The Olomouc scientific affair – an overview


Something unusual and unpleasant has been happening at the Palacký University in Olomouc for more than one year, and the matter seems to be still far from resolution.

Here is a brief overview of the facts (many of further important details could not be incorporated here, but are available in several detailed documents in Czech):

1.    Data manipulation in the JACS paper and a failed PhD defense

In December 2018 a claim was  made that an important paper by the head of the Regional Center of Advanced Technologies and Materials (RCPTM), Radek Zbořil (RZ) (Heřmánek et al. JACS 2007; 129(35):10929-36, RZ corresponding authorcontained a manipulated figure (“unsuitable” peaks in an X-ray diffraction pattern removed). Moreover, a suspicion emerged that this fact was  actually revealed already in 2013 during a PhD thesis defense of a student (Čeněk Gregor, whose supervisor was RZ), that this revelation may have contributed to the negative result of the defense and that the knowledge about this publication misconduct has been suppressed by RZ and by the defense commission (Gregor says he had informed the dean (at that time Juraj Ševčík), who confirms that and says he immediately asked RZ to settle this problem). Notably, Gregor’s PhD thesis presented experimental data that represent an effective refutation of the conclusions of Heřmánek et al. JACS 2007, whereby the deliberate removal of the “unsuitable” peaks in the XRD pattern could have served as a substantial support for the initial conclusions.

The authors of the JACS article acknowledged that actually there was data manipulation, but RZ denied that he, as the corresponding author, would initiate the manipulation, or knew about it earlier.  

However, after a thorough examination, the University Ethical Commission ruled in July 2019 that both the first author (Heřmánek) and RZ were responsible for this scientific misconduct, and also stated that the result of the Gregor’s PhD defense was most likely negatively influenced by his pointing out the misconduct. Most of the members of the defense commission emphatically denied any wrongdoing. In any case, legally it was too late to repeat the defense; the student received an official apology from the dean of the Faculty of Sciences (Martin Kubala).

The JACS article was withdrawn in December 2019; the retraction notice reads: “The authors retract this Article due to inaccuracies in Figure 2.”

2.  Possible data manipulation in the Nature Communications paper and possibly also in several other papers

In May 2019, based on evaluation of several experts, a suspicion arose that also data in another paper (Tucek et al., , Nat. Commun. 7, 12879, 2016, RZ being the corresponding author) were also manipulated or even fabricated. First, it was noticed that the air-stability of the sample, which was the main message of the paper, was demonstrated by unchanging Mössbauer spectra. The relevant figure, however, displayed three graphs from the same dataset, and not three datasets at different times. The authors explained that by a technical mistake and published a Corrigendum, but later detailed inspection revealed severe inconsistencies in the graphs (particularly arbitrary changes of the values on the vertical axis). Further analyses indicated that the noise in the Mössbauer spectra is significantly below the physical limits given by the Poisson distribution, and the reported spectra must have originated either from major manipulation of the experimental data or the spectra were even completely fabricated.  Dean Kubala sent materials containing expert evaluations confirming the suspicions to the editorial office of the journal suggesting retraction. RZ denies such allegations but has failed to provide primary raw experimental data, claiming that this data has been lost due to hardware problems and/or cannot be acquired from a colleague who has left the laboratory in the meantime. Moreover, the authors failed to explain the filtration procedure that was allegedly used to produce the graphs in the paper.

Since then, at least seven other publications of RZ have raised suspicion on similar grounds; the authors again refuse to provide raw data requested by dean Kubala and others. 

3.   Enormous salaries

RZ and several other researchers received enormous salaries (up to 5–6 million CZK, i.e. 200–240.000 EUR/year, see this article). Dean Kubala then set an upper limit to about half of this sum (which is still significantly higher than the average for lead scientists in Czech Republic), which caused protests by the affected individuals and the rector.  

4.  Conflict of interest

RZ has capital involvement in the company Nanoiron commercializing research products of RCPTM. This conflict of interest has not been declared in a number of recent papers by RZ (or absence of such conflict of interest was explicitly denied).

5. Current situation

The above events have been commented in a number of newspaper and online articles, some of them more or less biased.

Still another aspect of this affair should be mentioned. In early 2018 an idea emerged to establish a University Research Institute, constituted by the present three research  Centers (RCPTM, Center of the Region Hana for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research, Institute of Molecular and Translational Medicine), presently under the Faculty of Sciences and Faculty of Medicine, respectively. The idea was to withdraw these Centers from the Faculties and put them together (despite their topical heterogeneity) into newly constituted University Research Institute (current name Czech Advanced Technologies and Research Institute, CATRIN). 

The critics of this plan objected the following:

The proposal does not represent integration of research capacities, but breaks existing links between centers and other departments at the faculties in both  research and teaching;  the reorganization process appears to be extremely demanding, and makes no sense from the economical point of view; there is a reasonable suspicion that the new institute can survive only on expense of the faculties; there are visible benefits for few individuals and harm to many others.

At the moment, the conflict of two “camps” continues; one of them is headed by dean Kubala, who insists on thorough inquiry of all suspect papers. The other group (RZ et al.) is clearly supported by the University rector Jaroslav Miller, who apparently tried to suppress the information about the scientific misconduct, as he is afraid of major financial losses and bad PR consequences if the suspicions are confirmed.

While the people of the “dean camp” stress the utmost importance of elimination of any scientific misconduct, the “RZ/rector camp” people claim that the main motivation of the RZ and RCPTM critics is envy against the more successful scientists. 

According to the presently valid plan, the independent University Research Institute should be formally established by April 1, 2020. Some are afraid that this might make the clarification of the above problems more difficult, as the University Research Institute (protected by the rector), would be out of the control by the Faculty. 

Most recently, four former presidents of the Palacký University published a memorandum in which they ask for a thorough and complete investigation of the scientific misconduct affair, and urge the current authorities of the university not to proceed with establishing the University Research Institute CATRIN until this issue is clarified.

  • Myslíme si, že by bylo užitečné, aby o dění na Palackého univerzitě byli informováni také zájemci z řad cizinců. Níže proto uvádíme text, který by tomu mohl napomoci.