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Originally published May 12, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified May 13, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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UW researcher's 7-year misconduct battle

An assistant research professor at the University of Washington has fought allegations of academic misconduct for seven years and is now asking a judge to stop the UW from firing him Friday.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

An assistant research professor at the University of Washington has fought allegations of academic misconduct for seven years and is now asking a judge to stop the UW from firing him Friday.

The case of Andrew Aprikyan, who is also the UW's table tennis coach, shows just how difficult it can be for a university to determine whether a researcher made honest mistakes or fabricated results. At times, the case has pitted the UW's administration against some faculty, who've supported Aprikyan.

It also raises questions about how the UW could let an academic-misconduct investigation drag on for so long, all the while allowing a medical researcher it suspects of wrongdoing to draw a salary, collect grants and travel the globe presenting his findings.

This year, UW President Mark Emmert intervened. He concluded that Aprikyan had committed research misconduct in his published work on blood disorders and should be fired.

Aprikyan, who doesn't have tenure, responded by filing suit in King County Superior Court.

There are some eye-opening revelations in the court documents — including Aprikyan's own account that a technician working with him at one point wrote research notes on "approximately 30 paper towels," and the notes were never transcribed.

For Aprikyan himself, the notion an investigation would take so long remains "unbelievable."

"It's been very, very difficult," he said this week. "Many people are asking how I'm holding up, how I keep going for this many years. I just know I haven't done anything wrong."

Aprikyan acknowledged flaws in his research but said they weren't intentional.

"I did make mistakes," he said. "It was not only my mistakes. This is research that you do, and there are a number of people involved, people who provide input. There were errors and miscommunication."

Trial due in November

Aprikyan hopes the court will not only grant a temporary injunction to keep him from being fired this week, but will later overturn Emmert's ruling. A trial is scheduled for November.

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Court documents indicate the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has opened its own investigation, because of the federal grants Aprikyan received. Aprikyan states in court documents he has won about $2.5 million in grants from a number of agencies during his 11 years at the UW.

John Dahlberg, director of investigative oversight at ORI, said it's unusual for a case to last seven years, although it does happen.

He said stress among scientists is high, which can prompt some to cheat. When they do, he said, the damage can be huge, as other researchers waste years trying to replicate results and move false conclusions forward.

The Aprikyan case is the second finding of research misconduct at the UW in the past decade. In 2003, AIDS researcher Scott Brodie was found to have falsified data in 15 instances. Brodie resigned from the UW during the investigation. This month, ORI issued its own findings against Brodie that back those of the UW and bar him from receiving federal grants for seven years.

Aprikyan's specialty is neutropenia, a rare blood disorder. Patients with the condition typically have low levels of white blood cells, which can lead to infections or leukemia, a type of cancer. He earned his undergraduate degree in Armenia and his Ph.D. in Moscow before moving to Seattle, according to his page on the UW website. His primary responsibilities don't include teaching.

Error in paper

In 2003, when the journal "Blood" posted an Aprikyan paper on its website, another researcher noticed that something looked wrong: An image of a cell in one panel appeared to have been rotated 90 degrees and relabeled in another panel.

Aprikyan later withdrew the paper, which other researchers contributed to, noting that "errors in some of the digital images in the manuscript are under investigation."

"We ... extend our deepest apologies to the scientific community," Aprikyan wrote on the "Blood" website.

In court papers, Aprikyan said it was a rival faculty member who turned him in after "I had refused to work with him on a research project."

The UW appointed a committee, composed of three scientists, to investigate Aprikyan's work. Under UW rules, such investigations are supposed to take 90 days. But the committee got at least 16 extensions as the investigation dragged on. It worked for three years, eventually issuing a report of more than 450 pages.

It took another year for Paul Ramsey, dean of the UW School of Medicine, to review the reports and issue his own findings. Ramsey concluded that Aprikyan had falsified seven figures and tables in two research papers, and that his actions amounted to academic misconduct.

Then things took a turn. Ramsey and Provost Phyllis Wise asked a faculty panel — which included professors of English, Scandinavian studies and several other disciplines — to decide whether Aprikyan should be fired. Aprikyan, in turn, asked the panel to reconsider the entire case against him.

Over the objections of UW administrators, a law professor decided the faculty panel could reconsider the case. Two years later, the panel concluded, in a 70-page report, that while there was plenty of evidence of sloppy methods and erroneous results, there was no evidence Aprikyan had deliberately falsified his work.

Earlier this year, Emmert made his own ruling: The second panel had no authority to review the first committee's findings. Emmert wrote that he, therefore, accepted those initial findings — that Aprikyan had committed scientific misconduct — and concluded the researcher should be fired.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said the university needs to get through the court case before reviewing its misconduct procedures.

"Ultimately, this was a search for the truth," he said. "Sometimes that takes a long time."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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