Tag Archives: research misconduct

WHISTLEBLOWER SUES DUKE UNIVERSITY FOR ACQUIRING RESEARCH GRANTS VIA FALSIFIED RESEARCH PUBLICATIONS! 

 

 

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/ .

 

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IMPORTANT ARTICLE BY JUDY STONE IN 2015 Forbes: ALL OF US ARE BADLY AFFECTED BY RESEARCH MISCONDUCT! 

 

Research misconduct affects all of us! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Research misconduct affects all of us badly!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

An outstanding report by Judy Stone, “Why The U. of Minnesota Research Scandal Threatens Us All”, appeared in Forbes one year ago (May 27, 2015) [1].  She details the misconduct of research and the scandalous cover-ups which still are going on in 2016 at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine [2].  Last week, I briefly covered general aspects of this shocking situation in Minnesota (see: “Dishonesty in Scientific Research: Are the Punishments for Being Caught Sufficient to Deter More Cheating?” ).  Now, we will take a closer look at Judy Stone’s masterful discussion about exactly how cheating in scientific research produces bad direct consequences for everyone.

Who is Judy Stone?  She is a medical doctor specializing in infectious diseases, and also has personal experience in research; she has authored several books, including one giving guidance for clinical research studies.  Her interests focus on tropical diseases, advocating about ethical issues in medicine, and writing for the general public.  Her vivid dispatches currently appear as contributions to Forbes.  For her brief autobiography in 2012, see:  http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/molecules-to-medicine/welcome-to-molecules-to-medicine/ .

Trust in science, research, and scientists! 

The great majority of scientists are honest!  Unethical conduct by research scientists involves a small number of individuals, but this figure seems to be on the increase (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” ).  Dishonesty in science breaks the enormous trust in research and scientists, and, has negative effects on many unsuspecting people.

The general public continues to have very high trust in the research findings and published conclusions of professional scientists.  That is good, except that they are deceived and unaware that some dishonest individuals have broken their trust.

All levels of science teachers and other educators have a high trust in whatever is published in science textbooks and references.  The entire existence of fraudulent professionals is not accepted by most teachers because that realization undermines all education.

All types of research scientists have very limitless trust in the published findings of other scientists.  When planning a new experiment, scientists typically assume previously published results are really true; they do this of necessity, since it is impractical to have to verify all earlier results from other labs by repeating those investigations.

People who are clinical patients of good doctors assume that their caregivers are fully cognizant of all new results about their treatments, and act only for their well-being.  Most patients are not sufficiently aware that pharmaceutical companies are first and foremost businesses dedicated to pursuing profits.  A whole spectrum of dishonesty in clinical and preclinical research studies is stimulated by “powerful financial incentives to do unethical things” [3]; that means  researchers can “pressure vulnerable subjects to enroll in studies, fudge diagnoses to recruit otherwise ineligible subjects and keep subjects in studies even when they are doing poorly” [3].

Effects of dishonesty in research! 

When ‘false facts’ are taught in classes to children or adults, what is learned or naively accepted as being true is actually wrong.  If that falsity is used for some practical purpose, something will not work as expected.  People working in many different jobs encounter this general problem.

Scientists believing some deceitful research report find that their own lab work gives negative or unexpected results.  Upon redoing the reported experiments, they unexpectedly see that the published results cannot be repeated.  This means that time and effort are wasted by scientists, lab workers, and administrators.

Think how much extra time and effort must be spent checking and rechecking everything for such huge and important activities as research probes sent into outer space, new prescription drugs finally approved for sale to patients with widespread diseases (e.g., arthritis, cancer, diabetes, mental health), design and construction of battery-powered self-driving automobiles, etc.  Much of this time and money must  be used to try to make certain that everything works as planned and nothing is based on false assumptions.

Any of us can be badly affected by inadequate testing of safety for new drugs! 

Pharmaceutical drug trials certainly are very prominent for problems with ethics, corruption, and truth vs. falsity.  Judy Stone explains vividly how clinical drug trials are misleading and deceitful if they are conducted fraudulently or actually are marketing studies; they need to be done “honestly and ethically” [1], so patients and their physicians can realistically have confidence in the intended effects.  This admonition is not only directed to research scientists, but also extends to drug companies, to review bodies, and to government regulatory agencies (i.e., U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

The spectrum for research misconduct during development of new medical drugs is indeed very large.   Any or many of us can be affected negatively by any dishonesty in the testing and evaluation process.  When some professional researcher observes unethical behavior by other researchers they are obliged to report that and investigate what is going on [4]; in some cases, it is even necessary to become a whistleblower in order to prevent future patients from being harmed or killed (see: “Whistleblowers in Science are Necessary to Keep Research and Science-based Industries Honest!” ).

Concluding remarks! 

Any falsification of research or corruption of clinical investigations testing new medical drugs affects a very large number of people!  Unfortunately, recent history teaches us that we must always be suspicious about clinical trials since there are so many known instances of blatant deceit [1,3-4].  As Judy Stone says, “It is well known that industry-funded trials get more positive outcomes than those that are neutrally sponsored” [1]; why is that so?  Any innocent patient (e.g., you!) can have bad outcomes due to this problem with ethics in some scientists and some companies.  Lying, cheating, and fraud have no place in research!

 

[1]  Stone, J., 2015.  Why the Minnesota research scandal threatens us all.  Forbes.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2015/05/27/why-the-umn-research-scandal-hreatens-us-all/#4c1697e9751b .

[2]  Stone, J., 2016.  Denial.  Why UMN needs a mental health ombudsman.  Forbes.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2016/05/14/denial-why-umn-needs-a-mental-health-ombudsman/#81c3d4748d3d .

[3]  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 .

[4]  Wilmshurst, P., 2004.  Obstacles to honesty in medical research.  HealthWatch – UK, Newsletter #52, 2003 HealthWatch – UK Award Lecture.  Available on the internet at:  http://healthwatch-uk.org/20-awards/award-lectures/65-2003-dr-peter-wilmshurst.html .

 

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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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A FINAL JUDGMENT IS GIVEN TO DR. HARUKO OBOKATA: MISCONDUCT OF RESEARCH!

 

Scientific research findings are not always valid!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Scientific research findings are not always valid!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Unfortunately, some doctoral scientists cheat.  With the terrible job pressures  in working on research at modern universities, the temptation to take the easy way out by being dishonest is always present (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science”).  Examples of dishonesty in science continue to pop up almost every month [e.g., 1-4], and many more escape notice.  Fortunately, most professional scientists have good ethical standards and do not cheat.  The few corrupted scientists who are caught usually are penalized in a rather soft manner, and publicity always is minimized so as to avoid undermining the enormous trust that the public has for professional scientists.

This article presents the sad story of Dr. Haruko Obokata, a young Japanese researcher who now has been very thoroughly investigated and penalized for research fraud [e.g., 3,4].  This case is particularly worthy of attention because it dramatically illustrates what can make a scientist cheat (see: “Why Would any Scientist ever Cheat?” ), and the consequences that can follow later.

Background to the controversy about Dr. Obokata’s research. 

Dr. Obokata worked as a researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, one of the most prestigious research institutes in Japan.  She investigated “stem cells“, which are pluripotent cells that can be induced to become different normal cell types.  Medical science is very interested in stem cells for possible use in repairing and replacing damaged organs.  Dr. Obokata reported finding a simple and easy new method to produce many stem cells with 2 papers in the stellar science journal, Nature.  This research finding was a big surprise; her new method was totally unexpected, gave wonderful results, and was labeled as being revolutionary.  Dr. Obokata  became very famous overnight; many news stories about her spectacular research results were issued, and interviews with her were featured on television.  Soon after her publications appeared, other scientists eagerly tried to duplicate her reported results, but they all were not successful; this rapidly led to many questions about her amazing research findings and the truthfulness of her research.  For science, research results must be reproducible to be considered valid.  

Due to the enlarging doubts raised about her research results, local investigations were undertaken, but these only produced more questions and more controversy.  Extensive investigations followed, and produced no verification of her new methodology.  Throughout this controversy, Dr. Obokata maintained that her research results were real, but she was not able to explain why other scientists could not duplicate her results.  Many coworkers, supervisors, and other researchers then were questioned as the large controversy expanded further.  Finally, Dr. Obokata was asked to duplicate her own published lab results at Riken while she was being observed by a panel of fellow scientists; after 8 months of work in the lab, the results of this definitive test were negative [3].  Just a few months ago, after almost 2 years of investigations by institutions and governmental bodies,  an expert panel in Japan finished their deliberations and issued a final verdict that Dr. Obokata was guilty of research misconduct [3,4].  

Consequences of the guilty verdict for Dr. Obokata. 

This verdict now is finalized, the papers in Nature were retracted, and, Dr. Obokata has resigned from her position at Riken and been fined [3,4].  The penalties in this judgment also include reprimands for several of her supervisors and associates; one supervisor was so upset at the shame of this very public situation that he committed suicide at age 52 [3].  A number of high officials at the reorganized Riken were replaced in the accompanying administrative scandal; due to this widely publicized situation, the national government was stimulated to issue revised standards for research conduct and misconduct [4]. 

Many feel that the cause of Dr. Obokata’s unethical activities with data manipulation and fabrication once again lies in the intense pressures on academic scientists to make important discoveries, publish spectacular reports, and obtain more research funding.  The exact same pressures today are acting upon very many other university scientists all over the world; undoubtedly, some others also will succumb to the temptation to use dishonest means to overcome these job pressures.  

Is this misconduct a general feature in science, or is it peculiar to certain cultures? 

As I have noted previously (see: “Why is it so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ), the ultimate cause of unethical conduct in scientific research is simply human nature.  Scientists are just like all other people in that they can and do make mistakes and wrong judgments.  Thus, I believe that this old problem of dishonesty in science is very general.  Human cultures certainly do influence their science.  In some countries, new doctoral theses complete with tables of data and full analyses are available for purchase.  In such  cases, more dishonesty must be expected later when the new doctoral scientist starts researching and publishing.  However, even large modern countries with very extensive good research operations still have ongoing problems with corruption and misconduct of research.  Thus, this general problem is not only due to culture or nationality. 

The case with Dr. Obokata is somewhat less severe than another recent finding of large shocking misconduct at the University of Tokyo [e.g., 4].  These scandals led to  important changes in policies, awareness, and education about  science ethics in Japan.  I must explicitly note here that this problem is not peculiar to Japan!  I have no reservations in making that statement, since I know many honest scientists in Japan, and always am most positively impressed with the high quality of Japanese science.  These recent ethical scandals in Japan’s research enterprise are just like those in other modern countries.  

What does this example of misconduct say about modern science?  

The events in Dr. Obokata’s case are typical for previous instances where cheating at research has been caught: (1) it takes a whole big bunch of time and effort to finally reach a verdict, simply because it is extremely difficult to ever prove dishonesty when the alleged perpetrator maintains insistence that the false results are really true; (2) the investigations always expand to include collaborators and coworkers, supervisors, reviewers and editors, and, the prevailing atmosphere for professional ethics at the institution(s) involved; (3) after a verdict finally is reached, all of science gets a bad name; and, (4) although reforms are made to prevent this from happening so easily, the actual causes for misconduct in modern science always remain unaffected

Nobody ever seems to focus attention and reforms on the gigantic pressures faced by all scientists doing research in modern universities (e.g., get more research grant money, get more research publications, get more experimental results and more discoveries, get more research breakthroughs, etc.).  These are not simply job duties or expectations, but rather are constant worries for university scientists.  Failure to succeed in these efforts will have bad consequences for the career of any faculty scientist.  By not countering the actual causes of dishonesty and corruption the only possible expectation is that this problem for science will not only continue, but also will increase.  The case of Dr. Obokata is not unique; many other cheaters are never caught, and the pressures to be dishonest remain active throughout the entire world of science.  

Concluding remarks. 

Dishonesty in science and cheating at research are ongoing very general problems that will not disappear due to wishful thinking.  Most cheating in science begins with a single individual, but soon spreads to involve associated research workers and administrators.  Much stronger penalties, much closer attention to detecting misconduct, and much better training about the necessity for total honesty in science are needed (see: “Why is it  so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ).  Cheating in order to get more research grant money is particularly liable to be increasing due to the overwhelming hyper-competition for acquiring research grants among modern university scientists (see: “All about Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ). 

[1]  Barbash, F., 2014.  An obscure academic journal.  A memorable peer review scandal.  The Washington Post, July 11, 2014, Morning Mix.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/11/the-most-brazen-peer-review-scandal-anyone-can-remember/

[2]  Barbash, F., 2015.  Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal.  The Washington Post, March 27, 2015, Morning Mix.  Available on the internet at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/03/27/fabricated-peer-reviews-prompt-scientific-journal-to-retract-43-papers-systematic-scheme-may-affect-other-journals/ .

[3]  Rasko, J. and Power, C., 2015.  What pushes scientists to lie?  The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata.  The Guardian , February 18, 2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/18/haruko-obokata-stap-cells-controversy-scientists-lie .  SPECIAL NOTE:  This is an extremely well-written and very perceptive report.  All scientists should read it!  Ditto for grad students and postdocs!

[4]  The Japan Times, Opinion, 2015.  Blight of research misconduct.  The Japan Times, February 18, 2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/02/18/editorials/blight-research-misconduct .

 

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