It's time to stop the need to cheat in academic research! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
It’s time to stop the need to cheat in academic research! (http://dr-monsrs.net)


Dishonesty in scientific research hurts everyone and seems to be increasing.  Cheating and corruption are especially notable for research activities at universities and medical schools (see “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” ).  Most steps aiming to reduce research misconduct sadly are not very effective, due in part to the well-known tendency of universities to stonewall and deny any wrongdoing.

This article discusses how research fraud by a staff employee at the Duke University Medical Center now has expanded with a lawsuit filed by a whistleblower alleging that many millions of dollars of research grants from several federal agencies were acquired based on research results known to be falsified [1-4].  This new legal case is unusual and could force this prestigious university to return up to 3 times the awarded research support funds to the U.S. government [1-5].

Brief background about the U.S. False Claims Act [5] ! 

The False Claims Act (FCA) lets a U.S. citizen file suit on behalf of the federal government, to recover awarded funds that were fraudulently obtained.  Previous use of the FCA against research fraud has been very limited.  This new case at Duke not only will involve faculty and academic officials, but also invokes participation by the U.S. Department of Justice, officials at the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies, several institutions having research collaborations with Duke, and very specialized lawyers.  A whistleblower winning an FCA lawsuit can obtain up to 30% of fraudulently acquired funds mandated to be returned to the government!

Nothing is simple in research misconduct, because others always are involved [1-4] !  

To its credit, Duke University formally investigated the research staff employee, Erin Potts-Kant, suspected of producing fraudulent research results, and found that over a dozen research publications involving her with coauthors, including the Principal Investigator, Prof. William M. Foster (Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, at the Department of Medicine) were retracted or “corrected”; some published data was admitted to be unreliable.

The new FCA lawsuit recently has been filed (and unsealed) against this researcher, her supervisor, Duke University, and Duke University Health Systems by Joseph Thomas, formerly employed as a research coworker with Potts-Kant.  He earlier had expressed his concerns about research integrity to officials at Duke.  This FCA suit alleges that fraudulent published data was knowingly included in over 60 research grant applications, yielding awards totalling some $200,000,000.  Trial for this FCA case currently is pending.

What does this FCA case mean for dishonesty and corruption in academic science? 

I have previously described my view that dishonesty with scientific research in academia is largely an outcome of bad policies and activities by both (1) university science, which has been converted into a business where money is the goal (see “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” ), and (2) the current research grant system, where the destructive hyper-competition for research grant money now overrules all aspects of being an academic scientist and directly causes dishonesty (see  “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ).  Punishments for university faculty scientists getting caught with unethical research conduct have been notoriously weak or meaningless (see  “Dishonesty in Scientific Research: Are the Punishments for Being Caught Sufficient to Deter More Cheating?” ); now they will become much tougher due to the new involvement of the FCA for cases alleging research fraud.

The new legal situation using the FCA can result in a university actually having to pay big dollars for not having adequate control of dishonesty in its science activities.  The possibility that universities could face substantial financial penalties for research misconduct by any faculty cheaters and unethical employees now worries all private academic institutions; that’s good news!  Dealing with this grave problem of cheating in research publications and grant applications finally is given some teeth!

Whistleblowers are very significant! 

History shows that science cannot police itself.  The False Claims Act provides a strong pathway for whistleblowers to make their case known for research misconduct observed at universities and medical schools.  The new FCA case at Duke has the very positive effect of calling everyone’s attention to the important role of whistleblowers in reporting unethical science.  Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, a courageous clinical faculty researcher who has successfully blown the whistle on several cases of shameful misconduct by faculty scientists and medical industries (see  “Whistleblowers in Science are Necessary to Keep Research and Science-Based Industries Honest!” ), provides an inspiring model for having the guts to struggle with protecting honesty in clinical science.  If the new FCA trial verifies the alleged misconduct at Duke and forces that large university to refund research grant funds awarded on the basis of falsified publications, then the vital role of whistleblowers in keeping academic science honest will be made more widely recognized.

Concluding remarks! 

The increasing incidence of research misconduct in academic science is one of the gravest problems facing modern university scientists.  The pressures on science faculty from the hyper-competition for research grants are just enormous and causes some scientists to cheat.  Unless this hyper-competition and the conversion of university science into just another business entity both are stopped, then academic science will continue dying (see “Could  Science and Research Now be Dying?” , and “The Biggest Problems Killing University Science Still Prevail in 2016!” ). The extensive changes needed to accomplish that must involve the entire system for modern science!


[1]  McCook, A., 2016 (September 2).  Duke fraud case highlights financial risks for universities.  Science  353:977-978.  Available on the internet at:  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6303/977.full ).

[2]  Staff Reports, 2016 (September 2).  Former researcher sues Duke, alleges Uni used improper data to receive funding.  The Duke Chronicle.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/09/former-researcher-sues-duke-alleges-uni-used-improper-data-to-receive-funding .

[3]  Patel, V., 2016 (September 7).  Experts address research fabrication lawsuit against Duke, note litigation could be lengthy.  The Duke Chronicle.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/09/experts-address-research-fabrication-lawsuit-against-duke-note-litigation-could-be-protracted .

[4]  Aquino, J.T., 2016 (September 9).  Whistleblower suit claiming Duke faked data is warning signal.  Bloomberg BNA.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.bna.com/whistleblower-suit-claiming-n73014447442/ .

[5]  McCook, A., 2015 (March 18).  So you want to be a whistleblower?  A lawyer explains  the process.  Retraction Watch.  Available on the internet at:  http://retractionwatch.com/2015/03/18/so-you-want-to-be-a-whistleblower-a-lawyer-explains-the-process/ .