When Scientists Commit Fraud, It’s ‘Scientific Misconduct’ – Should It Be Criminal Fraud?

Until recently, when a researcher commits what would be considered fraud, it’s dealt with by the scientific community and labeled “scientific misconduct.” Some within the scientific community say that researchers who commit scientific misconduct need to face criminal fraud charges inside the courtroom.

“If you were a banker and defrauded your customers, you would go to prison,” Zulfiqar Bhutta, co-director of research for the Centre for Global Child Health at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, explained. “If someone defrauds tax payers with research money and falsifies data or falsifies entire research results, it is no different than any other form of similar economic crime.”

Former editor of the British Medical Journal Dr. Richard Smith agrees that scientific misconduct should be considered a criminal crime. In a recent blog post, he pointed out that some Volkswagen employees could be charged for their involvement in manipulating emission-test results, but if a scientist “invents data, defrauds funders and publishes fabricated data that may lead to patient harm,” they are somehow “highly unlikely to face criminal charges.”

Others say that if scientific misconduct were treated like a crime, it would “have a chilling effect on science,” according to the CMAJ. This argument asserts that it would be difficult to determine if a scientist were guilty of deliberate fraud or just general incompetence. They say that scientific institutions are better able to investigate scientific misconduct than the police. Bhutta disagrees.

“Universities, research institutions and academic institutions generally don’t have the stomach to go through this process,” Bhutta said. “Very few want the kind of publicity that comes with research misconduct, which could affect funding.”

Bhutta argued in a BMJ article, that scientific fraud has enormous consequences on public health and clinical practice. He says that “additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available” for researchers involved in scientific misconduct.

Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, a government agency responsible for implementing the Tri-Agency Framework on Responsible Conduct of Research on behalf of Canada, said that each year in that country, there are about 90 breeches of the framework scientists should follow, but only about three or four a year would actually be considered serious.

“We are interested in ensuring the public record is correct and reliable and accurate, and we are interested in fixing your conduct if you are not doing that,” Zimmerman said. “We are concerned if you lie on your application for funding. We are concerned if you mismanage your funds. We are concerned if, through incompetence or laziness or ignorance, you can’t lay hands on accurate raw data.”

What about more serious offenses of scientific misconduct though?

A few years ago, a researcher of flu vaccines forged colleagues’ signatures, asked a nurse to sign a false declaration, and even recruited himself into one of his studies under a fake name! Clearly, that is deliberately fraudulent behavior and not an accident. Iain Stephenson, honorary consultant physician at the University Hospital of Leicester NHS Trust, clinical senior lecturer at Leicester University, and the researcher that committed those very deceptive actions of scientific misconduct was only punished with a four month suspension, according to The Leicester Mercury.

Dr Stephenson even destroyed an original log sheet and replaced it, according to the BMJ. Stephenson claimed he committed the scientific misconduct, because he was overworked and stressed. He told a General Medical Council (GMC) hearing that his workload led to lapses of judgement when he was researching the bird flu. The chairman of the GMC panel said at the time that Dr Stephenson committed “research fraud” and “serious misconduct” and that Dr Stephenson additionally had recorded three volunteers as having been given a vaccine in a study when they actually hadn’t been given a vaccine. Still, the chairman said that he didn’t actually put anyone at risk.

As rare as criminal prosecution of researchers has been, recently, Dong-Pyou Han, former biomedical scientist at Iowa State University, was sentenced to 57 months incarceration falsifying data in HIV vaccine trials. He was also fined 7.2 million dollars.

Han spiked rabbit blood samples with human HIV antibodies, so that the vaccine appeared to have been responsible for the seeming immunity to the virus. Originally, the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which oversees investigations into scientific misconduct that involve NIH funds, simply barred Han from receiving federal grants for three years. That might have been the end of it, but Senator Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa) pushed for more.

“This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,” Grassley said. In June of 2014, after the scientific misconduct was exposed to public scrutiny, federal prosecutors pressed charges against Han. In February 2015, the scientist pled guilty to two felony charges of making false statements in order to obtain NIH research grants.

“We’re so preoccupied with major cases and so subject to policy pressure, we’ve lost sight of the larger picture,” Nicholas Steneck, expert in research integrity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, stated.

Dr. Marcia Angell, a long time Editor-in-Chief of the New England Medical Journal, said scientific fraud is reaching epidemic proportions, according to an article in PLOS Medicine.

“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.”

If this dismal portrayal of the scientific community is accurate, would it be safe to say that they current way of handling scientific misconduct is not working?

The NIH and the ORI told Nature that the agencies do not even track how many NIH grant recipients have faced criminal prosecution for scientific misconduct fraud. David Wright, a former ORI director, doesn’t see much benefit in criminally prosecuting researchers found guilty of scientific misconduct. He says that simply barring a researcher from receiving funding is a professional death sentence adding, “It’s questionable how much more is to be gained by jail time.”

What do you think? Should researchers who commit scientific misconduct such as research fraud be criminally charged or should we just continue to allow the scientific community to police their own?

[Image via Pixabay]