Tag Archives: ethics in science

DISHONESTY IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: ARE THE PUNISHMENTS FOR BEING CAUGHT SUFFICIENT TO DETER MORE CHEATING? 

 

Cheating at research continues to be a big problem for science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Cheating at research continues to be a big problem for science today!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

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 [1].  He states, “Rather than dealing forthrightly with these ethical breaches, university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing” [1].  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.

 

[1]  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 .

[2]  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 .

[3]  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 .

[4]  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/ .

[5]  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 .

[6]  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 .

[7]  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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WHY WOULD ANY SCIENTIST EVER CHEAT?

 

 Cheating in Science  (dr-monsrs.net)

Why do Children Cheat?    Who do Some Scientists Cheat?         (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

           I myself do sincerely believe that most scientists are totally honest, just as they should be.  Why would any scientist ever elect to ignore professional ethics and cheat or be dishonest?  I think it likely that most unethical scientists do not really decide to be dishonest, but rather feel pushed into it.  There are many different factors and circumstances that cause and push some weaker individual scientists to cross the boundary between honesty and dishonesty.  These include: personal attributes and character defects, being surrounded by others who engage in dishonesty, employment in an institution that has only a superficial commitment to scientific research, working under an atmosphere where money rules all, not being internally strong enough to deal with all the external pressures involved with the research grant system, etc.  Such problematic situations can readily generate a very large pressure where some few individuals try to deal with their difficulties by taking the easy way out.  Fortunately, most research scientists are able to remain strictly honest in these same situations, and are determined to avoid corruption at all times. Nevertheless, history shows that some scientists do cheat (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” within the Basic Introductions category). 

 

            For scientists, vexing difficulties with time management and handling research grants are major generators raising the pressure to cheat.  I have already described the overly busy life of scientists working as university faculty (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists So Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category).  There are only about 18 hours per day for research scientists working in universities to handle laboratory work, teaching activities, supervision of graduate students and lab employees, writing and reading, preparation of abstracts for annual science meetings, family life, outside interests, etc., etc. (see my earlier post on “What Do University Scientists Really Do in their Daily Work?” in the Basic Introductions category).  This condition with its many deadlines frequently creates job difficulties in time management (= “the time problem”) that can become very problematic.


            Failure of an academic scientist to get a research grant renewed means loss of laboratory space assignment, loss of graduate students, additional teaching duties, and decay of professional reputation.  Yes, this does actually happen!  Anything at all that will aid in getting a new grant, assist in having a research grant renewed,  or produce more research publications might for certain individuals seem like a gift from heaven, but the use of dishonesty really is the opposite.  Some universities push their faculty scientists to  obtain several research grants, thereby greatly increasing the pressure of job difficulties with the research grant system (= “the money problem”).  For universities, additional grant awards mean more business profits, greater productivity from more publications means more status, and, improvements in their research reputation and renown mean more students and more opportunities.  The granting agencies themselves further increase these pressures by some of their present policies, particularly those that provide funding for only 1-5 years of laboratory work, thereby necessitating more frequent applications by research scientists. The total struggle to get and maintain research grant funding often is so intense and takes up so much time and effort by so many faculty scientists, that I term it a hyper-competition.  Modern scientists in academia are subject to pressure from both the time and money problems, but only some less dedicated individuals succumb and engage in unethical behavior as they try to deal with these job situations.  


            Unlike the widespread dishonesty and corruption currently seen in business and politics, very fewscientists engage in corrupt practices as a means to add dollars to their bank account.  Nevertheless, personal greed still is involved with any intent to obtain more grant money and more professional advantages through dishonest means.  Greed is involved with those who dishonestly obtain the award of a research grant, because that means that there then is less money available to fund other scientists who are deserving and honest.  Personal greed, along with excesses of such perfectly normal and good human characteristics as ambition, desire for improved status, eagerness in seeking increased prestige, and, striving to improve one’s lot in life, all can play important roles in determining whether any individual scientist will cross the line separating honesty from dishonesty. 

         

            All scientists performing laboratory studies within universities have to acquire a research grant award in order to pay for their research expenses.  This recently has created a new dimension for dihonesty in science: cheating on applications for research grants.  University scientists frequently ask one or more experienced faculty colleagues who are very successful with acquiring research grant awards to criticize their prospective applications.  Others go beyond this very useful practice and seek assistance by submitting the draft text with their ideas and plans for new experiments to professional editors or commercial advisors, in order to improve their presentation; so long as those experts only rework and polish what is furnished by theapplying scientist, that is honest (i.e., this seems analogous to a professional baker who makes a very large multilayered cake and then hires some specialist to put frosting and elaborate decorations onto it).  A typical example is when foreign-born scientists either ask a university colleague or pay an editor to find and correct errors in their English language expression within grant applications they have composed.  All of the above practices are widespread and seem to be perfectly honest.  On the other hand, using external experts to design and organize new experiments, create the research proposal and schedule, compose the bulk of the application, etc., then crosses the line between rught vs. wrong and must be considered to be dishonest, unprofessional, and condemnable.  Readers should note that after any applicant signs their own name onto an application that actually was authored by someone else, it is nearly impossible to detect this fraud just by inspecting the submitted documents.  Cheating and dishonesty on grant applications are directly encouraged by the enormous pressures to get more grant awards put onto the very busy faculty scientists working in universities (see my earlier post on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Money & Grants  category).

           

            To answer the question posed in the title, some few scientists do cheat because they believe that tactic will help to get them a personal reward or provide relief from difficult job pressures.  The specific causes for corruption in science involve certain situations: (1) defects in the personal character and professional dedication of  individual scientists, (2) the particular job environment, and (3) the current federal research grant system.  The large job pressures of being a modern faculty scientist trying to deal with the money problem and the time problem directly push some weaker researchers to become corrupt in their efforts to achieve job success. 

 

 

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INTRODUCTION TO CHEATING AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENCE

 

Dishonesty in Science (http://dr-monsrs)
Dishonesty and Corruption in Science (http://dr-monsrs)

  

             How much cheating and corruption is there in science?  The best answer is that nobody knows!  Even today in 2014, there continue to be much-publicized instances where some professional research scientist is revealed to have published research results in peer-reviewed journal articles where the reported experimental data were either fabricated (faked) or were grossly changed (i.e., to construct a surprising pseudo-result) [e.g., 1,2].  While money is almost always involved in some way, for corruption in science money only rarely goes directly into the pocket of the dishonest scientists, unlike the usual situation for widespread corruption within politics and the business world.  Instead, it often goes into their professional purse and is used for such personally rewarding expenses as the purchase of additional research equipment not paid for by their grants, salaries for additional research coworkers, extra business travel, a new computer with special software, etc.). 

 

  Dishonesty in science includes several different types of unethical activity.  At a simple level, this corruption can involve such disgraceful events as (1) adding some imagined numbers to a chart of experimental results, so as to get better statistics, (2) changing or removing some numbers in a chart of collected results, so as to shift the conclusions being supported by these data, (3) misrepresenting the design of experiments, so as to support certain conclusions or deny others, or (4) not giving appropriate credit to internal or external collaborators and coauthors.  Thus, these simpler types of dishonesty involve research fraud by data fabrication and manipulation, drawing false conclusions, theft of intellectual property, etc.  At a more complex level, dishonesty in science can involve such activities as (1) stealing experimental research data from other labs, (2) stealing ideas or even research projects from other scientists, (3) fabrication of entire experimental datasets, or (4) constructing an application for a research grant using imaginary results or falsified statements.  These larger types of dishonesty thus involve theft of data, lying about the experimental results gathered, stealing of ideas, misrepresentation with the intent to deceive, etc.  Some or even many readers will wonder how in the world could any of these examples actually happen?  I assure them that I have heard rumors, seen and listened to stories, and, read reports about all of these!  Moreover, I have conversed with two separate doctoral workers who unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits for their claims of data theft.

   

  I personally believe that almost all faculty scientists are completely honest.  Any unethical behavior by professional scientists betrays the enormous trust given to them by the general public [3], and the necessary trust given by their fellow researchers.  Any dishonesty thus destroys both the integrity of science and the practical ability of other researchers to proceed forward from what they believe is the truth when designing new research experiments.  When dishonesty occurs in successfully acquiring a research grant, that event directly decreases the chance that some other scientist who is totally honest is able to acquire funding for their worthy project; this type of robbery is not often recognized as being a very important part of modern corruption in science.  A shocking and disgraceful example of successful cheating in order to get a large research grant award was uncovered very recently [1]. 

 

In addition to outright dishonesty and deception by scientists, where research integrity is discarded, there also is a gray area where some very limited portion of collected data (e.g., a very few outliers in a data plot) is eliminated from the total pool of experimental results displayed.  The opposite condition for this same kind of situation also occurs, where one or two pieces of individual data that are much better, clearer, or prettier than the average case, are selected to be shown in publications and in oral presentations.  These practices are not at all unusual and are known generically as “fudging the data”; both can simply serve to make the quality of the collected data look better and be seen more easily.  They commonly are not considered to be dishonest. 

 

 What happens when outright dishonesty by a faculty scientist is either proven or admitted?  In many cases, there has been almost no penalty given beyond having a published article withdrawn or being discharged from a laboratory group.  Part of this apparent lack of serious concern is due to the fact that in cases where some very celebrated scientist has been accused of being involved in corruption, long battles and countercharges in the courts have ensued [e.g., 4,5].  If famous research leaders are directing some very large laboratory in which the cheating allegedly occured, it usually is totally difficult to prove either that they were involved in the dishonest act(s) carried out by some individual lab worker, or that the leader even knew about the wrongful event(s) [4,5]; separation of the supervisor from actual technical workers is very widespread within giant laboratory groups (research factories), where the chief scientist really is only an administrative manager and does not even know the names of all the people who work there. 

 

Most corruption in science almost certainly remains undetected.  Unless there is some witness who is upset enough and courageous enough to report the dishonesty, and unless hard and fast documentation can be acquired, the loss of research integrity will never become known or proven. A good example of this is given by the very recent case cited earlier [1], where the dishonesty was discovered only when some other research laboratories found that they could not duplicate some of the experimental results published by the unethical scientist.  Despite new rules intended to protect whistleblowers and the recently increasing appointment of officials in charge of research integrity at academic institutions, it continues to remain very difficult to investigate and prosecute alleged dishonesty in science.  There is a natural reluctance for anyone working in academia, whether faculty or students or lab technicians, to make accusations that necessarily will involve official investigations, prolonged legal activities, and possible retribution.   

                      

Clearly, the present measures being taken to prevent, detect, and punish dishonesty in scientific research are inadequate.  There is too much lip service in dealing with cheating and corruption in science, and it seems likely that this problem will increase.  I suspect that the amount of dishonesty in applications for research grants particularly is increasing now, and soon will become the most frequent form of corruption in science.  The chief driver for my prediction is that it is very, very hard to detect, and nearly impossible to prove, any dishonesty in grant applications; moreover, there presently is only scanty attention and little concern being given to this problem by the different granting agencies.

           

Although all academic sicentists are quite aware of the problem of dishonesty and corruption in science, there generally are few casual or formal discussions about this issue.  Exactly why do some few scientists become dishonest?  What motivates cheating and dishonesty in science?  How can dishonesty and corruption in scientific research be decreased and eliminated?  What new penalties should be instituted for cheating in research?  Can an unethical researcher be made honest by some curative process?  I will discuss these complex questions and related issues within future postings. 

 

[1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html

[2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

[3]  Pew Research, 2009.  Public praises science; Scientists fault public, media; Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago.  Available online at:                                       http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/ .

[4]  Wright, P., 2003.  Robert Alan Good.  The Lancet362:1161.  Also available on the internet at:                                                                                                          http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2914489-3/fulltext .

[5]  Bombardieri, M., & Cook, G., 2005.  More doubts raised on fired MIT professor.  In: The Boston Globe, October 29, 2005.  Available online at:  https://secure.pqarchiver.com/boston/doc/404985132.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+29%2C+2005&author=Marcella+Bombardieri+and+Gareth+Cook%2C+Globe+Staff&pub=Boston+Globe&edition=&startpage=&desc=MORE+DOUBTS+RAISED+ON+FIRED+MIT+PROFESSOR .

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