Academic found guilty of fraud on ‘unprecedented’ scale

A former academic at the National University of Singapore, or NUS, has been found guilty of fabricating more than 20 research papers published in international academic journals, the university has concluded after a major investigation lasting almost two years.

The case of immunology professor Alirio Melendez is thought to be the worst involving academic fraud uncovered in Singapore, with NUS officials describing it as misconduct on an "unprecedented" scale.

An NUS committee began the investigation into misconduct allegations in March 2011 after an anonymous tip-off, and “uncovered evidence of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism associated with 21 papers, including the two in the original allegation”, according to a statement from an NUS spokesperson this week.

“Based on similarities in the pattern of misconduct and in some cases sole authorship of questionable papers, [the committee] concluded that Dr Melendez has committed serious scientific misconduct,” the NUS spokesperson said.

Although the committee has not released its full report, or listed the papers concerned, the university said it had found evidence of plagiarism; ‘self-plagiarism’ from Melendez’s previously published papers; fabrication including making up data for an experiment, usually by manipulating images from another experiment; falsification or altering data such as by manipulating images of gels and micrograph; and mismanagement, which included failure to keep or safeguard adequate records.

Some 70 papers authored and co-authored by Melendez – who was at NUS between 2001 and 2009, when he left for professorships at the universities of Glasgow and then Liverpool – were investigated. Both UK universities said they conducted their own investigations, although Melendez resigned from Liverpool University in November 2011.

According to an NUS spokesperson, the committee did not receive any information directly from Melendez during the investigation. NUS officials said Melendez had been unable to substantiate his innocence – which he has maintained throughout – despite “ample opportunity” to speak to the committee.

“Members of the committee made a trip to the UK in July to interview Melendez’s co-authors in person. Melendez, who was based in the UK at the time, was given the opportunity to meet with the committee but declined.

“He was given repeated opportunities to offer information through various means (email, telephone, video conference and in person) throughout the period of the investigation,” the spokesperson told University World News.

“The committee’s communications with Melendez were through the University of Liverpool, Melendez’s last known employer.

“Melendez was informed of the findings of the inquiry committee. The reports were sent to Melendez during the draft and final stages. He was given the opportunity to comment on or respond to the committee’s findings, as prescribed in the NUS Code on Research Integrity.”

No evidence of scientific misconduct was uncovered for any of the 27 co-authors of the papers found to be fraudulent, NUS said. They include researchers from Singapore, Germany and Switzerland.

NUS has started the process of informing the relevant authors and journals about the problems in these papers “to ensure that the public scientific record will be corrected”, the spokesperson said.

At least five papers have already been retracted from journals.

A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said its policy was not to comment on individual cases. “The University of Glasgow has concluded its investigation into allegations of research misconduct made against Professor Melendez and is working to ensure any corrections to published outputs are made,” the spokesperson said.

The University of Liverpool said in a statement that Melendez worked there from August 2010 to November 2011. “Following allegations of research misconduct relating to discrepancies in two papers, Professor Melendez was suspended pending an investigation.”

It added that the work relating to the papers concerned was conducted before Melendez’ s appointment to the University of Liverpool. Before the university’s internal processes were completed, “Melendez resigned his position”.

Melendez could not be reached for comment.