Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Neuroscientist pleads guilty in court to fraud, gets two-year suspended sentence

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Bruce Murdoch

Bruce Murdoch

A Parkinson’s researcher pleaded guilty to fraud in court this morning in Brisbane, Australia, and received a two-year suspended sentence.

Court sentences for fraud are rare, to say the least. This one follows an investigation by Bruce Murdoch‘s former employer, the University of Queensland, into 92 papers — resulting in the retraction of three papers co-authored by Caroline Barwood, also facing fraud charges. The investigation was unable to find any evidence that published research cited in court had been ever carried out.

The Australian reported this morning that Murdoch:

was found guilty of falsifying research results in a paper published in the European Journal of Neurology in 2011.

This morning he pleaded guilty to 17 fraud-related charges and was sentenced in the Brisbane Magistrates Court.

Here are the problems with that paper, according to a press release that the University of Queensland issued in 2013 (a commendable move, which we reported on at the time):

As a result of its investigation to date, UQ has asked the journal that published the paper to retract it on the grounds that: “no primary data can be located, and no evidence has been found that the study described in the article was conducted.”

The Australian reported the financial consequences for the university:

Magistrate Tina Privitera said Professor Murdoch “knew the research was false” but accepted a $20,000 research grant, the Courier Mail reported.

The university also returned the first two instalments of a $300,000 bursary awarded to Dr Barwood by the Lions Medical Research Foundation. Foundation chairman Anthony Hodgson said yesterday the incident would not stop the organisation from financially backing the university’s academics in the future. “We accept that it’s a one-off thing,” Mr Hodgson said.

The Courier Mail reported on the further comments from the magistrate:

Ms Privitera said he “dug a deeper hole for himself” when the investigation commenced and he forged consent forms from so-called study participants.

“One named participant was in fact deceased at the time of the alleged research,” she said.

“Your false research was such as to give false hope to Parkinson’s researchers and Parkinson’s sufferers.”

Barwood also faced charges of fraud, and was granted bail in 2014.

It’s not often that we see stories of researchers getting sentenced by courts for fraud (even though more scientists are bringing misconduct disputes to the courthouse). Last year, a researcher who confessed to spiking blood samples to boost the findings of an HIV vaccine experiment was sentenced to almost five years in prison, and ordered to pay back millions in grant funding; only a handful of other scientists — such as Eric Poehlman and Scott Reuben — have also been sentenced to jail time for their deeds.

Update 3/31/16 10:23 p.m. eastern: We’ve received a statement from The University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj:

This case is a clear example of The University of Queensland’s unstinting commitment to research integrity, and underscores the fact that we will investigate research misconduct matters forensically and refer the matters to relevant authorities where our findings dictate such action.

The handing down of a two-year suspended sentence in this particular case should be a clear warning that research misconduct is deplorable and unacceptable.

The University raised concerns about the matter with an academic journal and reported the case to the then Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) in September 2013.

UQ asked the European Journal of Neurology to retract a paper co-authored by Dr Murdoch on the grounds that “no primary data can be located, and no evidence has been found that the study described in the article was conducted”.

The University investigated the matter in accordance with its Research Misconduct Policy and Procedures, and the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Universities Australia.

Our investigations led to the retraction of two further papers and corrections or erratums on another four.

UQ has worked with a range of authorities to bring this case to its conclusion, and has reimbursed about $175,000 to funding bodies associated with Dr Murdoch’s work.

The University has been complimented for its proactive and open stance in regard to this matter.

UQ has ongoing educational programs to inform researchers of the responsible conduct of research, and I am confident that our researchers take research integrity very seriously.

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