Botanist Steven Newmaster, whose controversial work has profoundly influenced the way dietary supplements are tested and marketed, did not commit scientific misconduct, established a University of Guelph (UG) investigative commission.
Newmaster “showed a pattern of poor judgment and failed to apply reasonably expected standards of research in his discipline,” panel chairman John Walsh wrote today in a letter to the eight scientists who filed a complaint against Newmaster last year. Yet despite “many shortcomings” in his work, the jury said there was “insufficient evidence” to find Newmaster guilty of misconduct in three studies his accusers had identified.
“Given the evidence of data falsification that has been gathered, I was very surprised by the conclusion,” says evolutionary biologist Paul Hebert, a signatory of the complaint who heads UG’s Center for Biodiversity Genomics. Newmaster did not respond to a request for comment today.
Newmaster specializes in applying the DNA barcode, a technique pioneered by Hebert that identifies biological species based on DNA fragments, to plants and plant products. In a 2013 BMC Medicine study, accused the industry of selling substandard products contaminated with toxic contaminants. The document received international media coverage and led to a crackdown on products by the New York Attorney General.
The study also propelled Newmaster to worldwide fame as a test expert and industry advocate. His private companies and a nonprofit group at UG have raised millions of dollars by certifying supplements, cannabis and other edibles.
A 43-page complaint filed at the university in June 2021 by Hebert and other scientists, including co-authors of two of the Newmaster articles, alleged that Newmaster committed data fraud and plagiarism and did not disclose conflicts of interest as requested. Their complaint focused on the 2013 supplement study, which BMC Medicine it has since been placed under investigation; a 2014 article on the use of the DNA barcode to identify forest plants that was withdrawn in 2021; and a document from 2013 in Canadian Journal of Forest Research—To which the magazine added an expression of concern — which explored the use of the DNA barcode to determine the diets of woodland caribou.
Newmaster denied all allegations in the complaint last year. “I have never engaged in any unethical activity or academic misconduct,” he wrote in an official response obtained by Science.
An investigation of Science Released in February, based on a review of thousands of pages of Newmaster’s work, as well as his videos, PowerPoint presentations, and websites, it revealed numerous other instances in which he appeared to manipulate or fabricate data, plagiarize and invent elements of his academic record. . Newmaster declined to comment for the Science story and the panel did not address these additional issues.
Today’s letter to the complainants summarizes the panel’s conclusions, but provides few details on its reasoning. UG has yet to issue its final decision, a process that could take several months. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the possibility that Newmaster could be sanctioned for problems in his job that the committee identified. UG’s policy suggests that he would not be subject to penalties of any kind.
“This was a completely credible and well-founded allegation with a lot of evidence,” he says
Stanford University postdoctoral fellow Ken Thompson, a petitioner on the complaint who was the first to question Newmaster’s work in 2020. UG has dismissed Thompson’s concerns on several occasions and did not initiate a formal investigation until until the group of eight scientists filed the complaint.
As a UG undergraduate student working with Newmaster, Thompson co-authored the forest plant study. Years later, Thompson realized that Newmaster had never shown him the raw data or uploaded it to a data repository, as required. According to the misconduct complaint, Newmaster and a colleague appeared to be using records from an unrelated experiment in an unsuccessful effort to validate the work. The newspaper Biodiversity and conservation withdrew the document in October 2021, citing several serious problems. “The editor-in-chief … no longer has confidence in the validity of the data reported in this article”, reads the withdrawal notice.
Newmaster’s accusers had expressed concern that the investigation might not be rigorous given the panel members’ lack of experience in genomics. Walsh is the acting dean of UG’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, Jeff Wichtel is the dean of UG’s veterinary college, and Cynthia Fekken is a psychologist at Queen’s University. They were helped by an unidentified expert. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment today.
Thompson is particularly frustrated that the committee says the misconduct allegations are unsupported due to “the absence of records and data. … That was the essence of our complaint,” he says. “We knew they wouldn’t be able to find records. Our complaint alleged that Prof. Newmaster had falsified his work and never had the data to back it up. It’s really disappointing. “
“There is a big question we need to ask ourselves as scientists working in Canada,” adds Thompson. “Do we really care about dealing with misconduct?”
This story was supported by the Science Investigative reporting fund.
Update, June 2, 1:15 pm: A reference to the Expression of Concern on Newmaster’s 2013 article in Canadian Journal of Forest Research was added to this story.