Fraudulent research is widely abhorred, but still continues to occur and seems to be increasing. That must mean either the prevailing standards of professional ethics are degenerating, or the rewards for research misconduct outweigh the penalties for being caught. Dishonesty is a general and long-standing problem for science, and several causes are known (see: “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” ).
A recent case of research misconduct in Japan has received extensive media coverage (see: “A final judgment is given to Haruko Obokata: Misconduct of research!” ). Here, we take a look at what punishments are being given out in recent scandals with research fraud. Issues discussed here include whether usual punishments actually will discourage cheating by others, and whether institutions conducting contracted research studies (e.g., universities, medical schools, research institutes) can be trusted to police themselves?
Several earlier articles dealt with dishonesty in science (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” , and, “Why is it so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ). Beginners will find it useful to first read those essays before studying this new dispatch.
Case #1: Multiple ethical problems and persisting cover-ups at the University of Minnesota Medical School (2008-2016) [1,2].
Several different instances of ethical misconduct during studies evaluating new clinical drugs at the University of Minnesota Medical School have shown improper recruitment of subjects and disregard for patient care (i.e., one subject committed suicide!). Internal and external investigations resulted in disqualifications, felony charges, and accusations of cover-ups. Dr. Carl Elliott, a professor in the Center for Bioethics at this same institution, recently authored an insightful article about this unfortunate situation . He states, “Rather than dealing forthrightly with these ethical breaches, university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing” . He also notes that official bodies intended to oversee the welfare of patients enrolled in clinical drug trials (i.e., Institutional Review Boards) are given inadequate authority and staffing to deal effectively with clinical research misconduct and cover-ups.
The range of punishments issued by the University of Minnesota in response to criticisms from the Federal Drug Administration and several external review bodies include disqualifications from further research and suspension of some medical licenses. The obvious cover-up still is ongoing and now is being publicly criticized; no punishments to misguided administrators seem to have been given.
Case #2: Research misconduct scandal at the Duke University School of Medicine (2007-2010) [3,4].
Misconduct by a cancer researcher, Dr. Anil Potti, involved several clinical trials using new genomic tools to determine the best treatment for cancer patients. His results were produced with many collaborators, and were published with coauthors in very high quality journals. Allegations of research misconduct arose in part from a medical student, Brad Perez, researching with Dr. Potti; this whistle-blower courageously announced his misgivings to supervisors and university officials. More questions arose about Dr. Potti’s research results, but an official review found no research misconduct. Later, that view at Duke slowly changed, forcing its standards for research integrity and mechanisms to investigate allegations of misconduct to be strengthened and improved.
The range of punishments delivered in this case is extensive. Dr. Potti made financial settlements to settle multiple lawsuits for medical malpractice; in addition, his numerous published research reports were retracted. In 2010, Dr. Potti resigned his position at Duke. Subsequently, he obtained new medical licenses in South Carolina and Missouri; the Medical Boards for both states later issued reprimands to him. There now are many articles and widespread publicity in the popular press, professional medical journals, and the internet about Dr. Potti’s misconduct ; his reputation now is totally destroyed. It is not clear if any of his collaborators or administrators at Duke were punished.
Case #3: Falsified Research Results and Unprofessional Conduct at the Karolinska Institute (2010-2016) [5-7].
Current investigations of research experiments by a surgeon, Dr. Paolo Macciarini, are active for allegations of misconduct at the Karolinska Institute, the most prominent medical research center in Sweden. His clinical research involved implantation of an artificial trachea seeded with the patient’s own stem cells. Six of 8 patients receiving this experimental treatment have died. A Swedish TV documentary critical of this surgeon stimulated official investigations. After more allegations of medical research misconduct, an external assessor concluded that Dr. Macchiarini had falsified his test results; in response, Karolinska Institute announced its support of their star surgeon.
A range of punishments was issued to Dr. Macchiarini. The Karolinska Institute recently announced that it will sever all ties to Dr. Macchiarini when his contract expires later in 2016. This dramatic controversy resulted in resignations of the Vice-Chancellor at Karolinska, and, the Secretary-General of the Nobel Assembly. In 2016, the Swedish government initiated a new review into how allegations of misconduct are handled; it seems quite clear that the present handling is inadequate.
General discussion about these cases!
These different cases of alleged and proven misconduct by professional researchers all show that it is easy to do fraudulent science and get it published. Only if one is caught cheating and full documentation is acquired does the possibility of criminal punishments arise. Media attention and input from someone who has the guts to be a whistle-blower speeds up the process of proving research misconduct.
Institutions must always be fair to the accused while the alleged dishonesty is being investigated. The process for investigations often is unwieldy and easily compromised. Institutions typically focus attention only on one “bad individual”, who is declared an exception to their high standards for ethical conduct.
What level of punishment is appropriate to discourage others from being dishonest?
Punishments for research misconduct are not uniform between institutions, and often seem to be rather ineffective. If a professional research scientist is proven to have falsified research data, is it enough to only have their publications retracted? Or, must there also be financial penalties? Is it sufficient to force cheaters to be on leave for 2 years, or should they be dismissed? Should other institutions be prevented from subsequently employing them? Should coworkers who participated in the fraud also be punished, and how strongly? What punishments should be given to administrators for their cover-ups and stonewalling? These necessary questions are not simple, and have no easy answers.
My own conclusions about these 3 cases!
I draw several conclusions from the 3 cases just described. (1) It takes many years for investigations of alleged misconduct to be completed. (2) The long slow process of dealing with unethical research is made quicker by whistle-blowers and media attention. (3) Institutions have a strong tendency to deny wrongdoing and minimize allegations of misconduct. (4) Cover-ups mean that institutions cannot be trusted to police themselves. (5) Punishments given to faculty for research misconduct vary widely, and, co-researchers and administrators often receive none. (6) Punishments appear to only minimally deter new offenses by others.
Research dishonesty in laboratories and hospitals is very bad for patients, society, and science. Unethical practices by researchers hurt trust by other scientists and physicians, and by the public. Much more attention is needed to solve and deter this very general problem for science.
 Elliott, C., 2015. The University of Minnesota’s medical research mess. New York Times, The Opinion Pages, May 26, 2015. Page A19. Available on the internet at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/opinion/the-university-of-minnesotas-medical-research-mess.html?_r=0 .
 Stone, J., 2015. Why the Minnesota research scandal threatens us all. Forbes, May 27, 2015. Available on the internet at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2015/05/27/why-the-umn-research-scandal-hreatens-us-all/#4c1697e9751b .
 Price, J., 2015. Trial in medical research scandal at Duke postponed. The News & Observer, Health Care. Available on the internet at: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/health-care/article10233812.html .
 Hinks-Jones, L., 2015. Patients, researchers demand further prosecution in Duke case. Bloomberg BNA. Available on the internet at: http://www.bna.com/patients-researchers-demand-n57982065145/ .
 Enserink, M., 2016. Swedish academy seeks to stem ‘crisis of confidence’ in wake of Macchiarini scandal. Science, February 12, 2016 351. Available on the internet at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/02/swedish-academy-seeks-stem-crisis-confidence-wake-macchiarini-scandal .
 McCook, A., 2016. Sweden rocked by scientific scandals, re-thinking how it investigates misconduct. Retraction Watch, February 25 2016. Available on the internet at: Retraction Watch, February 25, 2016. http://retractionwatch.com/?s=Sweden+rocked+by+scientific+scandals .
 Oltermann, P., 2016. ‘Superstar doctor’ fired from Swedish institute over research ‘lies’. The Guardian, March 24, 2016. Available on the internet at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/mar/23/superstar-doctor-fired-from-swedish-institute-over-research-lies-allegations-windpipe-surgery .
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