At the heart of the case is a three-page paper that made headlines after it was published in Science* on 3 June 2016. It showed that, given a choice between a natural diet and tiny plastic fragments, perch larvae will consume the plastic "like teens eat fast food," as a BBC story put it. This unhealthy appetite reduced their growth and made them more vulnerable to predators. It was a dire warning, suggesting the plastic trash washing into rivers, lakes, and oceans was creating ecological havoc.
The outcome may have an impact well beyond four lives and careers. Sweden is still recovering from the scandal around celebrity surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who was fired last year for ethical breaches that his university, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, had initially dismissed. The case shook confidence in Swedish science and raised concerns about Swedish universities' ability to investigate their own researchers. If UU, too, bungled its investigation, as the whistleblowers in this case claim, it could bolster support for a plan released last month that would take misconduct investigations out of university hands and transfer them to a new government agency.
The case has raised a host of other issues as well. Dominique Roche of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, one of five scientists supporting Sundin and Jutfelt, is critical of Science, which didn't issue a so-called editorial expression of concern about the paper until December 2016. Roche says the journal itself should have investigated the paper, which has racked up 36 citations. Others argue the case shows that the fields of ecology and evolution have been too slow to adopt the kind of transparent practices that build trust and help prevent misconduct.