Top German psychologist invented data, findings of investigation Science

German psychologist Hans-Ulrich Wittchen has been accused of fabricating data in a study of psychiatric clinics.

MITTENZWEI KARL / SLIKA-SAVEZ /BERLINER ZEITUNG

Written by Hristio Boytchev

Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, one of the best German psychologists and an expert in the treatment of anxiety and phobias, is not shy when promoted. His e-mail signature says he is a “highly cited researcher” and with good reason. According to his name, he has almost 1,000 articles in his name, and he has collected almost 70,000 citations. He is the editor of the German Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – The Bible on Clinical Psychology – and until 2017 he ran the Institute of Psychology at the University of Technology in Dresden (TU Dresden).

However, his reputation has come under fire after an investigation by one of his studies found evidence of manipulation – and elaborate efforts to cover up the crime. Investigation report, submitted to TU Dresden in February and obtained from Science, also shows Wittchen’s intimidating whistles and pressure on senior TU Dresden staff. The Federal Joint Committee (G-BA), a public health organization, is suing the company it paid to do the study. And the state prosecutor’s office in Dresden is now investigating criminal charges related to the study.

Wittchen was one of the best epidemiologists in psychiatry, and TU Dresden “benefited greatly from it,” says Jürgen Margraf, a psychologist at Ruhr University in Bochum who collaborated with Wittchen. “If the findings of the commission turn out to be true, they are very disturbing for the whole area, and that would also have an impact on TU Dresden.” Thomas Pollmächer, director of the mental health center at a hospital in Ingolstadt, says the allegations are “stunning”. He is concerned about other possible irregularities in Wittchen’s extensive publication file. “Some time bombs may be ticking,” he says.

It is a survey of staff and quality levels in almost 100 German psychiatric institutions in the amount of 2.4 million euros. Working for the Knowledge and Technology Transfer Association (GWT) TU Dresden, Wittchen was the principal effort investigator aimed at examining workloads in clinics and informing government regulations.

But in February 2019, German media reported allegations stemming from whistleblowers near the research project that the study data was fabricated. The university launched a formal investigation, led by law professor Hans-Heinrich Trute.

After two years of work, the commission found in its final report that only 73 of the 93 psychiatric clinics had actually been examined. For others, the report said, Wittchen instructed researchers to copy data from one clinic and apply it to another. “The violations were intentional, not negligent,” the report said. “Wittchen wanted to look more successful than he was.”

Wittchen said Science would not answer detailed questions “because these are questions of legal proceedings.” But he denies any wrongdoing and says the study in question was “scientifically correct.”

The investigation report also shows how Wittchen sought to avoid the consequences. In April 2019, he sent an email to Hans Müller-Steinhagen, president of TU Dresden at the time, warning him to “stay away from the project” and stop the investigation, as otherwise a “national political earthquake” would ensue. “I would like to warn you … once again personally and confidentially that you are taking the ultimate risk here,” Wittchen wrote in an email.

The two whistleblowers, junior members of GWT, also faced pressure, according to emails sent by Science. Wittchen asked the director of GWT to consider firing the whistleblower – to save money. In another document, he accused them of being responsible for irregularities in the study. “I will … defend myself by all legal means against this mess,” he wrote to a group of researchers from a survey that included whistleblowers. According to the commission’s report, Wittchen even gave the two whistleblowers a previously written letter to sign in which he would withdraw all charges and apologize.

Investigators found indications that Wittchen manipulated documents to cover up his clues, including presentation slides, emails and perhaps even signatures. He “showed a willingness to deceive the investigation from the beginning through deception and manipulation,” the report said. “If those observations were true, it would be in the realm of criminal sanctions.”

Wittchen, for his part, says the problems with the poll are an innocent mistake. In a 70-page denial included in the investigation report, he claims that the duplicate data in the survey were statistically correct and simply not properly explained.

Although the report focused on the alleged scientific offense, it also includes hints of possible corruption. He notes allegations that Wittchen hired his daughter on the project for about two years – although other staff have never seen her do any work on it. Wittchen’s daughter declined to comment on the allegations.

The commission finds guilt for TU Dresden and GWT for insufficient protection of whistleblowers, who remained subordinate to Wittchen during the investigation. When one of the whistleblowers asked GWT for a job reference, the request ended up with Wittchen, who gave him a bad reference.

The commission also criticizes Katja Beesdo-Baum, a behavioral epidemiologist from TU Dresden and a longtime Wittchen colleague who was deputy head of the research project. A few days after the allegations became public, in February 2019, Beesdo-Baum convened an extraordinary meeting of the institute. There, employees were reminded of their duty to maintain secrecy, says a professor who was present at the time, the report said. The employees “had the feeling of sniffing,” he says. Beesdo-Baum says the commission did not accuse her of misconduct and that her role in the affair will be discussed internally.

Wittchen resigned as a professor at TU Dresden in 2017 when he reached the age limit. In 2017, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich hired him as a visiting professor, but a spokesman said he suspended Wittchen’s contract this month after learning of the allegations. Last month, the university deleted a 2017 press release announcing Wittchen’s hiring. In a statement, the German Psychological Society says it considers the allegations in the report so “very difficult” that it has convened a court of honor that could revoke Wittchen’s membership. GWT issued a statement saying that in its 25 years of existence, in thousands of studies, it has never encountered “comparable irregularities”.

Meanwhile, TU Dresden spokesman says the university is investigating additional allegations of corruption. He is assessing possible sanctions against Wittchen and expects to make a decision in mid-April at the earliest. The state prosecutor’s office in Dresden has also launched a criminal investigation. The office says it is not disclosing details of the investigation for “tactical reasons”, but will “take some time”.

This story was created in collaboration with BuzzFeed News Germany.

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