Scientific fraud: Is prosecution the answer?

Despite a handful of recent criminal charges against researchers, experts say more legal action could hurt science

By | February 10, 2006

Now-disgraced stem cell researcher Woo-Suk Hwang is facing criminal charges from the Korean government after fabricating data, and another American researcher, Eric Poehlman, could receive jail time for fabricating data in 17 applications for US federal grants. Still, experts say that criminal charges against scientists have likely not increased. And if fraud prosecution increases, it could cause more harm than good. It remains unclear how authorities will handle the case of Jon Sudbo, a Norwegian cancer researcher who recently admitted to fabricating data from 900 patients in an NIH-funded 2005 Lancet paper linking use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with a lower risk of oral cancer. Alan Price, associate director for investigative oversight at the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Md., told The Scientist that the ORI cannot comment on the Sudbo case, or whether he will face criminal charges. Price noted that criminal charges are filed in only "a couple tenths of a percent" of cases of scientific fraud, and this rate does not appear to be increasing. However, criminal charges "are so rare, that it's really hard to make a pattern," he said. He noted that the U.S. attorney decided to pursue Poehlman after he sued to block the University of Vermont from providing the federal government with information, a requirement of investigations into scientific misconduct. In general, U.S. attorneys "don't pursue" criminal charges against scientists, Price noted, because the investigations are very expensive, and prosecutors interested in healthcare have the potential to bring in significantly more money pursuing Medicare and Medicaid fraud, since those cases often end with large awards to the government. The Scientist contacted the offices of the state attorney generals in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, all of whom said they do not pursue criminal charges in cases of scientific misconduct. "People who perpetrate scientific fraud generally believe they're going to get away with it, just the way people who rob banks think they're going to get away with it," said Jerome Kassirer of Tufts University in Boston, Ma., and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. Being ostracized by the scientific community once the fraud is discovered is a "bad enough" punishment, Kassirer told The Scientist. Scott Burris, a Temple University law professor who's studied public health, noted that prosecuting fraud could have a "chilling effect" on science. The vast majority of scientists are law-abiding, but seeing their colleagues facing criminal charges may cause some honest researchers to shy away from studying unpopular or controversial areas, fearing a mistake could land them in jail, Burris told The Scientist. "We shouldn't just assume that there's no cost to getting tough on research." However, Kassirer noted that criminal charges are warranted in many cases of scientific fraud-charges related to the misuse of federal funds, or endangering public health by influencing physicians' practices with their patients. Temple's Burris agreed that it's important to prosecute "bad actors"-meaning, people who commit repeated, and egregious, acts of misconduct. But given that most researchers are honest, it's unnecessary to slap every investigator accused of fraud with criminal charges, he said. "I don't think that's good for science, it's not good for justice, and it's not that great for the public purse." Editor's Note: What are journals doing to prevent fraud? See a related story. Alison McCook Links within this article I. Oransky, "All Hwang human cloning work fraudulent," The Scientist, January 10, 2006. D. Payne, "Researcher's faked data leads to lifetime ban on US grants," The Scientist, April 11, 2005. S. Pincock, "Lancet study faked," The Scientist, January 16, 2006. A.McCook, "Research's scarlet list," The Scientist, April 25, 2005. PHS Administrative Actions Listing Jerome Kassirer Scott Burris D. Monroe, "Detecting fraud at journals," The Scientist, February 10, 2005.

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