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Fabricated results, hidden data: The case for criminalizing research fraud

No more science "smoke in mirrors."
No more science "smoke in mirrors."
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In one of the latest and most tragic cases of science fraud, an esteemed Japanese stem-cell scientist committed suicide following the retraction of two "breakthrough" papers he co-published. They both contained plagiarized and falsified information.

But such cases of scientific misconduct are not isolated; in fact, they appear to be on the rise. "The number of articles retracted a year increased 19-fold from 2001 to 2010, and the increase was still 11-fold after repeat offenders were excluded and growth of the literature had been adjusted for," writes Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta in a recent issue of the British Medical Journal. Whether or not it's because the research community is more ready to retract these days, Dr. Bhutta thinks the swelling numbers suggest his peers are  not doing enough to curb bad behavior. So he made the case in the BMJ that extreme cases of misconduct should be criminalized.

Suppressing or fabricating research results has a tangible impact on human health — from encouraging vaccine denialism to hiding dangerous side effects of drugs. For this reason, he says, it should be treated as a crime like any other. We caught up with him to find out more. Here's the transcript from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Julia Belluz: So what's worrying you? What's the science fraud landscape look like right now?

Zulfiqar Bhutta: To make mistakes in research is part of life. What I'm concerned with is deliberate research fraud which frequently includes financial fraud. We've got global multinationals making up research findings, or publishing fraudulent information on clinical trials. You can argue that there is due course and these groups are fined but this is no different than the guy who just got away from major litigation in Germany by paying $100 million to the local government.

There are real human elements to playing around with research and drug development and human trials. On my desk today there's a letter from a gentleman in Germany. This man wrote that his youngest son was prescribed an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant to help him handle his stress and fears during his exams. The son did not suffer depression, nor was he suicidal. He ended up committing suicide, and the SSRI was one of the drugs where it was recognized that massive side effects of depression and suicidal ideation were suppressed by the drug company. I can see and feel the pain of the father.

JB: How do we currently deal with these cases of scientific misconduct?

ZB: The current processes are very variable. They are also time consuming. They're not sufficiently transparent. How research misconduct is dealt with depends on institutional processes. If research misconduct has  to come to light, there's usually an internal inquiry process that takes a long time and expense and eventually provides some insight. In some instances it's determined that there needs to be an external eye on the situation, so organizations will appoint an external member to their inquiry committee.

More often then not, because there are implications from research fraud on institutions for funding, there is a subliminal and real tendency for people not to go too far and wash their linen in public.

JB: So you think cheating scientists should be treated like criminals?

ZB: On the extreme end of research misconduct — where the misconduct has a connotation  for public health outcomes — I want to see a process that does not discriminate between research fraud and frauds of any other nature, such as financial fraud which would end up in a court of law.

If you were an accountant in a big bank or a manger in a multinational, and you committed fraud, you'd be tried in court. Today if you were playing games with Wall Street and doing insider trading you wouldn't get away with it; you would go to jail. I'm making the case that there are instances where such kinds of research should end up in the courts of law, not in the offices of university vice chancellors who have a vested interest in keeping the fraud under wraps for their own self interest.

JB: Why do you think criminalizing research fraud will be good for science?

ZB: Research fraud is related not just to the quality of science but public faith in science. Can you imagine the damage to public confidence incurred by the two recent instances of stem cell fraud? They have huge implications for science funding and public confidence. In my opinion, it's in the interest of the scientific community to ensure there is enough oversight.

JB: What are the steps needed to make you vision a reality?

ZB: The research community itself needs to take action. I don't think this should come from outside. Once we have that debate, we would most likely come up with policies that can be owned by the research community. The next steps are maybe setting up a committee to look at some of the issues related to fraud, and then having a public debate on what needs to be done.