SALT LAKE CITY — An investigation has found faked research at a University of Utah chemical engineering lab.
A graduate student doctored photos for a paper about microscopic structures called nanorods, making it appear as if a theory on how to change their position worked, said Jeffrey Botkin, the associate vice president for research integrity at the university.
"There was no legitimate data in that paper," Botkin said.
The magnified images of the pill-shaped structures attracted attention on social media after the paper was published last year because the rounded ends appeared to be surrounded by square outlines, as if they had been highlighted and moved with an image manipulation program like Photoshop.
The paper purported to show a method for bringing the ends of the nanorods together at an angle that could have had implications for creating synthetic antibodies.
The paper published by the journal Nano Letters has already been retracted.
A university investigation found doctoral candidate Rajasekhar Anumolu changed the images, which were the basis for all the findings in the paper published in June 2013, Botkin said. Anumolu did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
The university denied Anumolu his doctorate as a result of the investigation. He had completed his course work and submitted his thesis, but it wasn't approved because of the misconduct, Botkin said.
The investigation cleared Leonard Pease, the senior researcher on the paper whose theory the paper was testing. He's the head of the lab that produced the paper, which was testing his theory, and reviewed the work before it was submitted for publication. There's no evidence he was aware of or participated in the cheating, said Botkin.
Pease said Friday it isn't obvious the photos are doctored unless they are highly magnified, but he plans to inspect images coming out of his lab at a higher magnification before submitting them for publication in the future.
A second paper published in June 2011 was also retracted after the investigation found an image fabricated with patches. It wasn't clear, though, what purpose that photo manipulation served.
The investigation also cleared an undergraduate student listed on the paper who had a small role in the research. The work was paid for with money from the publicly funded university.
Image manipulation is the single most common source of misconduct allegations in scientific research, perhaps because it's relatively easily to commit and identify, Botkin said.
A separate University of Utah investigation last year found what was called reckless research misconduct at the once well-respected Kaplan Lab. In that case, a committee found doctored images and misleading graphics in 11 papers published over the course of five years.
Those problems involve a small fraction of the thousands of papers produced a year at the state's flagship university, Botkin said.