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The 10 Greatest Cases of Fraud in University Research

Universities are not Role Models for Ethical Behavior

As a university professor I am quite interested in ethics in the academy. I have previously blogged about the commercialization of universities that can stifle academic freedom. Fraud can creep into research procedures, testing subjects, and interpretation of results to achieve an end result such as reporting results that support the position of the sponsoring organization.

I recently read an interesting piece about fraud in university research posted by What follows are some of the results discussed in the piece. The results are from a research study from the British Medical Journal. The study indicates that one in eight UK scientists has witnessed research fraud.

1.     Psychologist Diederik Stapel

Noted Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, of Tillburg University, was found to have committed academic fraud in several publications. The fraud spans about a decade of work, including papers on racial stereotyping, advertisements, and the power of hypocrisy. Stapel’s work has been published not just in psychology journals and publications, but also in worldwide newspapers including The New York Times. Doctoral theses that Stapel oversaw have also been called into question, with interviews from former students and colleagues revealing that more than a dozen theses may no longer be valid, putting not only Stapel’s reputation, but also former students’ degrees at risk.

2.     Dr. Anil Potti’s Cancer Research

In late 2010, Dr. Anil Potti resigned from his job at Duke University amid questions of research fraud. Before he resigned, it was discovered that Potti exaggerated his credentials, claiming incorrectly that he was a Rhodes Scholar, a discovery that led to the American Cancer Society suspending hundreds of thousands of grant dollars that were to be used for Potti’s work. Since then, nine of Potti’s papers on individualized treatments for cancer have been retracted, dashing the hopes of those who would like to believe that this "holy grail of cancer" research might actually work. Potti’s work sounded like a miracle, but his promise that 80% of patients enrolled in his drug trials would find the right drug for them proved too good to be true, and some of the patients involved with Potti’s research have filed suit against Duke.

3.     Plagiarism at KU

Two University of Kansas computer scientists, Mahesh Visvanathan and Gerald Lushington, were found to have plagiarized major portions of their research, for which they had published three articles with an international audience. So much of their work was lifted from other scientists’ work, that even "the entire summarizing statement in their presentation had come from someone else’s journal article," a presentation that they had planned to make at a conference in Sweden, which they ultimately did not make due to accusations of plagiarism. The two researchers have been working with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which found them to be ignorant and complacent about plagiarism in their research program at KU.

4.     Andrew Wakefield’s Vaccine Connection

In 1998, physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet, claiming that his research indicated a connection between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. This research was highly respected and undermined public confidence in the vaccine, leading to many parents refusing the shot. Ultimately, this led to increases in the number of cases of measles and mumps in the U.S. and Europe, with some areas reporting very dangerous and widespread outbreaks. When faced with an investigation in 2010, it was revealed that Wakefield and his colleagues had altered facts about the children in their study, and Wakefield had even been paid off by a lawyer planning to sue the manufacturer of the vaccine. The British General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of fraud and misconduct, and his work is now viewed by the medical and research community as an “elaborate fraud.”  

5.     Hwang Woo-suk’s Stem Cell Research

In 2006, Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk was found to have fabricated a series of experiments in stem cell research, a field in which he was once considered one of the pioneering experts. He was previously infamous for his two Science journal articles in which he reported success in creating human embryonic stem cells through cloning, but is now infamous for his massive case of fraud and scientific misconduct after it was revealed that much of his stem cell research had been faked. Hwang was charged with embezzlement and bioethics law violations, for which he was sentenced to a two-year suspended prison sentence and barred from engaging in stem cell research by the South Korean government, as well as fired from his position with Seoul National University.

6.     Bengü Sezen’s Research Misconduct

For Bengü Sezen at Columbia University, research was just a matter of manipulation. Over the course of a decade, Sezen held a "massive and sustained effort" to manipulate and falsify research data, and even created fictitious people and organizations to back up her data and results. When investigated by the Office of Research Integrity, Sezen was found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct, with at least nine papers found to be falsified, fabricated, plagiarized, or unable to be replicated. It is likely that Columbia University will revoke her PhD, as reports paint her as a "master of deception" who would, "defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary." Sezen did not seem to care about the effect her fraud had on others, as the reports explain that young colleagues of the fake scientist spent "considerable time attempting to reproduce [Sezen's] results" to no avail, with three students even leaving the program as a result.

7.     The Columbia University "Miracle" Study

Just weeks after the September 11th attacks in 2001, the New York Times reported that Columbia University Medical Center in New York had discovered a virtual miracle of prayer: infertile women who had the support of prayer groups were able to become pregnant twice as fast as those who did not have the same faith-based support. The study was quite reassuring to those struggling to become pregnant, and was a great glimmer of hope for a worried nation. However, the study has been called into question, as all three researchers involved in the study either refuse to comment on their findings, or have been charged with fraud and conspiracy. The "prayer study" has been found to have a "bewildering study design" with many errors, and in fact may have never been conducted at all.

8.     Photoshopping the Benefits of Red Wine

News about the benefits of red wine sounds great to just about everyone, so researcher Dipak K. Das’ work indicating longevity for wine drinkers was welcomed with open arms. However, Das has been charged with widespread scientific fraud, spanning 26 articles in 11 journals. A report indicated that his published research articles contained 145 instances of data falsification and even fabrication, many of which involved cutting and pasting photographic images and manipulating them without an explicit description of what had been done.

9.     More Photoshop Manipulation

Dipak Das isn’t the only one using Photoshop to overcome research roadblocks: gastroenterology researcher Stefano Fiorucci at the University of Perugia has been indicted for fraud and embezzlement for the same charges. Fiorucci’s research manipulation won him about 2 million Euros in grant funding, but the case against him has, so far, resulted in four paper retractions as well as nine Expressions of Concern. He has been charged with embezzlement for using public funds for "research uses" which proved to be not just unauthorized, but also false. Fiorucci’s case is believed to be the first time that embezzlement charges have been brought against a scientist that has also committed fraud.

10. Penn State’s $3 Million Research Fraud

When undergrads plagiarize and falsify research, it’s unfortunate, but when it happens at the graduate and professor level, it’s federal fraud. At Penn State, Professor Craig Grimes has been accused of defrauding the National Institutes of Health and Advanced Research Projects Agency of federal grant monies, to the tune of $3 million. Grimes requested grants to study the measurement of gases in a patient’s blood, but the money was not spent for this research. Instead, clinical trials were never performed, and the grant funds were misappropriated, largely for the personal use of Grimes. Grimes has been charged with making false statements, money laundering, and fraud. He faces up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $750,000.

The bottom line on all these examples of research fraud is that universities are organizations facing the same ethical challenges as other organizations. They are not bastions of workplace ethics and, from my perspective, are more ethically challenged today than ever before in part because of reduced public and private funding for research and other commercial-type endeavors.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 2, 2012