DNA barcoding researcher not guilty of misconduct according to university panel investigating allegations

According to a report published in Science, the chairman of the panel conducting the investigation wrote to Newmaster’s complainants that despite “displaying a pattern of poor judgement and failed to apply the standards reasonably expected in research activity in his discipline,” there was “insufficient evidence” to find Newmaster guilty of misconduct.

Steven Newmaster, a botanist specializing in DNA barcoding, who was under investigation by the University of Guelph for scientific misconduct, has been found not guilty by the institution. According to a report published in Science, the chairman of the panel conducting the investigation, John Walsh, wrote to Newmaster’s complainants that despite “displaying a pattern of poor judgement and failed to apply the standards reasonably expected in research activity in his discipline,” there was “insufficient evidence” to find Newmaster guilty of misconduct.

Newmaster’s work has dramatically impacted the reputation of the dietary supplement industry, and influenced how its products are testing and marketed. His 2013 study published in BCM Medicine found DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels of 59% of 44 herbal products sampled, as well as contaminants and fillers not listed on labels of one third of these products. This paper was widely criticized by industry. In a letter to the journal’s editor, Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbals Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD), identified inaccuracies and stated that “blanket assertions about the accuracy of this novel analytical tool are premature.” The American Botanical Council (ABC; Austin, TX), for its part, published an in-depth review critiquing the article and calling on Newmaster to retract it.

In the aftermath of its publication, the 2013 article became the basis for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s decision to issue cease and desist letters to makers of devil’s claw supplements sold in the state. These actions led to negative press challenging the quality and integrity of the herbal products industry and greater regulatory burden on dietary supplement companies.

In June of 2021, a 2014 paper co-authored by Ken A. Thompson and Steven G. Newmaster, PhD was retracted by Biodiversity and Conservation after Thompson raised concerns about the data source and reproducibility. That made the case for DNA barcoding as a more reliable and cost-effective method of identifying plant species than traditional morphology-based taxonomic practices.

One of the signatories of the complaint against Newmaster is evolutionary biologist Paul Hebert, who directs the University of Guelph’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics. Herbert pioneered the DNA barcoding technique. Herbert and seven other scientists, including Thompson filed a 43-page complaint outlining Newmaster’s misconduct, including fraud, plagiarism, and not disclosing conflicts of interest. The complaint focused on the 2013 BCM Medicine study, the retracted 2014 study, and a 2013 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. The 2013 BCM Medicine medicine study has since been place under investigation, and the Canadian Journal of Forest Research has added an Expression of Concern to the paper they published.

Newmaster has denied any unethical practices or academic misconduct in response to an investigation by Science published this past February. That report, written by Charles Piller, was based on the “review of thousands of pages of Newmaster’s work as well as his videos, PowerPoint presentations, and websites,” which “revealed numerous other cases in which he appeared to manipulate or fabricate data, plagiarize, and invent elements of his academic record.”

The complainants expressed frustration at the panel’s conclusion, particularly the assertion that there was not enough evidence, and cited concerns that the panel members lacked an expertise in genomics.

The University has yet to issue a final decision, a process that may take several months.