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Ecologist accused of fabricating data in ocean acidification study

Anna Scott / Southern Cross UniversityDanielle Dixson (right), with colleague Anna Scott, from Southern Cross University, Australia, with whom she wrote in 2016 a paper on the risks of coral bleaching to clownfishesAnna Scott / Southern Cross University

The University of Delaware (UD), USA, accepted an investigative panel’s conclusion that marine ecologist Danielle Dixson is guilty of misconduct. The scientist, one of the most highly regarded at the institution, was accused of fabricating and falsifying data in three scientific articles, one of them on the impacts of coral reef acidification on fish behavior published in the journal Science in 2014. The journal announced it was retracting the paper on August 9. The panel concluded that Dixson’s papers were marked by a “serial pattern of sloppiness, poor record keeping, copying and pasting within spreadsheets, errors in many papers, and deviation from established animal ethics protocols.”

The ecologist denies the accusations. She told Retraction Watch that a “formal, impartial investigation into similar allegations concluded there were no issues of concern,” but said she could not release the report because it remains “confidential” for now. In partnership with her PhD advisor, biologist Philip Munday of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, Dixson has published a series of papers since 2009 on the damage the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have caused to fish. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and is associated with coral death.

The studies showed that coral acidification disorients fish, causing them to swim towards substances emitted by predators. A device called a choice flume was used, which allowed fish to choose whether or not to swim towards a chemical signal. The investigative panel determined that Dixson would have been unable to collect the data alone, as she claims, because such a task would have required 1,194 hours of observation (almost 50 uninterrupted days) and 11,628 liters of sea water to flow through the flume.

In a 2020 article in the journal Nature, an international group of researchers described that they were unable to confirm the results of Dixson’s studies. One of the authors, ecophysiologist Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, praised UD’s willingness to investigate, but lamented that only 7 out of 20 suspect articles were analyzed. Another study published in Science by Dixson and colleagues in 2012 is also being investigated by the journal. The paper shows that corals near Fiji can emit chemical signals to “recruit” herbivorous fish capable of combating toxic algae. Issue 202 of Pesquisa FAPESP included an overview of the study.