From the Archives of Scientific Fraud – Milena Penkova

ID-100211556Photo by Stuart Miles, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

Neuroscientist from Denmark – Milena Penkova is the hero of another particularly adventurous story. She made a brilliant and rapid academic career, starting with doctorate in 2006 and becoming a full professor in 2009. The same year Crown Princess Mary awarded her with the prestigious Elite Researcher prize. Apart from the honors, the prize included 1.1 million Danish Krone in cash. A private foundation – the IMK General Fund, awarded her with 5.6 million Danish Krone (ca. $1 million) for research.At the same time, Penkowa earned a visible public profile. She frequently appeared on radio, television, and in popular magazines. Unfortunately, at the peak of her career, in 2010, some problems started to appear.

A high-profile neuroscientist in Denmark has resigned after facing allegations that she committed research misconduct and misspent grant money. Meanwhile, the administration of the university where she worked has been accused of ignoring her alleged misdeeds for the better part of a decade. Milena Penkowa, a 37-year-old researcher who was lauded in 2009 by the Danish science ministry, denies all the accusations against her and stands by her work, but left her post as a full professor at the University of Copenhagen in December.[1]

Questions over Penkowa’s research began at least as early as in 2002 – with some suspicions over the first version of her doctoral thesis. Since that time she had published nearly 100 articles, focused mainly on brain-repair mechanisms. How many of them contained false data? Well, till now four of her articles have been withdrawn, and two other expressions of concern were published, but the administration of the University of Copenhagen suspects that she embezzled grant funds and possibly committed other forms of scientific misconduct in at least 15 papers[2]. The case is even more complicated. The university had to return two million Danish Krone (about $380,000) to the IMK General Fund, which is convinced that Penkowa has used the money to pay lawyers, to buy designer’s clothes, to eat at expensive restaurants and to fund her international journeys. In 2010 she was sentenced for three months of suspended jail-time for embezzlement, and in 2012 the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty found her guilty of gross scientific misconduct. Moreover, two different researchers filed complaints against four of her co-authors. One of them was – Bente Klarlund Pedersen who has been found by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty to act in a “scientifically dishonest” and “grossly negligent” manner[3]. What is grotesque, Pedersen immediately reported James Timmons (one of the two complaining researchers) to the Danish police for… harassment. The police neither took the complaint seriously nor investigated it any further. In 2013 police have dropped charges against Penkova for document forgery and fraud. At one point she reported on her web site:

After a massive media frenzy over the last several years, I am happy to finally have my name cleared, and look forward to putting the matter behind me. I am now considering seeking compensation for damages, as the case proceeding against me — lasting for nearly 2 1/2 years — has had a great impact on both my personal and professional life.[4]

But this is not the end of the story. Milena Pankova reappeared in the news, this time speaking at an exhibition organized by a Scientology-founded group. Milena Penkowa from Denmark opened the exhibition entitled Psychiatry, Industry of Death with a keynote speech. She was presented in Scientology’s press release as “physician and professor of neurology” although she was actually an ex-professor.[5] The exhibition took place at the museum of the Commission on Human Rights, which, according to the press release:

…was established in 1969 in the United States by the Church of Scientology and psychiatry professor Thomas Szasz, the world’s most famous psychiatry critics, and in 1972 in Sweden, to investigate and expose abuses of human rights in mental health care and to clean up the field of mental healing.[6]

Well, quite different playing field than scientific one, but she is still in the game…   [1] Callaway, E. Fraud investigation rocks Danish university. Nature, 7 January 2011. doi:10.1038/news.2011.703. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110107/full/news.2011.703.html [2] Young, M. University: Penkova could lose PhD, doctorate. University Post, 7 August 2013, Retrieved 1 December 2013 from:  http://universitypost.dk/article/university-penkowa-could-lose-phd-doctorate [3] Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, Draft ruling for consultation. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from:http://retractionwatch.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/timmons-uvvu.pdf [4] Yakimov, V. Media reports: Case against Penkova dropped. University Post, 13 May 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://universitypost.dk/article/media-reports-case-against-penkowa-dropped [5] Pressmadelande, Professor i neurologi talade vid invigning av KMR-utställning. Kommitten for Manskliga Rattigheter, 12 October 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from:http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/kommitten_for_manskliga_rattigheter/pressreleases/professor-i-neurologi-talade-vid-invigning-av-kmr-utstaellning-916444?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=Alert&utm_content=pressrelease [6] Ibid.

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