A prominent scientist who brought significant research funding to the University of Guelph and wrote studies that shook up the herbal supplements business is now under investigation after questions were raised about the integrity of his work.
An academic journal last year retracted a paper that Steven Newmaster, a professor in the department of integrative biology at Guelph, co-authored with a former student.
In a note posted on the website of the scientific journal Biodiversity and Conservation, the publication said it was retracting the 2014 paper, which examined the effectiveness of a particular research method, at the request of the student co-author, noting concerns with the data sources.
“Post-publication review of the article confirmed concerns with the data availability and the validity of the data included in the article could not be confirmed,” the editors’ note said. “The editor-in-chief therefore no longer has confidence in the validity of the data reported in this article.”
The University of Guelph said it is aware of the allegations and an investigation is under way. It is expected be completed by June 30.
“The university takes allegations of research misconduct very seriously,” Guelph said in a written statement provided by Lori Bona Hunt. “It is being handled according to a fair and standard process, which involves issues of confidentiality. The university will continue to follow due process and take appropriate action based on the result of the investigation.”
Prof. Newmaster did not respond to a request for comment from The Globe and Mail.
Ken Thompson, a Guelph graduate pursuing postdoctoral research at Stanford, was Prof. Newmaster’s co-author on the piece. He was the first to raise questions about the research, with the university and the journal. He said Guelph administrators declined to pursue a formal investigation when he raised concerns two years ago. The university decided not to proceed beyond an initial inquiry at that time.
An article published in the journal Science this month raised further doubts about some of Prof. Newmaster’s research.
Prof. Newmaster has been at Guelph for nearly two decades. He is also the founder and director of the Natural Health Products Research Alliance (NHPRA). Among the work that brought him to prominence was a 2013 study that showed many herbal supplements contained products not listed on the label. His work contributed to increased regulatory scrutiny on supplement makers, and he developed commercial research opportunities with companies seeking to provide transparency about their ingredients.
In 2021, a company called Purity-IQ signed a $1-million agreement with the NHPRA and Guelph to work on ingredient authentication in natural products. Purity-IQ chief executive officer Deleo de Leonidas said this week that Prof. Newmaster is no longer one of the company’s advisers, and that the research sponsorship will be re-evaluated when the university’s investigation is complete.
Prof. Newmaster’s work has been promoted many times in university press releases, including after Mr. Thompson initially brought his allegations to senior administrators. In 2020, the university promoted his work on a portable testing device for detecting COVID-19, as well as a feature on his running exploits, including ultra-marathons, in the U.S. Southwest.
The president of the Guelph faculty association, Mary-Michelle DeCoste, said she could not comment on a matter involving an individual member.
Mr. Thompson was an undergraduate when he worked with Prof. Newmaster and went on to PhD studies at the University of British Columbia. As he grew more knowledgeable about scientific research, Mr. Thompson said, he started to doubt the authenticity of the data provided by Prof. Newmaster. So he approached Guelph, and the journal that published their work.
“I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with this data that I had published,” Mr. Thompson said.
The primary data used in the study were not entered in a larger database for plant DNA as claimed, Mr. Thompson said, and the data had striking similarities to data from another study, he added.
The journal retracted the article at Mr. Thompson’s request in October, 2021. Prof. Newmaster did not respond to the journal editor’s correspondence about the retraction, the journal wrote.
Mr. Thompson said he brought his concerns to administrators at Guelph in early 2020.
But he said he encountered difficulty getting the university to move toward an investigation. In an e-mail to Mr. Thompson in February, 2020, the interim dean of biological sciences, Glen Van Der Kraak, wrote that he had initiated an investigation for alleged research misconduct.
More than six months later, having heard nothing further, Mr. Thompson wrote the university again, saying he was concerned the allegations had been “brushed aside.” Under university rules, an investigation should be completed within six months. But the policy requires a two-step process: an inquiry, and then, if warranted, an investigation.
The inquiry stage is less exhaustive than an investigation. It assesses the allegation and, according to university policy, usually involves interviewing the respondent and complainant, and examining key records, and is completed in 20 days.
Karina McInnis, the associate vice-president of research services at Guelph, replied in September, 2020, saying the dean “may have used the term ‘investigation’ in a generic fashion.” But the dean had decided to dismiss the allegation at the inquiry stage, she wrote, and she approved that decision.
“I had submitted some pretty strong evidence, in my opinion, at this point,” Mr. Thompson said.
A second attempt to get an investigation was turned down in January, 2021.
In May, 2021, Mr. Thompson wrote a blog post about his concerns. Other scientists, at Guelph, UBC and the University of Toronto, thought they had merit.
Eight academics sent a letter to Guelph administrators in June calling into question the findings of Prof. Newmaster’s work in three published articles, the one written with Mr. Thompson, the 2013 paper that raised doubts about the ingredients in herbal products, and one other.
The letter outlined concerns in several areas of Canada’s rules on the responsible conduct of research.
In a statement, the university said the investigation is being done as expeditiously as possible.
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