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Acclaimed University of Michigan researcher leaves after academic articles retracted

From Union-Bulletin.com, January 24, 2023

A University of Michigan gastroenterology researcher is no longer employed by the university following the retraction of five academic papers in scholarly journals due to what one academic journal called the "falsification" and "fabrication" of data involving millions of federal research dollars.

Chung Owyang — formerly chief of UM's Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, according to the Mayo Clinic, and a medical researcher — left the university as of Jan. 2, UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said Tuesday. He is listed as a retiree in online UM records.

It was unclear how the purported falsifications or fabrications came to the attention of UM. But the retraction notices posted by the academic journals said the University of Michigan requested the retractions following a review by a university research misconduct investigation committee.

UM declined to answer questions about Owyang, including what the research issues involved and his length of service to the university.

"The University of Michigan is committed to fostering and upholding the highest ethical standards in the conduct of research and scholarship," Broekhuizen said via email. "UM's Office of the Vice President for Research employs a Research Integrity Officer responsible for addressing and assessing allegations of research misconduct. All allegations of research misconduct are thoroughly reviewed for appropriate next steps."

Owyang, 77, who was hailed as a pancreas research pioneer in a 2011 interview in the academic journal Pancreotology, could not be reached for comment.

In a Jan. 17 retraction, the American Journal of Physiology, Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology said it was retracting Owyang's article at UM's request because "a university research misconduct investigation committee found that there was falsification and/or fabrication" of certain data.

In 2022, the American Gastroenterological Association bestowed on Owyang with the William Beaumont Prize in Gastroenterology, which recognizes individuals "who have made major contributions that have significantly advanced the care of patients with digestive diseases through clinical or translational research."

In announcing the award, the national organization hailed Owyang as "an internationally renowned gastrointestinal physiologist who has revolutionized the study of transitional neurohormonal control and behavior that can improve clinical treatments for gastrointestinal patients. During a span of 30 years, he made several seminal observations in the field of gut hormones and is considered a pioneer in gut endocrinology.

The AGA also said he had received National Institutes of Health funding for more than 30 years and had published more than 300 article and reviews in journals.

"Dr. Owyang is one of the most respected physician-scientist gastroenterologists in the world," the organization wrote last year.

An academic paper co-authored by Owyang was published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2003, then retracted in November following an investigation by UM, according to Retraction Watch Database. It was the first Owyang paper to be retracted.

Four other papers co-written by Owyang were retracted in January that appeared in the American Journal of Physiology in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

The research involved $5 million in federal funding, said Michael Budkie, co-founder of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based organization working to end animal experimentation. Budkie sounded the alarm on the retraction of Owyang's research by filing a complaint with the federal Office of Research Integrity, alerting the press and calling on UM President Santa Ono to take action.

Budkie said the organization has worked to end involving animals in research since 1996, but its mission has expanded.

"We are opposed to the use of animals in experimentation because it is scientifically unjustifiable and ethically deficient," Budkie said. "In this specific case, it's about more than the research fraud."
Research fraud is always a very serious and, in many cases, criminal issue. But it’s somehow ethically worse when animals are dying or are part of highly invasive procedures and then the research is falsified on top of that.”

The papers that were retracted involved research with rats, Budkie said.

Retractions of academic papers happen about 5,000 times annually, said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which has documented scientific retractions in an online database since 2010.

"This is a pretty typical retraction," Oransky said. "It's pretty typical for a certain flavor of scientific misconduct in making your images look better than they are."

UM would have to report to the Office of Research Integrity if federal dollars were involved, Oransky said. The next steps could involve sanctions ranging from giving back the funding or criminal charges, which are both rare, or a ban on funding or supervised research.

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