Gynaecologist at Brussels university faked studies to get PhD

Gynaecologist at Brussels university faked studies to get PhD
VUB Campus in Etterbeek. Credit: Lauren Walker/ The Brussels Times

A gynaecologist who obtained his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) with clinical studies that allegedly treated female infertility has been found to have fabricated the research.

Hatem Abu Hashim, now a professor in Egypt, has been suspected of committing the most serious form of cheating in the academic world with his thesis on the treatment of infertile women at the VUB, which he defended in 2013. He claimed to have conducted nine studies in Egypt in which large groups of women suffering from a specific form of fertility problems were treated.

However, those studies turned out to be made up. Last month, the VUB revoked Abu Hashim's doctoral degree, Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers, announced.

'Statistical nonsense'

It was Dutch researcher Esmée Bordewijk, then a PhD student in Amsterdam, who in 2019 systematically juxtaposed all of Abu Hashim's papers and found an error. She had been warned by Ben Mol, a Dutch professor at Monash University in Australia, that something was not right with those studies from Egypt.

Bordewijk and Mol eventually found mistakes in 35 clinical studies by Abu Hashim and his colleague Ahmed Badawy, who recently lost the PhD he earned at the University of Utrecht in 2008.

In the late summer of 2021, the work was subjected to thorough analyses, first by the Scientific Integrity Committee at the VUB and then by the umbrella Flemish Scientific Integrity Committee. These showed that all the studies in the doctoral thesis contain "statistical nonsense."

Although there is no definitive proof that Abu Hashim fabricated the results, inspectors believe it is the only reasonable explanation for the inconsistencies. Abu Hashim's defence consisted mainly of accusing his critics of misconduct and questioning their methodology.

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The advice of the Flemish Commission on Scientific Integrity, published by Retraction Watch, stated that the "evidence of fabrication justifies the withdrawal of the doctorate by the VUB."

"I was naive and fell for it," Herman Tournaye, head of service at Brussels IVF, the Centre for Reproductive Medicine at UZ Brussel, and Abu Hashim's supervisor, told De Standaard.

He explained that, while it is unusual for someone to defend a PhD with studies previously carried out at another institution, he considered that "Abu Hashim's studies were entirely in line with our expertise around the treatment of infertility. They provided further scientific support for how women with fertility problems should be treated. The studies seemed sound to us and had also already been published in peer-reviewed journals, some of them even in major professional journals. So they had already passed quality control."

The VUB urged the researcher to provide evidence that the studies were ever carried out, but he never did. The university is now looking to update its PhD regulations.

"External PhD students working with existing datasets created at a university other than the VUB and publications reviewed by scientific journals will soon (this spring) be fully audited by the VUB," Sam Jaspers, a press officer at VUB, told Retraction Watch.

Meanwhile, the scientific papers containing the problematic studies have not yet been withdrawn or provided with a red flag to warn readers of the paper, De Standaard noted.

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