Tag Archives: honesty in science

WHISTLEBLOWERS IN SCIENCE ARE NECESSARY TO KEEP RESEARCH AND SCIENCE-BASED INDUSTRIES HONEST! 

 

Direct quotations from Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, given in published statements. (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Quotations by Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, taken from various published statements.     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Anyone, even professional scientists with a PhD or MD, can make an honest mistake.  However, falsification or other dishonesty by a research scientist is an inexcusable breach of trust.  Since the goal of research is to find the truth, mistakes or alleged falsehoods must be investigated and corrected, in order to let science progress.  Whistleblowers in science have been rather few, largely because it is so much easier to keep quiet and overlook falsehoods or even criminal misrepresentations; speaking out or initiating inquiries about corruption in research typically leads to counter-allegations, challenges to professional reputation, prolonged court cases, and, only small penalties for proven wrongdoers.  Hence, most doctoral scientists keep quiet, particularly if an allegation involves someone with a higher professional rank; this is known as the “code of silence”.

This article describes the amazing adventures of a clinical and research cardiologist in Britain, Peter Wilmshurst, MD, who became a successful whistleblower.  During his medical research work, he found clear unethical and criminal misconduct by individuals and companies, so he courageously initiated several inquiries.  Unlike many others, Dr. Wilmshurst refused to be silenced by bribes or threats, and ultimately forced honesty to prevail.  Dr. Wilmshurst undoubtedly is nothing less than a heroic medical scientist!

Whistleblowing by Dr. Wilmshurst protected heart patients from a dangerous new drug [1-5]! 

In the 1980’s, Dr. Wilmshurst was invited by a very large pharmaceutical company in the UK to participate in their clinical research trial evaluating the efficacy of a new oral drug intended to strengthen cardiac contractions in patients with heart failure.  His research data showed no effects upon contractility in patients, and revealed very dangerous side effects.  According to the company, research data from their own researchers were strongly and uniformly positive.

When he reported his research results to the manufacturer, he was asked to suppress his negative findings.  Wilmshurst refused to do that, and would not keep quiet about his research results despite threats. Later, it was revealed that several other independent researchers had found adverse results similar to those of Dr. Wilmshurst, but fear had prevented them from announcing their findings.  The company published the results of this clinical trial without including Wilmshurst’s research findings.  The government health agencies, professional medical organizations, and several science journals heard Wilmshurst’s pleas for an official investigation, but all were afraid to do anything!  More and more reports from clinical physicians showed numerous medical problems arising in treated patients; finally, marketing this new drug in the UK and the US was stopped by the manufacturer, but sales and usage continued in some developing countries.  Only after a large write-up about Dr. Wilmshurst and his dispute in the Guardian newspaper (UK) was this dangerous pharmaceutical completely withdrawn from the entire world.

More whistleblowing by Dr. Wilmshurst protected migraine patients from a dangerous new medical device [1-5]!

Dr. Wilmshurst had published a research report in 2000 linking migraine to a fairly common developmental defect in the heart, patent foramen ovale.  His expertise as a cardiologist and medical researcher led to an invitation to be a research consultant in a large clinical trial of a new implantable device manufactured by a small company in the US; with implantation into the heart, this was supposed to close the cardiac defect.  The clinical trial examined whether its use would also stop recurring migraine attacks.  His echocardiogram results for treated patients differed greatly from those gathered by the cardiologists implanting the new devices on behalf of the manufacturer.  The company disputed Dr. Wilmshurst’s research findings and claimed that echocardiograms from the implanting cardiologists were correct, but his results were wrong and invalid.

That company then refused to include his research results within their published report on the clinical trial.  The company’s presentation of their clinical trial at a cardiology meeting in Washington did not mention his divergent interpretations of post-implantation echocardiograms, but Dr. Wilmshurst was in the audience (i.e., he had presented some of his own research at this meeting that did not concern this experimental device).  A reporter interviewed Dr. Wilmshurst at this meeting and published some of his comments about the divergent data for this experimental device.  Two weeks later, the company’s lawyers notified him of a lawsuit in the UK for defamatory libel; several more lawsuits for libel followed.

Media and medical journals began describing Dr. Wilmshurst’s ongoing fight against these lawsuits, which cost him much personal money over several years of worrisome court proceedings.  Perhaps in response to their estimates that all these trials would have a total cost of over 14 million dollars, the small manufacturer abandoned production of the new device and went out of business; the bankruptcy ended the lawsuits.  Dr. Wilmshurst again had successfully fought research misconduct and commercial fraud, thereby saving clinical patients from any grief with this ineffective new device.

Important lessons to be learned from Dr. Wilmshurst’s activities [1-5]. 

Several disconcerting lessons about both dishonesty and honesty in research can be learned from this determined British medical researcher and whistleblower.

(1)  Since scientific research is conducted by humans, it is easily subject to unethical conduct due to government inaction, overriding ambition, personal greed, selfish commercial interest, silence about professional wrongdoing, wrongful self-interest, etc.

(2)  Money and commercial interests make total honesty particularly difficult for scientists in cases where their research results contradict or call into question what is desired; research must seek the truth, and is distorted when it looks for only a predetermined result.

(3)  Industrial companies often can pressure and overwhelm individuals by using their large financial resources for bribes, teams of specialized lawyers in expensive lawsuits, direct threats to impugn professional reputation and personal integrity, etc.

(4)  The most common reaction upon finding dishonesty in science is simply silence and a refusal to become involved; this is very easy to do, but such tolerance of dishonesty can hurt innocent people (i.e., patients) and probably is itself a form of dishonesty.

(5)  The penalties and punishments for dishonesty in research are usually small or absent, which then encourages more dishonesty; some scientists even have a very successful career with repeated dishonesty that is widely known [2].

(6)  Corruption within all aspects of medical research is much more extensive than is commonly thought.

The ultimate goal of science is to find the truth, no matter what it might be.  Independent research is the best human means to decide what is true and what is false.  Whistleblowing serves to promote honesty in business, government, and science.  Court cases usually are initiated to pressure and intimidate whistleblowers to keep quiet or repudiate their earlier research findings and conclusions.  Judges and lawyers do not know enough about science to decide about controversies in research (see:  “What Happens when Scientists Disagree? Part V: Lessons to be Learned When Scientists Disagree” ).  As Dr. Wilmshurst has stated, “The law courts are not the best way to determine scientific truth.” [4].

Peter Wilmshurst is a unique individual, and certainly is a hero! 

Dr. Wilmshurst stands up for honesty even when other research scientists say nothing and ignore obvious wrongdoing, compromise their professional ethics by research misconduct, or show no personal integrity.  His personal characteristics and professional standards as a medical research scientist make him a great role model for young scientists, physicians, and research workers in all the disciplines of science.  He does not fear getting involved and announcing the truth even when that means making shocking disclosures about highly placed figures, esteemed professional organizations, very famous science and medical journals, successful large industrial operations, and, malfunctioning agencies in the national government.

It should be obvious that Dr. Wilmshurst is a very distinctive individual who successfully fought against large manufacturing companies, government agencies, professional medical associations, professional science journals, lawyers and courts, and blatant threats to his reputation as a professional clinical researcher.  He could do all of that because he is an ethical scientist with exemplary honesty, personal courage, and professional integrity.  Whereas he speaks out about dishonesty in research, many others choose to keep silent and refuse to challenge dishonesty and corruption; thus, dishonesty in science is widely tolerated [1].

Peter Wilmshurst should be honored for his career-long dedication to honesty and high professional standards in research!  In 2003, he received the HealthWatch Annual Award in the UK for his work against corruption and fraud in medical science [1].

Further information is directly available from Dr. Wilmshurst on the internet! 

A wonderful video presentation by Peter Wilmshurst, “The Role of Whistleblowers in Improving the Integrity of the Evidence Base”, is highly recommended to all reading this article (see:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xze-yPubFIY ).

Also highly recommended to all by Dr.M are both the written version of the speech given by Dr. Wilmshurst on the occasion of his receiving the HealthWatch Annual Award for 2003 (see:  http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/20-awards/award-lectures/65-2003-dr-peter-wilmshurst.html ), and, a very recent 2015 interview of Dr. Wilmshurst by R. von Bredow & V. Hackenbroch for Spiegel Online International, “Whistleblower on Medical Research Fraud: ‘Positive Results Are Better for Your Career'” (see:  http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/spiegel-interview-with-whistleblower-doctor-peter-wilmshurst-a-1052159.html ).

Concluding remarks.   

Whistleblowers are essential to help keep everyone honest!  Even large companies and very famous scientists can become dishonest, unethical, or unprofessional.  Lack of honesty in scientific research can lead to grave practical problems for unsuspecting innocent people.   For medical research, Dr. Wilmshurst states appropriately, “Truth should not be decided by those with greatest wealth using bullying and threats to make a scientist retract what he or she knows is true.” [4].

[1]  P. Wilmshurst, 2004.  Obstacles to honesty in medical research.  HealthWatch – UK, Newsletter #52, 2003 HealthWatch – UK Award Lecture.  (see:  http://healthwatch-uk.org/20-awards/award-lectures/65-2003-dr-peter-wilmshurst.html ).

[2]  P. Wilmshurst, 2007.  Dishonesty in medical research.  Medico-Legal Journal 75:3-12. (see:  http://www.medico-legalsociety.org.uk/articles/dishonesty_in_medical_research.pdf ).

[3]  R. Smith, 2012.  A successful and cheerful whistleblower.  The BMJ (British Medical Journal) Blogs, October 10, 2012.  (see:  http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/10/10/richard-smith-a-successful-an.d-cheerful-whistleblower/ ).

[4]  R. A. Robbins, 2012.  Profiles in medical courage: Peter Wilmshurst, the physician fugitive.  Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care, April 27, 2012/4:134-141.  (see:  http://www.swjpcc.com/general-medicine/2012/4/27/profiles-in-medical-courage-peter-wilmshurst-the-physician-f.html ).

[5]  P. Wilmshurst, 2012.  Justice Committee – written evidence submitted by Dr. Peter Wilmshurst.  UK Parliament, House of Commons, Select Committee on Science and Technology.  (see:  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmsctech/163/163vw17.htm ).

 

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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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