Palaeontologist cleared of fabricating data in dino-killing asteroid paper

Investigations conducted by The University of Manchester find the allegations made by Melanie During, published in Science in December 2022, that Robert DePalma " wanted to claim credit for identifying the dinosaur-killing asteroid’s season of impact and fabricated data in order to be able to publish a paper before she did " were unfounded.

The University of Manchester conducted a thorough and rigorous investigation into the allegations published in Science on 6 December 2022 and subsequently submitted to The University of Manchester by Melanie During and her PhD supervisor at Uppsala University, Professor Per Ahlberg. The investigation was conducted in accordance with the University’s Code of Practice for Investigating Concerns about the Conduct of Research and the conclusions were further tested by an Appeal Panel. Both the Panel of Investigation and the Appeal Panel consisted of senior academic experts both internal and external to the University of Manchester, including members with expertise in isotope analysis.

These investigations concluded that:
  • Robert DePalma did not fabricate data.
  • There was compelling evidence that DePalma was already working on seasonality prior to Melanie During’s introduction to the Tanis site, and that the isotope data published in the Scientific Reports paper already existed at that time.
  • Although there was no evidence of fabrication, there were several instances of poor research practice in the way the isotope data was managed and presented, which together constituted research misconduct, but did not invalidate the conclusions of the Scientific Reports paper.
  • Although DePalma was registered for a PhD at the University of Kansas, he received no formal supervision between 2013 and 2021, following the death of his PhD supervisor, which likely contributed to the instances of poor research practice.

Science article

As the allegations were initially made in Science 6 December 2022 in an article entitled "Paleontologist accused of faking data in dino-killing asteroid paper", The University provided Science with a statement detailing the findings of The University’s investigations and a copy of its confidential report of the Appeal Panel, with a view to correcting the public record. However, the article published in Science on 12 December 2023 does not present all the pertinent information and fails to address or seek to correct the unfounded and damaging allegations included in its article of 6 December 2022. We feel duty bound to take the unusual step of publishing the findings of our investigation in order to present the facts and address any unfounded conjectures and suppositions.

Evidence received

The University of Manchester’s investigation received evidence, including a video recording taken during During’s first visit to the Tanis site (15 August 2017), that Robert DePalma had been researching seasonality and the use of isotope data to determine the season when the asteroid hit the Earth for several years prior to 2017. The investigation was also provided with email evidence that in June 2021 DePalma was in communication with During and her MSc Supervisor regarding both the DePalma and During manuscripts, with During’s supervisor suggesting there should be two publications: one by DePalma first " that presented his time-of-year data and established his precedence for the idea " followed by the detailed work that During had undertaken for her MSc. In an email from DePalma to During on 17 June 2021, he suggests that:

1) Melanie and her entire team join the original study (which has been ready to submit) as esteemed coauthors,

or 2) Melanie subsequently lead-authors her own paper presenting only her data.

DePalma had never taken responsibility for the isotope data, claiming that he gave the samples to Curtis McKinney, Associate Professor at Miami Dade College, Florida, and received interim reports that contained the data published in the Scientific Reports paper. Evidence was provided that DePalma visited McKinney’s workspace at Miami Dade College on multiple occasions from 2012.

The investigation determined from the evidence that the inconsistencies in the data were explained as genuine errors resulting from the lack of raw data as a consequence of the death of McKinney and DePalma’s use of the interim data sheet to hand-draw the graphs. It concluded that this method of creating the graphs for the publication from the dots on the data printouts was poor research practice.

It also found instances of poor practice in relation to the documentation of the handling of the relevant samples; the documentation of the analysis performed; and the presentation of the analysis of the samples in the paper.

The Investigation concluded that DePalma should have been transparent when reporting the data, including the fact that he did not know in what laboratory it had been conducted, how and by whom. According to its Code of Practice, several counts of poor research practice constitute research misconduct, and, as such, The University’s investigation concluded that DePalma’s failings in relation to the compilation and presentation of the isotope data constituted research misconduct.

Professors Manning and Wogelius

The allegations made by During and Ahlberg, which During repeated in a TedX video and they reported to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, also brought into question the integrity of DePalma’s PhD supervisor at The University, Professor Phil Manning, and also co-author Professor Roy Wogelius. The investigation also looked into their responsibilities in relation to the poor practice of DePalma in compiling and presenting the isotope data in the Scientific Reports paper. At the time the manuscript was submitted, DePalma was not a student of The University of Manchester. DePalma had been registered for a PhD at the University of Kansas. Tragically, his supervisor, Professor Larry Martin, passed away in March 2013 and DePalma had worked independently from that time until he registered with The University of Manchester in October 2021. Subsequent to his registration, he has undertaken The University’s mandatory research integrity training.

The University’s investigations fully exonerated Professors Manning and Wogelius who had no supervisory responsibilities for DePalma at the point the Scientific Reports paper was submitted and had no responsibility for supervising the isotope work. The University acknowledges the emotional toll that its investigation and subsequent appeal have had on Professors Manning and Wogelius and on Robert DePalma. The process has taken almost 12 months and was exacerbated by the difficulty identifying expert panel members who had not been influenced by the public allegations made by During and Ahlberg. The University acknowledges that it cannot undo the impact the allegations and subsequent investigations have had on the wellbeing of those accused. However, with this article it aims to restore the reputational damage caused by them.

Further steps

With regard to ensuring the veracity of research, it is important to note that the conclusion regarding seasonality in DePalma’s paper did not rest solely on the isotope data. The University is giving DePalma the opportunity to re-do the isotope experiments with appropriate supervision so that his paper can be corrected with data that has a rigorous audit trail. Re-analysis is currently being scheduled at a leading research facility.