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Scientific misconduct: It happens but is punished severely

Scientific misconduct: It happens but is punished severely

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a piece on a Dr. A. Potti, a fairly renowned cancer researcher, who while at Duke University evidently manipulated his data so that his results would appear to better than they were.  There is no excusing this type of manipulation (or of data fabrication – which also happens in science as well), especially because it appears some cancer patients’ treatments may have been dictated by these flawed results.  But it leads to a bigger question: “Is scientific misconduct that prevalent?”  All in all, most studies into the matter indicate that scientific misconduct is fairly rare, but is not unknown.  From an anecdotal standpoint, I would estimate that at least half of the scientific colleagues I have known over my almost 30 year career have had at least one episode where they observed a boss, co-worker, or colleague participating in a scientific behavior that could be considered misconduct, ranging from ‘puffing up’ their resumes’ to stealing data from another investigator (happened to me) to outright fabricating data.  The first really popular examination of scientific misconduct were in a classic 1982 book “Betrayers of The Truth” (Broad and Wade), which incidentally started with a summary of 1981 Congressional Hearing into Scientific Misconduct convened and chaired by Al Gore (yep, the same Al Gore that you’re thinking of).  If you’re interested in what happens when “science goes wrong”, I would strongly recommend finding and reading this book.

Should you be concerned about science in general?  Probably not.  The large majority of scientists I know take very seriously the compact that we have with society to present results honestly and completely.  Over the past 30 years, science, universities, and the federal government have put in extensive guidelines and compliance regulations that have helped to prevent some misconduct.  Additionally, most doctoral programs now require bioethical training for their students with the hope that more education will reduce the amount of misconduct present.  And to a large extent, this education and the increased scrutiny brought by the high profile cases of misconduct appear to be reducing misconduct (e.g. I hear of far fewer examples and cases nowadays).  However, anytime you put big egos, money, and the chase of discovery together, the probability of misconduct increases.  And in science, there are plenty of all three to go around.

However, in the end, Science is unlike most other human endeavors in that there are many ‘eyes’ that watch scientific papers and results, and eventually, most cases of scientific misconduct are revealed just because of the scrutiny of other investigators.  In fact, two researchers at MD Anderson in Houston raised the first suspicions about Potti’s data and warned the scientific community about problems with his data.  Unlike the implication in the 60 Minutes piece, I think Duke did what it could to find out if Potti’s data was legitimate (important disclosure: I have served on several University misconduct committees in the past).  Duke’s processes mirrored what many other Universities do in this area and were similar to procedures recommended by the national Office of Research Integrity.  In the end, it was Dr. Potti’s supervisor who finally found the data that had been tampered with and revealed the truth.  So if there is a ‘silver-lining’ to this story, it is that this story is once again an example of how science constantly self-corrects itself.   In most cases, the scientific self-correction occurs through new findings that expand on older findings and these types of self-correction often happen quietly, only known by those scientists involved in the specific areas.  But other times, we all get to witness very distressful self-corrections like that we’re seeing with Potti’s situation (which includes paper retractions and could potential involve a possible criminal trial and jail time for Potti).  The other great take home message from this case for the public is that there are real punishments related to scientists that manipulate and fabricate data.  So while scientific misconduct doesn’t often get a lot of press, there are real consequences for scientists that commit misconduct and these consequences reflect the lack of tolerance within Science for scientists that cross the misconduct line.

If you’re interested in this topic, here’s a link to the case files of the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Until next week, read some science, and have an active and healthy week.

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