ridiculous".

Penkowa has written or co-authored 98 scientific articles published in peer-review journals, with more than 150 co-authors. She is cited 1,244 times in SCOPUS, has a H-index of 30, and is (or was) a collaborative partner with institutions in Helsinki, Tasmania and Barcelona. She has also won several prestigious scientific prizes.

Rector of Copenhagen University Ralf Hemmingsen and previous minister of science and education, Helge Sander, have both become involved in the Penkowa case.

Hemmingsen was asked by Danish TV-AVISEN where he would leave his position if Penkowa was found guilty of the charges against her, and he answered "no". But some observers in Copenhagen think that when the press dig deeper into the case, Hemmingsen's position will become difficult to defend.

There are three aspects to the saga.

First, the circumstances around Penkowa's first thesis submitted in 2001, which was rejected by a scientific committee. The main reason for the rejection was that the protocol of 700 rat experiments allegedly undertaken in Barcelona not was documented according to regulations.

Last month the Weekendavisen alleged that the documentation of the experiments was fabricated by Penkowa, which led to the police investigation for document forgery requested by Copenhagen University.

After these disclosures, the Spanish co-author of an article published in the journal Glia in 2003, Juan Hidalgo of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, withdrew the article. In that article, 14 grant sponsors are listed, all of them Danish. During her short career from 1999, Penkowa was highly successful at securing funding for her research.

Second, the circumstances surrounding a 2005 donation of DKK5.6 million (US$1 million) from the private foundation IMK Almene Fund, which supports research on the brain and cancer. It was the largest private donation ever given to a researcher in the health sciences faculty at the university.

Last year IMK demanded half of the donation back, claiming the money was used for purposes other than research. Copenhagen University defrayed DKK2 million and sent an invoice of DKK275,000 to Penkowa, which she paid back. She said this matter had been resolved.

Third, the circumstances in 2009 in which she was awarded an elite Danish research prize by former minister Helge Sanders. Penkowa was nominated by Copenhagen University, in a letter signed by Ralf Hemmingsen, in which he said four deans were behind the proposal.

In the somewhat panegyrical argument, which was questioned then and later by scientists, it stated that Penkowa had in a short time managed to combine basic neuroscience and applied medical research "bridging from the molecule to humans".

It stated that she had for the first time proved that the protein metallothieonein had the "potential to treat a range of serious brain conditions, like disseminated sclerosis, epilepsy and Alzheimers, and that the protein can reduce cell death in brain injuries".

It was further stated that Penkowa had "contributed to 15 important discoveries. Her list of publications counts some of the most prestigious international scientific journals, and she has received several international and national scientific prizes".

The jury described Penkowa as a rising star in health science and said she had a "unique talent for research communication, teaching and dissemination of knowledge by which she is contributing significantly to information and debate in Danish society".

Last November Copenhagen University sent a request for information on the circumstances surrounding a draft for a 2010 scientific journal article. It was sent for investigation to the Danish committee for scientific dishonesty under the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation.

This did not calm staff at the university, and in December 58 scientists signed a letter to the board asking for a full investigation of the Penkowa case by the university itself. This was refused by the chairman of the board, Nils Strandberg Pedersen.

Only after last month's disclosures by Weekendavisen, and massive press reaction, did the leadership of the university act. They have since been accused of apathy and procrastination. On 16 February Pedersen defended the board's handling of the case in the newspaper Jyllandsposten.

Several critics say that the Penkowa case is a good illustration of how the university law of 2003 transferred too much power to rectors, and how the checks and balances of collegial control that were possible under a larger board comprising more academics, have been lost.

Although the Penkowa case is probably the largest scientific fraud matter to be investigated in Scandinavia, in 2006 Norway experienced a similar problem when Jon Sudbø, a professor of dentistry and medicine doing research on oral cancer, was investigated for scientific dishonesty. Out of 38 journal articles, with more than 60 co-authors, 13 were withdrawn.

Some observers find the case sad. They think a young, attractive woman at the top of world medical sciences, would be a strong role model for young people.

During the press exposure Penkowa has kept a cool head and refuted all the charges against her. She has even managed to keep her scientific activities intact, and has published several journal articles over the last months.

She told University World News: "Personally, it riles me that the true victims in this Danish circus are patients suffering from brain damage. However, my counterpart is so eager to charge me personally that he seems to have forgotten all about the patients - not to mention sound judgment."

She said she also felt sorry for the university, which was being "molested" by the fellow scientist fuelling the press frenzy. "But having said that, I remain optimistic that these issues will be resolved one fine day."

Perhaps the last word has not yet been spoken. The history of science is full of unexpected developments, where a single mind has seen patterns and options others did not see.

If Penkowa's grand plans pan out for the protein Metallothionein - patented by her, Vladimir Berezin and Elisabeth Beck and licensed in 2010, for clinical conditions of brain diseases - she might still have the last word in this strange and unfortunate case.