Manipulated data behind scientific breakthrough

One of Sweden's foremost scientific breakthroughs of the last few years was based on manipulated data.

The Umeå group behind the research has requested Science Magazine to retract the article after it found that a Chinese guest researcher had deliberately tampered with the data.

The research results dealt with one of the most important questions in plant biology: How do plants know when to bloom? In the 1930s Russian researchers hypothesized the existence of a form of flowering hormone labelled ‘florigen’.

Discovering the exact nature of florigen would have major implications for the forestry and agriculture industries.

In September 2005 the Umeå research group published their claims to have discovered “an important component of the elusive ‘florigen’ signal that moves from leaf to shoot apex.”

The results were received enthusiastically by colleagues in Sweden and in the wider scientific community.

The study was considered so intriguing that Science Magazine called it the third most important scientific breakthrough of the year.

The main author of the study was Tao Huang, a guest researcher from China. Last autumn he left Umeå to be replaced by a compatriot.

Attempts by Huang’s successor to repeat the experiment however ended in failure.

“This is one of the worst things that can happen to the head of a research team. I’m just glad it was we who discovered the error.

“I have informed other researchers in the field and have apologised for the mistake,” professor Ove Nilsson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences told Dagens Nyheter.

According to Nilsson, Huang neglected to include certain data in the study, while exaggerating other findings to achieve the desired result.

Four of the five researchers involved have asked for their study to be struck off the record. But Tao Huang has refused to remove his name from the study.

“He still maintains that he was right,” said Ove Nilsson.