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Opinion: Broadcasting misconduct

Sometimes going public with an accusation is the only way to bring the truth to light

By | March 23, 2011

Last July, an unknown agitator using the pseudonym Marco Berns linkurl:interrupted an investigation of scientific misconduct;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57898/ with e-mails and online posts accusing researcher Silvia Bulfone-Paus of the Research Center Borstel in Germany -- whose lab was the focus of the investigation -- of scientific fraud. The media dubbed the actions an outrageous smear campaign, but if this person had reason to believe that the local commission investigating the case might delay, play down or even suppress incriminating evidence, perhaps going public was the only way to see that justice was served.
Image: Flickr, Bill Bradford
Ten years ago, a colleague and I blew the whistle on Alexander Kugler, a physician at the Goettingen University hospital in Germany, who we suspected was involved in the treatment of 500 kidney cancer patients with an illegal and ill-defined tumour vaccine. After a local ombudsman commission failed to prevent the treatment, which was later revealed to not have been approved by the hospital's ethics committee, we turned to the late Peter Hans Hofschneider, then a virologist at the Max-Planck-Institute of Biochemistry, Munich, and a pioneer of molecular biology in Germany who had helped to bring to light a notorious German science scandal in the late 1990s. After summarizing the evidence against Kugler in a letter to the German Research Foundation (DFG), Hofschneider immediately arranged contact with two journalists and encouraged us to go public with our allegations. The ensuing media coverage in 2001 was a sweeping success, prompting the university hospital to immediately halt the industry-sponsored large-scale clinical trial of the vaccine, and Nature Medicine to retract a highly-praised article published the previous year. The public outcry was also strong enough to kick-start an investigative panel by the DFG. While the investigation by the university commission had found Kugler fully responsible for the data manipulation and illegal treatment of hundreds of cancer patients, the DFG investigation overruled its verdict, concluding that Rolf-Hermann Ringert, the department head and senior author of the retracted paper, was the true culprit of the misconduct. The Goettingen case clearly demonstrates that going public can force authorities to act swiftly and investigate thoroughly. Unfortunately, the expert investigative science journalists involved in the unravelling of the scandal have since retired. Nowadays, German investigative science journalists are in short supply. Whistleblowers are more or less on their own if confronted with science crooks on the one hand and incompetent or negligent ombudsman commissions on the other -- a situation I found myself in 3 years ago. I suspected something was amiss in a paper I had co-authored about a receptor involved in the inflammation of the abdominal lining in mice after I was unable to reproduce part of the published findings. When I asked the senior author of our paper for access to the original data files, he refused, prompting me to contact the DFG to help me obtain the documents. It took a year before the senior author delivered two of the requested files, but he continued to withhold the control file. Although the DFG ombudsman acknowledged in writing any co-author's principle entitlement to access original data, and despite the fact that I have made it clear time and again that these data could prove that data manipulation had taken place, the DFG has done nothing to compel my co-author to make the data available. Two more years later, I am still waiting. Once again, I find myself questioning the integrity and competency of a Geman ombudsman commission and am at a loss of what to do now. If the fraud is uncovered later by an uninvolved party, there is the risk that I will be accused of wrongdoing. At this point, going public might be an act of scientific self-defense. The scientific community has to face the fact that ombudsman commissions are neither professional arbiters nor skilled investigators. We need to inquire how often they ignore the facts, or seek to conceal them, and we must not be quick to criticize those who sidestep the system by going public with their suspicions. Whistleblowers walk a fine line, and sometimes, being vocal about their knowledge is the best or only option available. In the Borstel case, for example, it is unclear whether Berns was the perpetrator of a smear campaign, as Borstel officials and Nature seem to believe, or acting in self-defense in the face of an imminent cover up? Whatever the cause of Bern's actions, they have compelled three different investigative panels (Borstel, Luebeck, and the DFG) to deal with various aspects of the Borstel case. Hopefully, between the three of them, the truth will be revealed. Joerg Zwirner was a professor and immunologist at the Department of Immunology, Georg-August-University Goettingen, until 2007, when he left academia for personal reasons.
**__Related stories:__*** linkurl:Scientific smear campaign?;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57898/
[22nd December 2010]*linkurl:Life after fraud;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55772/
[July 2009]*linkurl:Opinion: Erase science's blacklist;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57557/
[14th July 2010]
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Comments

March 23, 2011

Science is all about finding the truth and getting it out.
Avatar of: Kenneth Pimple

Kenneth Pimple

Posts: 5

March 23, 2011

I thank the author for sharing his observations and experiences. It is important for all of us to understand the weaknesses of the system(s).\n\nKen
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

March 23, 2011

IN the journal of Animal Science there have been over a dozen letters to the editor on three trials and several papers in which the experimental treatments ( genetic lines) were misrepesented ( i.e. multiple genetic lines instead of single lines ,etc.). But no group - the publisher - the society - the univerisities or funding agnecy will conduct an investigation and follow Federal scientific integirty laws. In agrculture there is no ORI and thus no real oversight. \nIn human health research the ORI has prevented the blantant public misconduct found in agriculture.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

March 23, 2011

I am very familiar with the difficulties whistle blowers face, including retaliation and retribution. After all I was one and going public save my own career, though not necessarily brought all the truth out. It was up to me to revisit the case again 7 years later, publishing a book about it and using a pseudonym, due to the same fears of retaliation and retribution (http://www.universal-publishers.com/book.php?method=ISBN&book=1581124228). As long as the system sees the messenger as the problem rather than the message, potential whistle blowers will hesitate to come forward.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

March 23, 2011

This is an excellent opinion piece and one that I completely agree with. The cover-up of scientific misconduct happens not only in Germany, but everywhere, including the USA and (notoriously) France. Speaking from personal experience and review of other cases, it appears misconduct review panels often choose not to conduct a thorough investigation - due to bias in favor of the accused, particularly if the accused is a faculty colleague. Currently in the US, the accuser (complainant) is not entitled to any right to assess such investigations. The reports are not due to an independent review body (ORI) until they are completed - sometimes years later - at which time it may be too late to gather critical evidence. This clearly is a policy that should be changed. Any complainant deserves the opportunity to assess the progress of an investigation and demand thoroughness and impartiality. Without such adversarial oversight, I am certain that, in the current system, the crooks get off scott-free more often than not (particularly faculty). \n\nIn light of this, going public with the evidence can be a good idea, and certainly prompts action to investigate and make conclusions. There is a reason Marco Bern posted comments on a Panama website under aliases - to avoid defamation lawsuits, which can be costly to defend. Such defamation lawsuits that are clearly without merit are termed SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). There is some protection for whistleblowers against SLAPPS in most US states - quick judgments that can be requested for assessment of evidence, and the lawsuit may dismissed quickly (see anti-SLAPP statutes). However, in general such SLAPPs (or threat of them) will effectively silence a whistleblower from making anything public. Marco Bern made facts publicly known but in an anonymous manner, pointing out the culpability of Bulfone-Paus. As far as I can tell, none of those facts have been shown to be false or malicious (perhaps someone can correct me?). I applaud both Bern and Zwirner for upholding the honor and integrity of science.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 22

March 23, 2011

How to reach the public without have ones head cut off? I have seen things at the univercity and in the business sector. Would you like to know which public place someone caught flesh eat bacteria? How about the waste in governement education.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

March 23, 2011

In my previous comment the link I provided is not working. Here it is in its corrected form:\nhttp://www.universal-publishers.com/book.php?method=ISBN&book=158112422
Avatar of: Peter Aleff

Peter Aleff

Posts: 3

March 23, 2011

The US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues received four months ago a documented alert about unethical patient abuses and a scientific fraud in the National Eye Institute's LIGHT-ROP clinical trial. In that trial, the authors patched the eyes of the premature babies in their allegedly "protected" group only within up to 24 hours whereas the photochemical blue-light-hazard they pretended to study generally accumulates on the retina to dangerous levels within a few minutes, only slightly longer than for the thermal damage caused by staring into the sun or a welding arc. \n\nPredictably, that rigged trial exonerated the fluorescent nursery lights from any role in the blinding, and the epidemic of baby-blinding continues. The Bioethics Commission knows that every day this false teaching about lack of light damage continues several more preemies go blind, but it does nothing to prevent more of this easily preventable harm. Its members all denounce the inaction of the infamous Tuskegee doctors who withheld available treatments from their syphilis patients when they could have cured them, but that same "Bioethics" Commission commits the very same type of unethical inaction by not stopping the baby-blinding when they could easily intervene by exposing the fraud. \n\nIn many European countries, including Germany, you have "Good Samaritan" laws that make it a crime to not intervene when someone could prevent bodily harm to another person without risk to themselves. Unfortunately, the US has no matching laws although its people go much more to church than most Europeans but have no compulsion to act as the good Samaritans some of their most popular religions want them to be. \n\nThe US Commission members can therefore use the Nuremberg defense that they only did what they were told to do. Indeed, their assignment is only to write a report on whether such patient abuses can still happen today. They can legally ignore the ongoing suffering of the babies and allow it to continue when they could stop it. But is such Tuskegee-style inaction of this Potemkin Bioethics Commission ethical?\n\nFor the documentation of this case, see http://retinopathyofprematurity.org/BioethicsLIGHT-ROP.htm, particularly the last letter at the bottom of that page.\n\nPeter Aleff\nprevent@retinopathyofprematurity.org
Avatar of: Birgit Calhoun

Birgit Calhoun

Posts: 2

March 23, 2011

Andrew Wakefield was accused (2004) by an investigative journalist Brian Deer of falsifying information in a paper about MMR vaccine and bowel disease (1998) that was published in The Lancet. He refused to distance himself from what he had written. As a result he lost his licence and moved to the United States. The paper was withdrawn from the Lancet in 2010. The man was accused of fraud and all kinds of other wrongdoing. \n\nHaving followed that case, I am pretty sure that Wakefield is not guilty of anything. I can't help but think that there was a strong conflict of interest that prevented a rational assessment of common scientific practices. Was Brian Deer paid by the pharma lobby? Is the BMJ a front for Merck? Journalists are not beyond reproach in many cases.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 18

March 23, 2011

It is unfortunate that such cases cannot be dealth with dispassionately with an examination of the underlying data. As such, despite the previous commentator's view on Wakefield, I believe the facts make quite clear the nature of his offensive behavior (and the incredible loss of cous and waste of resources that resulted). It is unfortunate that many people who could blow the whistle do not, as it is often in their narrow self-interest to stay silent. I think I as trained to know that it is a logical fallacy to use "ad hominum" attacks, but it seems to be one of the ways to try and kill the messenger. The NIH's ORI recent interactive video "The Lab" [http://ori.dhhs.gov/TheLab/] does an excellent job of teaching scientific ethics and dealing with practical interpersonal issues.
Avatar of: Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson

Posts: 2

March 24, 2011

Wow. I would never have predicted a defense of Wakefield. The paper is a pile of garbage, the former physician Wakefield is a crook who manipulated and altered his data, the entire project was based on 12 patients, etc etc etc etc. \n\nMost importantly, the lies and distortions that Wakefield was responsible for and committed have convinced millions, if not tens of millions, of well-meaning parents to not vaccinate. And the consequence here will be dead children. Actual children will die of pertussis, polio, and other diseases, diseases that could be prevented. Isn't that a terrible thing?
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 74

March 24, 2011

Jolee Mohr was given a clinical trial of an immune suppressant gene therapy that had only been tested in mice prior to human use. \n\nShe died of a subsequent Histoplasma capsulatum infection. She was also taking Humira. \n\nThe review committee whitewashed it despite the fact that simple perusal of Janeway's Immunology makes it obvious this would be expected in a patient who had an ongoing but controlled infection. \n\nIt's obscene, but that is how it works.
Avatar of: Birgit Calhoun

Birgit Calhoun

Posts: 2

March 25, 2011

All I am saying is that there is another side to the Wakefield story. If you dig a little deeper shades of "The Cosnstant Gardener" appear. And I see "ad hominem" (not hominum) attacks are alive and well.
Avatar of: Stuart Saunders

Stuart Saunders

Posts: 7

March 26, 2011

'and am at a loss of what to do now'\n\nSuggest - \n1) advise co author that in 14 days you will contact publishers & withdraw your name, unless previously requested info provided.\n\n2) in 14 days, \n\nOr just do it anyway.
Avatar of: robinp clarke

robinp clarke

Posts: 4

April 21, 2011

Birgit, you have to understand that there are many people, especially those enjoying the privileges of high status in the system, who live under the firm delusion that if something is issued by an "authority" such as the GMC or BMJ, then it is "the known truth", with no need for actual thinking about it. In the real world, the BMJ published in 2003-4 a grossly deceitful and outstandingly nasty "obituary" of Prof David Horrobin, most certainly libellous except they'd kindly waited till his wife had just become a widow. Following a huge number of complaints the BMJ was forced to publish an apology for its deceitfulness. The BMJ has since modified its rapid responses pages so that people can't practically peruse those complaints (or any about their more recent Deer articles). So the BMJ has excellent form for deceit, and as for Brian Deer there's quite enough info on the web to show where the real filth lies in this affair. \nSadly the NHS/GMC etc has become a total pseudo-system with no-one able to speak any truth about the catastrophic mercury poisoning of millions by "highly-qualified" quacks. I don't think this pseudo-meritocracy of deceit is going to last many more years of internet exposure.

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