Research's Scarlet List

, March 21, 2005), his name was added to a list of more than 40 other researchers currently enduring lesser penalties for similar but generally lesser crimes.

By | April 25, 2005

When well-known obesity researcher Eric Poehlman admitted he had fabricated data in 17 applications for US federal grants and agreed to be the first researcher barred for life from seeking federal funding (see The Scientist Daily News, March 21, 2005), his name was added to a list of more than 40 other researchers currently enduring lesser penalties for similar but generally lesser crimes.

The list, available at http://silk.nih.gov/public/cbz1bje.@www.orilist.html, is known as the Public Health Service (PHS) Administrative Actions Listing, and it names all researchers found guilty of some type of misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which typically penalizes them by temporarily barring them from receiving federal funds. Only days before Poehlman's case splashed across national headlines, another name, Gary Kammer, was added to the list. The Wake Forest University, NC, researcher admitted to falsifying and fabricating research findings from two grant submissions. According to the government, Kammer's violations include fabricating experiments and making up two families-creating false pedigrees, protein kinase values, and descriptions of their characteristics.

As a result, Kammer is now barred from receiving federal funds until 2008. He voluntarily resigned in December 2004, according to media spokesperson Karen Richardson. In a statement, Wake Forest called Kammer's behavior "an unfortunate incident because it does not reflect the way our institution conducts research."

The PHS, parent agency of the National Institutes of Health, created the Office of Scientific Integrity (which later became the ORI) in 1989 in response to intense scrutiny from Congress following some high-profile cases of misconduct by NIH-funded researchers, including John Darsee, a Harvard cardiology researcher who falsified or fabricated data in dozens of cases. The move was intended to convince Congress that NIH is capable of rooting out, and ultimately preventing, most cases of misconduct by scientists.

The agency receives hundreds of allegations each year, says the ORI's Alan Price, but only charges an average of 15 PHS-funded researchers with some type of research misconduct, often barring them from receiving federal funds for a period of time. Price says the ORI is typically notified about suspicious research by an investigator's institution, peer reviewers who recognize plagiarism in a grant application, or whistleblowers who contact the agency directly with allegations.

He estimates that 90% of the researchers added to the PHS list have falsified or fabricated data, with between 30% and 40% of studies involving human subjects. The remaining 10% are typically charged with plagiarism, he says. The list contains roughly equal amounts of faculty members, mid-level researchers such as postdocs, and junior researchers such as students and technicians.

The penalties – which are based on the number of falsified publications and grant applications, as well as the number of impacted coauthors and other players – are levied on top of anything imposed by a researcher's own institution, he notes. In an unusual step for scientist investigations, obesity researcher Poehlman was also charged with fraud, to which he agreed to plead guilty. The researcher could go to jail for up to five years, or serve little or no jail time.

Once penalized researchers serve out their period of debarment, their names disappear from the PHS list, says ORI's John Butler. However, when a name appears on the list, it is also added to the Federal Register and the NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts, a permanent database, Price notes.

Price says that the purpose of the PHS list is not to brand scientists, but to protect public funds: "It's protection of the taxpayers' funds that's the goal, it's not the punishment." Now, any scientist or research administrator with access to the Internet can run a search under a scientist's name, and know if he or she is currently barred from receiving federal funds, Price says.

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