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Whistleblower Case Leads to Retraction of Study Findings

— December 14, 2020

Published papers of a German cognitive psychologist are retracted after her co-authors come forward.

In a 2019 report produced by the Dutch Leiden University found that Lorenza Colzato, a cognitive psychologist in Germany, had “failed to obtain ethics approval for some of her studies, manipulated her data and fabricated results in grant applications.”  Her former institutional employer found her guilty of multiple counts of misconduct.  The Leiden report laid out its findings, which were supported by the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity, in November and called for the retraction of two papers by Colzato and her co-authors.  Three of these co-authors acted as whistleblowers in the case, and to date, at least one of the papers has been retracted.

In a statement, the three whistleblowers indicated, “We worked with the accused for many years, during which we observed and felt forced to get involved in several bad research practices.  These practices would range from small to large violations.  Since early on we were aware that this was not OK or normal, and so we tried to stand up to this person early on.  However, we very quickly learned that complaining could only lead to nasty situations such as long and prolonged criticism at a professional and personal level.  But seeing this behavior recurring and steadily escalating and seeing other people in the situations we had been in, led us to feel like we could no longer stay silent.  We had become more independent (despite still working in the same department) and felt like we had to ‘break’ that system.  About one year ago, we brought the issues to the attention of the scientific Director of our Institute, who took our story seriously from the beginning.  Upon evaluating the evidence, together we decided the Director would file a complaint.  Out of fear for retaliation, we initially did not join as formal complainants but eventually gathered the courage to join the complaint and disclose our role.”

Whistleblower Case Leads to Retraction of Study Findings
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Investigators found Colzato falsified information in three grant applications by presenting “non-existent” data as preliminary findings to support her studies.  The report indicates, “These concerns detailed graphs of complicated studies including genotyping and psychological tests.  Complainant has admitted for one of these that she intended to write ‘expected results.’  The Committee does not see this as plausible given the detailed information provided in the grant application and comes to the conclusion that this presentation of non-existing data is a breach of scientific integrity.”

The retracted paper, titled ‘Overweight and cognitive performance: High body mass index is associated with impairment in reactive control during task switching,’ appeared in a 2017 of Frontiers in Nutrition.  The retraction notice states, “The journal hereby retracts the above cited article.  This follows the recommendations of an investigation by Leiden University’s Committee on Scientific Integrity which found that the paper contained gross data manipulation.  These issues could not have been detected during review but nevertheless invalidate the study’s findings.  The retraction has been approved by the journal Chief Editors.”

The second paper, titled ‘The effect of gamma-enhancing binaural beats on the control of feature bindings,’ remains intact in Experimental Brain Research.  The fate of this paper is still too be determined.


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