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Data manufactured in study evaluating psychiatric clinics

Psychotherapist and epidemiologist Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, a renowned expert in treating anxiety and phobias who edited a mental disorder diagnosis manual used by psychologists in Germany, fabricated some of the data in a €2.4-million study on the performance and quality of psychiatric clinics in the country. According to a two-year investigation commissioned by the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden), where Wittchen was a professor until he retired in 2017, 20 of the 93 clinics were not even visited: the researcher instructed his assistants to copy data from other facilities. “The violations were intentional, not negligent,” says the commission’s report, reproduced by the journal Science. The researcher maintains that he did not act in bad faith and that the mistake does not compromise the results of the study. “The data is scientifically correct,” he said.

Data fabrication is not the only charge he is facing. According to the commission, Wittchen harassed the two young researchers who reported him. The group worked at the Association for Knowledge and Technology Transfer, linked to TU Dresden, the body responsible for assessing the psychiatric clinics. The researcher tried—in vain—to convince his colleagues to sign a letter in which they would retract the accusations and apologize. He also recommended their dismissal as a cost-saving measure. The report criticized the university for failing to protect the whistleblowers. In 2019, Wittchen sent an email to the university’s then dean, Hans Müller-Steinhagen, warning him to stop the investigation or face a “national political earthquake.”

Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where Wittchen has been employed as a visiting professor since 2017, suspended his contract last month after learning of the allegations. The German Psychological Society has also commented, stating that the investigation’s findings are “very grave” and that an internal panel will discuss whether to expel the researcher from its ranks. A TU Dresden spokesperson said that other allegations against Wittchen are being investigated—including that he employed his daughter on the project without her actually doing any work—and is expected to announce any sanctions in the near future. The public prosecutor’s office in Dresden has also opened a criminal investigation into the case.