Table of Contents
In 2013, a team led by Steven Newmaster, a botanist at the University of Guelph (UG), took a hard look at popular herbal products such as echinacea, ginkgo biloba, and St. John’s wort. The team published a study that used DNA barcoding—a system to identify species using small, unique snippets of genetic material—to test whether the bottles really contained what was printed on the label.
The results were troubling. Most of the tested products contained different plants, were larded with inert fillers, or were tainted with contaminants that could cause liver and colon damage, skin tumors, and other serious health problems. The paper, published in BMC Medicine, received prominent attention from The New York Times, CBC, and many other media outlets. The findings “pissed me off,” Newmaster told PBS’s Frontline. “I go in to buy a product that I believe in, that I care about and I pay a lot of money for, and it’s not even in the bottle? Are you kidding me?”
His work inspired then–New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to sponsor a similar study conducted by James Schulte, then at Clarkson University, who confirmed that consumers were often misled. At Schneiderman’s request, major retailers such as GNC, Walgreens, and Walmart pledged to pull suspect products from the shelves or take other measures.
Almost overnight, Newmaster became an authority on the verification of food and supplement ingredients. He quickly went from industry adversary to ally, as major supplementmakers hired companies he created to certify their products as authentic. In 2017, Newmaster also founded the Natural Health Products Research Alliance (NHPRA), a venture within UG that aims to improve certification technologies for supplements. It raised millions of dollars from herbal suppliers, boosting UG’s finances and prestige.
But in an ironic twist, eight experts in DNA barcoding and related fields now charge that the 2013 paper that indicted an entire industry and launched a new phase in Newmaster’s career is itself a fraud. In a 43-page allegation letter, sent to UG in June 2021 and obtained by Science, the researchers—from UG, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and Stanford University—cited major problems in the study and two others by Newmaster and collaborators. “The data which underpin [the papers] are missing, fraudulent, or plagiarized,” the letter flatly stated. The group also charged that Newmaster “recurrently failed to disclose competing financial interests” in his papers.
The accusers include co-authors of two of the suspect papers, who now say they believe Newmaster misled them. “I felt that trust was betrayed,” says one of them, John Fryxell, executive director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. One paper, which compared the cost of DNA barcoding with traditional methods for cataloging forest biodiversity, was retracted last fall at the request of its junior author, Ken Thompson, now a Stanford postdoctoral fellow. The letter was also signed by evolutionary biologist Paul Hebert, sometimes called the “father of DNA barcoding,” who directs UG’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG).
Newmaster did not respond to interview requests or written questions. But in a defense he sent to UG—which Science has also obtained—he denied all charges. “I have never committed data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or inadequate acknowledgment in the publications as claimed,” Newmaster wrote. “I have never engaged in any unethical activity or academic misconduct.” He also said he had never made money from his network of businesses.
I have never engaged in any unethical activity or academic misconduct.
- Steven Newmaster
- University of Guelph
An investigation by Science found the problems in Newmaster’s work go well beyond the three papers. They include apparent fabrication, data manipulation, and plagiarism in speeches, teaching, biographies, and scholarly writing. A review of thousands of pages of Newmaster’s published papers, conference speeches, slide decks, and training and promotional videos, along with interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues or independent scientists and 16 regulatory or research agencies, revealed a charismatic and eloquent scientist who often exaggerated, fabulized his accomplishments, and presented other researchers’ data as his own.
UG, which has been investigating the allegations since August 2021, declined to answer questions about its own investigation or Science’s findings, citing confidentiality rules. Other UG scientists say university administrators repeatedly pressured them to stop questioning Newmaster’s research. UG also dismissed a detailed request for an investigation made by Thompson in 2020. Some now fear university administrators will quash the new accusations in a misguided attempt to protect UG’s and their own reputations, and the university’s share of funds raised by Newmaster. UG declined to comment on those concerns, as well.
“The 2013 herbal supplement paper reflects a pattern of deception and academic misconduct. The university has chosen to stand back for reasons that I don’t understand,” Hebert says. “I am disturbed to sit in a building where someone has been running a fabrication mill.”
On social media, Newmaster described himself as a scientific “explorer” and “adventurer.” His Instagram page showed him skiing double black diamond runs, riding dog sleds, and inspecting tea fields in China. (Newmaster’s Instagram account became private after Science contacted him.)
According to his CV and LinkedIn page, Newmaster joined UG’s faculty in 2001 or 2002, after earning a Ph.D. in environmental biology and ecology at the University of Alberta, and became curator of an herbarium housed at UG. His intrepid character, personal appeal, and ability to put people at ease charmed colleagues. Environmental physiologist Patricia Wright, retired from UG, describes him as “an upbeat, fun guy that students really liked.”
Not long after Newmaster arrived, seminal work by Hebert and others helped launch DNA barcoding as an important research tool with diverse applications such as cataloging biodiversity and monitoring water quality. Hebert raised funds to build a small barcoding empire at UG, with scores of researchers and two buildings, one of which became home to the herbarium and Newmaster’s personal lab. Hebert also cofounded and serves as scientific director for the Barcode of Life Data System (BOLD), a repository with millions of barcodes for more than 300,000 named species.
The university has chosen to stand back for reasons that I don’t understand.
- Paul Hebert
- University of Guelph
Newmaster embraced the technology. He has used it not only to authenticate medicinal plants, but also to study plant diversity in Canada and India and catalog threatened tree species. Much of the DNA work was carried out by Subramanyam Ragupathy, a botanist in Newmaster’s lab who did not respond to requests for an interview.
In the 2013 supplement paper, Newmaster, Ragupathy, and collaborators describe how they derived DNA barcodes for 44 popular herbal products and compared them with barcodes from validated sources. The explosive results—most of the products had DNA from herbs not on the label, and many contained plants with “known toxicity”—alarmed experts. “This suggests that the problems are widespread and that quality control for many companies, whether through ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty, is unacceptable,” nutritionist David Schardt, then with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times.
The paper drew criticism as well. A stinging 2013 analysis in HerbalEGram—a journal of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research group—claimed many egregious errors and called for a retraction. The analysis accused Newmaster of not understanding that supplements use benign inactive substances such as rice powder as “carriers,” and that DNA can be destroyed during processing without altering a supplement’s effects.
Newmaster and his co-authors offered a solution to the problem they had identified. “We suggest that the herbal industry should voluntarily embrace DNA barcoding,” they wrote in the paper, to give companies “a competitive advantage as they could advertise that they produce an authentic, high quality product.” CBG scientist Masha Kuzmina, who cosigned the allegations against Newmaster, says the message was: “The paper is out. It’s [a] scandal. Now there is a problem and it needs to be solved. And who’s solving it? The same person” who exposed the problem.
Although the paper claimed “no competing interests,” Newmaster and UG geneticist Robert Hanner in 2012 had created Biological ID Technologies Inc., which conducted DNA barcoding for foods and herbal products and offered purity certifications for product labels. On 11 July 2013, about 1 week after the paper was submitted, Newmaster and Hanner incorporated a second company, named Tru-ID, which apparently assumed the business initiated by Biological ID Technologies. (Tru-ID folded in 2020, under “financial hardship during the pandemic,” Newmaster said in his response to the misconduct complaint. Hanner would not provide any comment for this article.)
When the New York attorney general’s probe triggered by Newmaster’s paper pressured companies to validate their ingredients, Tru-ID was ready to help, says Stefan Gafner, chief science officer at the American Botanical Council and co-author of the HerbalEGram critique. At least three major supplementmakers, Nature’s Way, Herbalife Nutrition, and Jamieson, hired Tru-ID and adopted its certifications. (The company also received more than $369,000 in contributions and contracts from the Canadian government.) “The whole way [Newmaster] would talk about DNA was really a marketing pitch for the industry. And eventually, he got a lot of success,” Gafner says.
In the years after the paper was published, Newmaster acknowledged that critics had been partially correct. His methods could not accurately measure the components of herbal remedies, largely because DNA barcoding cannot distinguish varying amounts of different substances in a mixed sample, and because DNA degrades during processing.
NHPRA, the UG-based alliance Newmaster launched in 2017, aimed to improve practices in the nascent field, in part by combining DNA barcoding with other approaches. The website of UG’s office of alumni affairs and development says the university is “raising $20 million to create new verification standards and develop new technology” through NHPRA and offers sponsorship levels from $25,000 to $1 million. Several big industry players have joined; Tru-ID also committed $500,000.
UG repeatedly touted Newmaster’s work in press releases and pushed back when that work was challenged. In 2017, Jonathan Newman, then-dean of the College of Biological Sciences, called UG scientists Evgeny Zakharov and Natalia Ivanova into his office for what Zakharov sarcastically calls a “friendly discussion.” The two scientists had indirectly questioned Newmaster’s work at a conference, noting that DNA barcoding alone can’t always reliably identify ingredients in herbal products. Newman admonished them to avoid comments that might sour NHPRA contributors, says Zakharov, who is lab director for the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding. “I said to Newman, ‘Are you sure you are backing the right horse?’” Zakharov says. “Newman’s response was: ‘You’re not the one who brought me a $1 million deal.’”
Ivanova, who’s now at a Guelph biomonitoring company, confirms the conversation and says Newman contacted her again later that year for a similar talk, also attended by Glen Van Der Kraak, who became interim dean in 2019. “I felt that I could not say no” to the requests, Ivanova says. The encounter gave her “the feeling that every step is being watched for any critique towards technologies used by Newmaster’s lab.”
Newman, now vice president for research at Wilfrid Laurier University, says he connected Newmaster with Herbalife and supported his fundraising. He says he did not tell the duo what to say in public but asked them not to solicit companies Newmaster was courting. (Zakharov and Ivanova say they had never engaged in fundraising.) Van Der Kraak declined to comment.
More commercial ventures followed, in a network that is hard to disentangle. In 2019 or 2020, Newmaster became a science adviser to Purity-IQ, a startup that, like Tru-ID, aims to certify the ingredients of foods, herbs, wine, cannabis, and other comestibles. According to Purity-IQ’s website, NHPRA performs lab tests for the company, which pledged $1 million to NHPRA in 2021.
After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Newmaster cofounded ParticleOne, which sells software to assess indoor air for SARS-CoV-2. He is an adviser to Songbird Life Science, which offers COVID-19 tests and shares technology and executives with ParticleOne and Purity-IQ. (All three companies declined to comment, except to say concerns about Newmaster did not involve their own work, and in Purity-IQ’s case, that it stands by its tests.)
Newmaster developed close ties with one sponsor, Herbalife, despite its checkered history. Herbalife paid a $200 million fine in 2016 to settle allegations by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that it was operating a sophisticated pyramid scheme, and another $123 million in 2020 to settle federal charges that it engaged in bribery and other corrupt acts in China. Newmaster has touted Herbalife’s products in promotional materials, effusively praised its cultivation practices after a 2018 visit to a Chinese tea farm, and lauded its efforts “to achieve excellence.” He also came to the company’s defense in 2019, when Indian researchers published a paper in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology about a woman who died from liver failure, which the researchers associated with her use of Herbalife dieting products. In a letter to the editor, Newmaster—who has no medical background—castigated the paper. (Elsevier, the publisher, removed the paper from its website in 2020 after legal threats from Herbalife.)
Web pages featuring Newmaster disappeared from Herbalife’s website last month, after Science contacted the company. Herbalife would not provide any comment for this story.
Even as Newmaster’s star was rising, some of his colleagues complained that he made exaggerated claims. Newmaster never worked for CBG, but Thomas Braukmann, a former postdoc at the center who’s now at Stanford, says he saw him host tours of CBG’s handsome atrium and sequencing labs as if he ran the facility. “Those two buildings are my buildings,” Newmaster said in a 2019 keynote speech at the CBD Expo, an industry conference on cannabis in Orlando, Florida, referencing the CBG complex. “I have 80 scientists working for me.” That appears to be a reference to CBG’s staff, who actually work under Hebert.
In his biography on UG’s website, Newmaster noted a postdoctoral fellowship in “multidimensional matrix mathematics and multivariate analysis” at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which says it has no record of Newmaster. (The claim was removed after Science asked Newmaster about it in January.) His CV listed a prestigious Discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for $198,000 over 5 years. NSERC says the grant was $11,500 for 1 year. He claimed a separate NSERC award for $240,000, but it was only worth $40,000.
On its website, NHPRA listed many “strategic partners,” including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Pharmacopeia, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Canadian National Research Council, and the American Botanical Council. None has any defined relationship with NHPRA, they told Science. (In December 2021, after Science contacted the groups, NHPRA’s website was replaced with a notice that it would be back in 2022.) In his 2019 cannabis speech, Newmaster also claimed links with U.S. regulators and standards boards that those groups say don’t exist.
In one particularly odd boast during an October 2020 radio interview, Newmaster said he was working on SARS-CoV-2 tests, in part at the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the summer and fall of 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. “In the scientific community we were already sequencing samples, blood samples, saliva samples, and looking at this virus,” he told an incredulous host. A CDC spokesperson could not locate information about working with Newmaster.
His colleagues complained of other kinds of dishonesty, too. In 2010, several UG scientists say, a student reported that Newmaster had taken large portions of his course materials from internet sites. “I was absolutely floored,” says Wright, who co-taught that course with him. Science obtained a sample of the documents and verified substantial copying and pasting from Wikipedia and elsewhere. When Wright confronted him, Newmaster seemed unperturbed, she says: “I lost hope in him as a scientist at that time.” UG quietly required Newmaster to fix the material, Wright and others say. Science also found plagiarized sections in several of his published papers, including one on millet identification in Southeast India (see graphic, below). Jose Maloles, the paper’s first author, says it was based on his undergraduate thesis, but could not recall how it was drafted.
In a 2020 promotional video made by Purity-IQ, Newmaster warned about the risks of data manipulation. “We could have all the testing in the world,” he said, “and if that data could be counterfeited or could be changed in any way it doesn’t really matter how good the test is.” One month later, in a training video for the Association of Food and Drug Officials in which he promoted Purity-IQ testing, Newmaster displayed graphics from other sources without credit and described them as his own work, an analysis of his talk and PowerPoint slides shows (see graphic, above).
“Here’s the little experiment that we ran,” Newmaster says in the video, calling it “a real life scenario” to guide industry quality control. But the image he showed, purportedly representing an analysis of cannabis strains, is identical to one assembled by other researchers that depicts U.S. arrest data.
Independent scientists identified more serious problems in Newmaster’s work, such as an analysis of sarsaparilla—a tropical plant used to treat joint pain—published in 2020 with other NHPRA researchers. Stanford’s Braukmann and Damon Little, a bioinformatics expert at the New York Botanical Garden, both examined the genetic sequences Newmaster provided, and found those labeled Indian sarsaparilla were actually near-exact matches for Escherichia coli, a common experimental bacterium. Prasad Kesanakurti, corresponding author for the paper, says the data merely reflected common E. coli contamination, and offered to provide the assembled plant sequences for review. Braukmann says only an examination of the raw data could clarify what went wrong. The paper is “an example of poorly done science,” he says. “It makes me not trust anything that comes out of [NHPRA].”
The inquiry now underway at UG was triggered by Thompson, who in 2012 was one of the first two students to enroll when Newmaster helped launch UG’s undergraduate biodiversity major. Newmaster asked Thompson to work on a paper comparing the cost of traditional taxonomic typing and DNA barcoding for identifying forest plants. Newmaster provided the summary data; Thompson had to analyze them and draft the paper. “We’re getting one-on-one time with this famous, supersuccessful, important professor,” Thompson recalls thinking. The resulting 2014 paper in Biodiversity and Conservation was his first.
Years later, Thompson grew queasy. He realized the perfect species identification claimed in the paper was virtually impossible for some of the plants. And Newmaster had never shown him the raw data or uploaded it to BOLD or GenBank, the standard sequence repository. In early 2020, Thompson asked UG to investigate. “I wasn’t 100% confident that it was fraudulent,” he says. “I was 100% confident that it was worth asking the question.”
In September and October 2020, in response to Thompson’s inquiry, Newmaster’s collaborator Ragupathy deposited thousands of sequence records, purportedly obtained for the forest paper, in GenBank. (Around the same time, he uploaded 126 records for the 2013 supplements paper.) Kuzmina, the CBG scientist, examined the sequences and found that 80% precisely matched others submitted earlier for another student’s thesis—collected at a different site hundreds of kilometers away.
Thompson—who later also detected some cases of Newmaster’s apparent image fabrication or plagiarism—says UG administrators slow-walked his request for an investigation, recast it as an informal query, and in early 2021 rejected his claims as insufficiently supported. “They thought that I was just one person, and I didn’t have a lot of power—that they could squash me,” he says. He then asked the editor of Biodiversity and Conservation to conduct his own review. But the editor deferred to UG.
In May 2021, Thompson self-published his concerns and posted a related commentary on a popular biodiversity blog, Eco-Evo Evo-Eco. “Doing this alone behind the scenes has been incredibly isolating,” he wrote. “I … hope that by sharing an evidence-based critique of our paper some people will choose to support me.” Indeed, Hebert soon added a note of support.
They thought that … I didn’t have a lot of power—that they could squash me.
- Ken Thompson
- Stanford University
Hebert says Thompson’s move revived his own long-running doubts about Newmaster’s work. He reached out to six other scholars who could offer authoritative assessments. They reexamined the forest paper and also scrutinized the supplements article and a third paper, published in 2013 in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, which found that DNA barcoding of fecal matter from woodland caribou worked better than conventional methods to determine the animals’ diets. In June 2021, the eight requested the misconduct investigation by UG. More recently, some of them also asked the publishers to retract the supplement and caribou papers. Hebert says a request to retract a fourth paper is in preparation.
The allegation letter details the problems Thompson and Kuzmina detected and many others. It notes that the papers say barcoding for both the forest and supplement papers was carried out by the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, also led by Hebert, but that the center has no record of that work. The letter adds that no sequences were deposited in BOLD or GenBank before publication of either paper, and that some of the data Ragupathy belatedly uploaded in 2020 contradicts the papers’ claims. For example, in the supplements paper, Newmaster’s group labeled a product as the laxative Senna alexandrina, but the sequence came from a legume. Moreover, some of the sequences contained errors that precisely matched those in sequences previously submitted by other researchers for several other studies.
In his response to the allegation letter, obtained by Science, Newmaster strenuously disputed the concerns. The close correspondence Kuzmina found with samples taken elsewhere reflected normal species similarity in the forest ecosystems, he said. Newmaster insisted his samples were correctly identified, and that innocent technical errors could account for matches between rare or unique mistakes in his sequences and ones published by other researchers.
Contradicting the papers, he said much of the barcoding was done not at the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, but at another UG lab, the Advanced Analysis Centre (AAC) Genomics Facility, or in Newmaster’s personal “artisanal genomics lab.” Yet he conceded he could not locate the sequencing records. As to why the sequences were not made public at the time, Newmaster says he submitted them to BOLD but blamed its staff for mishandling them. (Hebert, BOLD’s scientific director, says records show Newmaster never submitted the data, and even if he had, BOLD’s published policy requires a study’s project manager to ensure the data go to GenBank as well.)
Newmaster also rejected allegations that he concealed business interests in his papers. “[T]he only income I have had during my tenure at the University of Guelph is my University salary,” he wrote. Science filed a request with UG for Newmaster’s outside income declarations, including from his own companies; UG Vice President for Research Malcolm Campbell responded that the records are exempt from disclosure. Purity-IQ, Songbird, and ParticleOne declined to comment about Newmaster’s compensation.
Science asked Little, from the New York Botanical Garden, to review the allegation letter, Newmaster’s response, and numerous related documents and provide an independent perspective on the case. Little calls the large number of precisely replicated errors in DNA sequences “bizarre” and suggestive of data manipulation. “People will get hit by cars,” he says. “But will two of them be hit by cars while walking across the same intersection on their hands at 4 a.m.?”
Newmaster’s claim that forest ecology could explain the 80% match between the data in the forest paper and those in the graduate student thesis was “unbelievably wrong,” Little adds. And the claim that Newmaster and AAC both lost the same sequencing records is implausible, he says, given how zealously scientists and service providers normally safeguard such data. Overall, Little calls the allegations against Newmaster credible. “The papers are at best inaccurate and at worst fraudulent,” he says. “The end result is the same: They should be retracted and not trusted.”
In October 2021—5 months after Thompson had gone public with his concerns—Biodiversity and Conservation reconsidered and agreed to retract the forest paper. GenBank has removed the DNA sequences purportedly associated with the paper. The UG inquiry into the three papers is ongoing. At UG’s request, Canada’s Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research extended the deadline for a decision until June. Newman, the former dean, says he hasn’t seen the allegations, but “if Steve actually fabricated data for a publication … I would just expect that’s career death.”
Yet, the composition of the investigative committee makes Hebert and other critics worry UG will again dismiss the allegations against Newmaster. University rules require that such committees comprise the dean of the College of Biological Sciences, the associate vice president for research, and a representative from outside UG. But the final committee consists of a business professor, the dean of UG’s veterinary college, and a psychologist from a nearby university—none with a background in the relevant science. (UG allows an accused scientist to challenge the panel’s membership if they suspect bias; it’s not clear whether Newmaster did so.) In an email to Science, a UG spokesperson wrote that the investigation is using “a fair and standard process” and the university will “take appropriate action based on the results.”
Given Newmaster’s high profile—and the way the university has handled the case so far—UG cannot be trusted to carry out an even-handed probe, Thompson says. He describes his treatment by UG after he tried to get his paper investigated as “gaslighting”—being provided with a false impression that his concerns were taken seriously. “We need an independent body [from outside UG] to review cases like this,” Thompson says. “It’s the only solution to stop history from repeating itself.”