Officials comment on research misconduct case

In this letter, President Steven Leath, Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert and Interim Vice President for Research David Oliver discuss a recent research misconduct case that made headlines over semester break.

Iowa State University strives to uphold the highest standards of research integrity. On occasion and despite our best efforts, those standards are compromised, and as you may have seen in the news over break, the actions of even one individual can have a significant impact.

As was reported in December, Dong-Pyou Han, a research assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s department of biomedical sciences, was found to have engaged in research misconduct involving his vaccine work in Professor Michael Cho’s laboratory.

A few basic facts regarding the case are as follows:

  • The first indication of possible misconduct came in January 2013, when one of Dr. Cho’s collaborators at another institution detected human antibodies in a sample from an experiment to test a potential AIDS vaccine.
  • When Dr. Cho learned of this development, he immediately notified Iowa State’s Research Integrity Officer, Professor Charlotte Bronson, associate vice president for research. Dr. Cho also immediately began working with his collaborators and his NIH program officer to determine whether the presence of human antibodies in the sample was a simple mix-up or evidence of misconduct.
  • When the tests run by Dr. Cho and his collaborators showed that additional samples contained human antibodies, Dr. Bronson notified the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity (DHHS ORI). DHHS ORI handles research misconduct cases involving support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had funded the project. Dr. Bronson led the effort to look into the situation.
  • Although it was clear at this point that the samples had been intentionally spiked with human antibodies, it was not clear who had done it.  Drs. Cho and Bronson, working with Dr. Cho’s collaborators, DHHS ORI and NIH, began the effort to identify the individual responsible. In August, Han was identified as the likely individual.
  • Han was immediately barred from the lab, and his research materials were sequestered to ensure a thorough inquiry.
  • Han admitted responsibility for spiking the samples as well as data manipulation and then resigned from Iowa State in October. Han subsequently signed an agreement with the federal government that barred him from applying for or working on research projects funded by the federal government for a period of three years. This agreement was made public by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity on Dec. 23.

While this news is disappointing to all of us at Iowa State, it does represent an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to integrity -- in our research programs, and in everything we do.  It is also important to know that, when misconduct allegations arise, Iowa State has a responsibility to look into them and take them seriously.  Our system is designed to uncover the facts and provide due process for those involved.  All members of the university’s community should know about our policies for reporting, investigating and resolving allegations of research misconduct.  The policy is available at

It is likewise important that we learn and improve.  All university researchers should take the opportunity to learn about research misconduct and what to do if and when research misconduct allegations arise in their labs. Training on responsible research has already been conducted in Dr. Cho’s laboratory.  As unfortunate as the present case is, our system has worked in reporting and resolving the misconduct allegations.

Finally, we want to emphasize that discovering an incident of misconduct does not derail Iowa State’s high-quality research programs, nor does it detract from the outstanding research conducted by our faculty. We will continue to do work that benefits the state and people of Iowa, and addresses global challenges facing our society, in the best land-grant tradition.

Steven Leath, President
Jonathan Wickert, Senior Vice President and Provost
David Oliver, Interim Vice President for Research