SINGAPORE: Research maniplulation claims probed

Huge expansion in Singapore's science research could be leading to stresses in the system. A former professor at the top-rated National University of Singapore has come under scrutiny for possible fabrication of research data.

In what appears be Singapore's first major case of international research fraud, the incident has shaken the local research community as it could have an impact on future international collaborations if Singapore's research integrity is seen as weaker than previously thought.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) and other universities involved have retracted one of Professor Alirio Melendez's articles from a major journal, and have said they will revisit 70 other papers by the immunologist and his team at NUS and the Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute in Singapore.

The retracted paper, with Melendez as the corresponding author, was published in the international journal Nature Immunology claiming breakthroughs that could help in the development of treatments for blood infections known as sepsis. Irregularities were found in some of its figures.

And Science magazine has issued an 'expression of concern' over another article which had nine authors including Melendez, who has since moved from Singapore to Glasgow University in the UK. Seven of the researchers were from Singapore, others from Germany and Switzerland.

Science said that diagrams had been "manipulated in Photoshop to make the figure more visually appealing", according to Monica Bradford, the executive editor. Bradford told the monitoring website Retractionwatch that the journal had asked the authors for new figures.

Science informed its readers in an 'expression of concern' last week that "serious questions have been raised about the validity of findings". It added that "authorities at the authors' principal institutions at the time of publication and the corresponding author's more recent affiliation (Glasgow University) were investigating allegations of figure manipulation".

According to Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, NUS was alerted to the possibility of fraud through an anonymous tip-off. Although the university normally disregards anonymous accusations, the evidence in this case was compelling enough for it to start an inquiry coordinated by a high-level panel of professors experienced in looking at fraud cases.

"We take accusations of research misconduct extremely seriously and as such have investigated this at a senior level in line with university policy as have the other institutions involved," a spokesperson said.

The newspaper said that Melendez remained a visiting professor at NUS till May this year although he left the university in 2009 to take up the professorship. It said Melendez was "considered a brilliant young researcher in immunology who had moved quickly up the ranks" in Singapore.

Japanese science bloggers say they have documented more irregularities in a variety of articles from the Melendez lab.

Melendez could not be reached for comment.