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The case of an academic dismissed from her role for research fraud but then cleared by an employment court has once again raised questions over Swedish universities’ handling of misconduct allegations, just as the country tries to recover from one of science’s worst-ever scandals.

Linnéa Taylor, a British-Swedish eye expert dismissed by Lund University in 2018 after being accused of misconduct by a Ph.D. student, is still fighting her case, and she is now taking the institution to the European Court of Human Rights.

During the investigation into her work, Taylor was subjected to 18 months of death threats against her family and 2-year-old son from someone who appeared to have inside knowledge of her department. She was eventually forced to move into hiding.

“I can safely say it’s been the worst few years of my life,” she told Times Higher Education. “And that is probably an understatement.”

This year, Sweden set up a new central and independent body to hear accusations of misconduct, partly in response to failures by the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute when investigating disgraced surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.

Now indicted by Swedish prosecutors, Macchiarini was found to have misrepresented the results of an artificial trachea transplant technique that he touted as pioneering but which left a number of his patients dead.

Taylor, however, was investigated before the creation of this new body, by an internal board convened by Lund -- a practice criticized by unions following the Macchiarini scandal for sometimes being unfair or lacking in transparency.

The case turned on whether Taylor had accurately measured changes in pig and mouse retina tissue following an experiment, with her Ph.D. student unable to replicate some of her results.

Two outside experts at universities in Britain and Denmark, brought in by Lund’s board, found that in one of these experiments there were unexplained differences between her measurements and those recorded by her Ph.D. student and a postdoctoral student enlisted to double-check the results.

Lund’s board concluded that these discrepancies must have been the result of deliberate manipulation and fired Taylor. “The decision was taken after a full and thorough investigation,” a spokeswoman for Lund said. None of the outside experts involved in the case were willing to speak to Times Higher Education.

But Taylor maintains that such measurement discrepancies are normal when looking at tissue samples, and that the postdoctoral student was inexperienced in the field.

With the backing of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), she took Lund to a labor court, arguing that she had been unfairly dismissed.

In April this year, the court overturned Lund’s decision, saying that the university had failed to prove research misconduct by Taylor. It ordered the university to reinstate her and pay damages.

But the university has instead doubled down on its decision, employing a rarely used clause in the law to pay a two-million-kronor ($236,000) settlement to Taylor rather than take her back on. “They decided not to follow the court decision, which is very, very unusual,” said Annika Wahlström, a lawyer for SULF who represented Taylor.

Lund’s vice chancellor, Torbjörn von Schantz, has publicly argued that allowing the employment courts to overturn an academic decision could “jeopardize the credibility of research” and called on the government to clarify who has precedence.

“They are willing to pay … rather than lose face,” said Taylor, who believes past campaigning for better gender representation at Lund helped generate hostility toward her at the institution.

In response, a Lund spokeswoman said, “The researcher is no longer employed at the university. The vice chancellor therefore kindly declines to comment on the allegations.”

The numerous handwritten death threats received by Taylor while she was being investigated by Lund in 2017-18 labeled her a “cheating whore” and threatened her husband and her son. Some contained flour or sugar, with the implication that “next time it will be anthrax,” she said.

Initially, they arrived in her university postbox, which she said was inaccessible without security-card access to her building. Some of the threats appeared to respond to inside information about the ongoing investigation, she added. In response, at one point the university hired a bodyguard and locked the doors of Taylor’s lab while she worked.

Eventually, the stress of the threats forced Taylor to take sick leave -- but handwritten notes continued to be posted to her apartment several times a week, she said.

No one has ever been caught, as the police found no trace of fingerprints or DNA on the notes, and strict privacy laws thwarted attempts to place a surveillance camera outside her flat, Taylor said. For her safety, the state eventually moved her and her family to an untraceable new address.

Taylor complained that investigations into the death threats had had “absolutely no consequences.”

The Lund spokeswoman said, “The threats have been investigated and are part of a larger work environment investigation conducted by the Faculty of Medicine.”

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