Swedish scientists, Peter Eklöv and Dr. Oona Lönnstedt, were found guilty of "misconduct in research" in a study that they published in the respected journal, Science. They then retracted their highly publicized work that asserted that tiny microplastic particles suspended in ocean waters were harming marine life. The ruling was made at Sweden’s Uppsala University, where the two scientists work. The finding has a bearing on scientific research on contentious issues, such as global climate change, where there have been multiple accusations broadcast of fraudulent research and skewed findings.
Microparticles or microbeans are commonly found in home care and beauty products such as shampoo that enter lakes, streams, and the ocean through runoff.
Oona Lönnstedt is a marine biologist, while Peter Eklöv is a limnologist. They reported in their 2016 paper that microplastic particles affect young fish negatively, thus minimizing their survival rates. The paper described experiments conducted on an island in the Baltic Sea. When fellow researchers started asking questionings about the details of their experiments and data, Uppsala University did not initially find evidence of any misconduct.
Later, experts of Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board examined the study, concluding in April 2017 that both Lönnstedt and Eklöv were guilty of scientific misconduct. The pair defended their paper but asked Science to retract it after questions about their findings arose. Uppsala University Vice Chancellor Eva Åkesson then remitted the case to the newly established Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research at the institution for more scrutiny.
The board announced on December 7 that Lönnstedt intentionally fabricated data, while alleging that she did not conduct the experiments during the period nor to the extent described in the paper. Lönnstedt's supervisor and co-author, Eklöv, was found to have failed to check that the research was carried out as described.
But according to the rules in force at the university at the time that the so-called research was carried out, which required that misconduct findings apply only to intentional acts, the board found that Eklöv's failure to check the research "cannot entail liability for misconduct in research." The board concluded that the two researchers "are guilty of misconduct in research by violating the regulations on ethical approval for animal experimentation." Subsequently, Uppsala Vice Chancellor issued a decision that “Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv are guilty of misconduct in research.”
It was only when the new board looked into the matter again that the university fully realized the seriousness of the allegations. Eklöv took full responsibility for the errors in the animal ethical permit. He also expressed satisfaction that his colleague was found out.
In a June 2016 press release, Uppsala University described the research as follows:
"In a new study, published in Science, researchers from Uppsala University found that larval fish exposed to microplastic particles during development displayed changed behaviors and stunted growth which lead to greatly increased mortality rates. The researchers discovered that larval perch that had access to microplastic particles only ate plastic and ignored their natural food source of free-swimming zooplankton.
"Microplastic particles (defined as plastic particles <5mm in size) originate from large plastic waste products that fragment into smaller pieces, or from manufactured plastics of microscopic size (e.g., microbeads in personal care products). These microscopic waste particles reach oceans via waterways and lakes and accumulate in high concentrations in shallow coastal areas.
"Today there is increasing concern that the accumulation of microplastic waste particles could affect the functioning of marine ecosystems, but our knowledge of the impacts of microplastic fragments on marine animals is limited. For the first time, scientists have now been able to show that development of fish is threatened by microplastic pollution."
The university has amended the press release to show that the article has been retracted.