We recently looked at a case of an MIT research scientist who was taken to court on findings of data fraud for grant applications and research publications. Shocking at best, and profoundly worrying at worst. But exactly how often do scientists fudge their data to fulfil the needs of their study? Well, as it turns out, more often than we’d expect.
In research conducted by the Public Library of Science four years ago, it was found that up to 33.7 per cent of scientists admitted to questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the suspicious behaviour of colleagues, there was an admission rate of 14.12 per cent for falsification and up to 72 percent for other questionable research practices. In more recent studies in 2012, by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it was discovered that 20 percent of retracted scientific papers were due to error, while a whopping 43 percent were retracted due to fraud or suspected fraud.
From the extreme – making up data and evidence or plagiarising information – to the simple, like not accounting for the margin of error in a study, falsification in scientific research is rarely considered to be accidental. It’s usually an underhand method used to support a new scientific theory. This sort of misconduct is the worst kind of unethical behaviour in the academic community, and the offender faces being investigated, put to trial, sentenced to prison and stripped of their titles and credentials. The grave consequences, however, have not stopped the researchers on this list who overlooked scientific rigour in a moment – or moments – of unconscionable weakness.
Whether it’s research money, misguided passion, quest for notoriety or other more murky, mysterious motivations, there’ve been some bad apples in the batch of scientific researchers over the years. While a few seem just a bit bruised others are downright rotten – spending years rearranging the quest for truth for their self-serving purposes.
10. Hwang Woo-suk – 2006
A professor of theriogenology and biotechnology at Seoul National University was dismissed in March of 2006 when it was discovered that he was falsifying a number of experiments. His results, regarding stem cell research, had been published in high-profile science journals and until he was found out, in late 2005, he’d been hailed as one of the pioneering experts of his field. He was well known for a couple of articles that had been featured in the journal “Science,” in 2004, and in 2005, when he tooted his own horn and told the world of his success in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning methods.
It was soon discovered that much of this research was made up. Hwang was sentenced to one and a half years suspended prison time after he pled guilty to embezzlement and bioethical violations. He was fired from his job and cut off from financial research support and the South Korean government barred him from further research in the field. It hasn’t stopped him from practicing experiments. He is reported to be leading research on pig embryo cloning and it appears he is making a name for himself again. His lab has been publishing materials that appeared on PubMed, an online database for biomedical research. Hopefully it’s all above board this time.
9. Climategate – 2009
Fraud or not, this story needs to be mentioned for the sheer level of attention it received. A huge number of hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia contained some suspicious remarks between upper UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists regarding apparently exaggerated effects of climate change. This led to many questioning the entire validity of global warning and the whole debacle became known as “Climategate.” An analysis of the emails, by “The Guardian,” identified four climatologists behind the large percentage of exchanges: Phil Jones, the head of the CRU; Keith Briffa, a CRU climatologist specializing in tree ring analysis; Tim Osborn, a climate modeller at CRU; and Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The four were senders or receivers of all but 66 of the 1,073 emails.
While many in the scientific community went up in arms about the emails and the alleged “science fraud,” and many sites and organizations were apparently selectively editing the materials to promote further claims by denialists that climate change was a “hoax,” voices of reason eventually surfaced from Scientific organizations and high profile news media sites including “The Guardian,” and the American Meteorological Society, all of whom determined the emails didn’t really undermine the issue of man-made climate change – which was a realistic growing concern. “The New York Times” summed it up as a problem of exaggerating certitude, which had ultimately undermined the scientists’ credibility. After Eight committees investigated the published emails and reports, and looked into all the allegations of climate change fraud, there was deemed to be no evidence of such scientific misconduct. But they did ask the scientists involved to avoid any such allegations in the future, taking steps to regain public confidence in their work.
8. Dr. Yoshitaka Fujii – 2011
It must get tiring to go through all the minute data needed to run scientific experiments. And then after all that hard work, the experiment fails to support your theory. Downer! Well, if you’re Dr. Yoshitaka Fujii, you turn that frown upside down and make up data that puts you in the spotlight as a brilliant scientist. Fujii, who was a Japanese researcher in anesthesiology, set a record for greatest output of falsified data ever, starting around the 90s until 2000 when his colleagues realized that all his output was suspiciously identical to what he was attempting to prove.
Despite this published comment from his fellow researchers he continued as a science researcher and was hired by two medical schools over the next several years. He continued to publish papers. But by 2011, editors from a number of journals had gotten together and hired a PI to uncover the enormous amount of falsified data Fujii had been racking up over the years. This prompted the University for which he was employed, Toho, to launch their own investigation. Among the enormous volume of evidence uncovered there included several scientists listed as co-authors who didn’t know their names had been used; two named co-authors who said that their signatures had been forged and an endless amount of deliberately vague data details around dates of studies and names of the institutions in which they were conducted. The committee found that just three of Fujii’s 212 papers were valid.
7. Diederik Stapel – 2011
A well-known social psychologist – in certain circles – Diederik Stapel, was found out to be a jaw-dropping fraudster after an investigative report conducted into his research methods. The report, issued by Tilburg University in the Netherlands, had uncovered dozens of papers containing made up information. Stapel was behind a number of “sexy” insights into human nature, with his research topics covering “the effects of beauty product ads on consumer self-esteem” and how litter in the streets promotes stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour. After investigations, it was deemed that over 30 of his papers contained fudged results, while his paper about urban decay and discrimination that had been published in “Science” had already been flagged by the journal’s publishers as questionable. Stapel admitted his wrong doing, which had apparently been ongoing for years, and expressed regret for casting a dark shadow on his field. “I have failed as a scientist, as a researcher,” he wrote.
6. Eric Smart – 2012
A former University of Kentucky (UK) senior biomedical researcher was under investigation for scientific misconduct over the course of a decade in 2012. Eric Smart was found guilty of falsifying data in grant applications, progress reports, and published research papers. The US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) announced the findings after a two-year look into Smart’s not so smart experiments. As an “expert” of molecular mechanisms behind cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, it was discovered that he falsified data figures from a popular research technique called “Western blots,” which is commonly used in the scientific research field to detect specific proteins in a sample. Smart used his own results instead, in seven grant applications, three reports and 10 papers, some of which were sites over 100 times in other scientific circles. His shoddy research brought in at least $8 million in grants over the years from organizations including National Institutes of Health agencies. Soon after the announcement from the ORI, Smart resigned. It has been reported he is now working as a high school Chemistry teacher. He has also agreed to exclude himself from federal grant applications over the next seven years.
5. Dipak K. Das – 2011
Dipak Kumar Das was the director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. He was also a prolific research publisher with over 500 articles, as well he was the editor-in-chief of the journal, “Antioxidant and Redox Signaling,” and served as an associate editor for an American journal of physiology. His work on alcohol and the heart was even mentioned in the “New York Times.” But at least 26 of his research papers were retracted, when the University announced a review board had found him guilty of almost 150 counts of false data, again in results from Western blots. When Dipak denied all charges, the board concluded his statements lacked credibility. He was fired, but Dipak sued for $35 million in damages and cited libel. The report, however, stated that given the sheer number of irregularities discovered over several years, the board could only conclude they came as a result of intentional manipulation. Dipak passed away last year in his home, from unknown causes.
4. Annie Dookhan – 2012
Forensic chemist Annie Dookhan was thrown into the spotlight when the results from nearly 34,000 criminal drug cases were questioned in 2012. Dookhan was working with the Department of Public Health Lab in Massachusetts when it was discovered she’d deliberately falsified sample data results that had been sent to her to process. According to investigators, she was forging signatures and didn’t get around to performing the tests she recorded as having been completed. It is believed that suspicions about her work ethic arose when she proudly claimed to have processed 9,000 samples a year, roughly three times the average.
The fallout from her misconduct was huge. Over 330 prison inmates were released from custody after being accused of crimes based on evidence handled by Dookhan, and over 1,000 cases were dismissed – or not even prosecuted – because of what had become tainted evidence under her care. Dookhan was charged with obstruction of justice and falsification of academic records, the second of which came about when it was discovered she didn’t actually have a master’s degree in chemistry from University of Massachusetts, in Boston. In November of 2013, Dookhan was sentenced to three to five years imprisonment and two years probation.
3. Bryan William Doreian – 2013
The ORI was back in action with Bryan William Doreian in 2013, investigating this former physiology researcher with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It turns out Doreian was fudging data in his PhD dissertation, as well as a 2009 paper about molecular biology in a manuscript that had been submitted to “Nature Medicine.” Doreian had “massaged” numerical values to improve the statistics of his results, as well as several other unrelated falsification incidents. Doreian agreed to retract the 2009 paper, which had apparently been sited over a dozen times, and agreed to be strictly supervised during research over the next few years. It’s unclear if Doreian is still practicing scientific research as it’s been reported that he currently runs an active website as head of a company that assists attorneys in passing the bar.
2. Rao M. Adibhatla – 2013
And then back at it again, the ORI turned to Rao M. Adibhatla, a neuroscientist with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who faked experimental data in published papers and three grant applications. Turns out Adibhatla was also messing with Western blots, to help in his quantifications about certain phospholipids in the brain, in a rodent model of stroke. He used his own data further, in illustrative bar graphs replicating the “blot results.” The ORI eventually concluded that these results, “cannot be substantiated by the actual experiments.” Adibhatla agreed to retract his papers. Adibhatla won’t be eligible for grants for two years, and will have to stay out of the NIH committee circles including peer reviews, for three. The University of Wisconsin also said they will not be renewing his untenured contract.
1. Steven Eaton – 2013
A scientist from Cambridgeshire was jailed for three months after faking research data for experimental anti-cancer drugs. Steve Eaton won the dubious honor of being the first person in the UK to be jailed under scientific safety laws. Eaton started his shady work practices in 2009, when he was working at the Edinburgh branch of US pharmaceutical firm Aptuit. He essentially manipulated the findings of an experiment so that it was a success when in fact, it had failed. Had he not been caught, cancer patients who took the drug could have been harmed, according to articles published about the court reports. When bosses at his firm realized something was amiss with his findings they stopped his work and reported him to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Investigators then determined that Eaton had been reporting fake data for the last ten years. Eaton was convicted under legislation called the 1999 Good Laboratory Practice Regulation.