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Press Release No. 46 | 19 September 2019
Scientific Misconduct: DFG Imposes Sanctions Against Brain Researcher Niels Birbaumer and Research Associate

Measures include ban on proposal submission and review activities / retraction of publications / repayment of grant funds found to be directly related to the misconduct

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has completed its investigation of research misconduct allegations against brain researcher Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer. At its meeting on 19 September 2019 in Bonn, the Joint Committee of the largest research funding organisation and central self-governing body of the research community in Germany determined several instances of scientific misconduct by Birbaumer and his research associate, Dr. Ujwal Chaudhary. The Joint Committee imposed sanctions against both researchers in line with the DFG’s Rules of Procedure for Dealing with Allegations of Scientific Misconduct and the recommendation by the DFG's Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct.

Following the decision of the Joint Committee, Birbaumer, a senior professor at the University of Tübingen, will face a five-year ban on submitting proposals and serving as a reviewer for the DFG. The DFG will also demand repayment from Birbaumer of grant funds found to be directly related to the two publications in which the Joint Committee found misrepresentations and thus scientific misconduct. Finally, the researcher will be asked to retract these publications.

Birbaumer’s research associate Chaudhary will be barred from submitting proposals and excluded from acting as a reviewer for a period of three years, and will also be asked to retract the two papers published jointly with Birbaumer.

The DFG initiated the investigation procedure against the two researchers in March 2019 following initial allegations of scientific misconduct raised in April 2018 by Dr. Martin Spüler, a postdoctoral researcher working at the University of Tübingen at the time. An initial external review was unable to refute these allegations. In April 2019, two more people stepped forward to confirm and expand on the allegations. In the course of the procedure, a further external review was conducted and the investigation committee heard the accounts of the two researchers.

The allegations against Birbaumer and Chaudhary related to DFG-funded research work with critically ill patients who, due to a neurodegenerative disease, are in a state of complete paralysis and no longer able to communicate with the outside world. The aim of the researchers’ work was to find a way of communicating with these CLIS (complete locked-in state) patients. For this purpose, their brain activity was measured using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG). According to the research and investigation approach, the resulting data should allow deductions to be made in relation to patients’ thoughts.

The DFG procedure focused on two papers, published in the journal PLoS Biology in 2017 and 2019, in which Birbaumer was corresponding author and Chaudhary was first author. The DFG Committee of Inquiry found three cases of misrepresentation in these publications. It found that, contrary to their description in the 2017 study, the two researchers had not recorded the entirety of their patients’ examinations on video. Furthermore, the data of individual patients had only been analysed in summary form rather than broken down. Overall, this gave the impression of a depth of data that effectively did not exist. Finally, it found that numerous data pertaining to all patients had not been used in the publication, without this having been made sufficiently clear. In the 2019 datasets based on the previous publication, the Committee of Inquiry also found a misrepresentation in relation to the DFG Rules of Procedure.

The decision by the DFG Joint Committee did not comment on the validity of the hypotheses put forward by the two researchers on communication with CLIS patients. Rather, it emphasised the special responsibility associated with this research, in particular towards the critically ill patients and their families and, due to the innovative research approach, towards the wider community. It ruled that this responsibility, which relates in particular to the precise documentation of the entire research process, had not been fulfilled by the two researchers.

The Joint Committee’s sanctions made allowances for the different responsibilities and division of work between Niels Birbaumer, an experienced senior professor and corresponding author of the publications, and Ujwal Chaudhary, an early career researcher and first author.

An additional investigation procedure against Birbaumer and Chaudhary was conducted at the University of Tübingen. In June 2019, an investigation committee found scientific misconduct on the part of both researchers.

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