Opinion: Broadcasting misconduct
Sometimes going public with an accusation is the only way to bring the truth to light
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]