After an AIDS vaccine researcher was sentenced to five years in prison for spiking samples, our co-founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus raised an important question: Should we criminally prosecute researchers who commit misconduct? (So has Richard Smith.) In last fall’s special issue of the Journal of Information Ethics, Michael Hadjiargyrou at New York Institute of Technology, said: yes. Tell us what you think in a poll at the end of our discussion.
Retraction Watch: Did any particular event prompt this article?
Michael Hadjiargyrou: Yes, the higher incidence of paper retractions as well as data from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) that clearly shows an increase in reports of scientific misconduct.
RW: Why aren’t current sanctions for misconduct enough, in your opinion?
MH: Because they do not go far enough. In clear cases where the scientist, using taxpayer money has consciously committed scientific misconduct, he/she should be held to the same standards as those applied to any other citizen who steals money. Using taxpayer money to enrich your lab or even yourself (by paying part of your salary off the grant) and cooking the data amounts to theft. And theft is punishable under the U.S. penal code.
RW: Why do you believe felony prosecutions are a good approach for researchers who commit fraud?
MH: Because we need to end this ever-increasing cycle scientific misconduct. Clearly, the current sanction approach is not working and thus it does not serve as a deterrent. Perhaps, felony prosecutions will do just that, that is, to prevent scientists from committing scientific misconduct while using taxpayer money to serve their own interests.
RW: You say that researchers who commit fraud shouldn’t be “above the law” – is there any aspect of the law that could justify criminally prosecuting someone who commits misconduct? Something in the criminal code, perhaps?
MH: Yes, as I mentioned in my manuscript, there are various levels of felonies depending upon the magnitude of the crime. The penal code is a good place to start to develop a new penal code for scientific misconduct (developed by academic scientists with legal advice by lawyers) that is certainly more potent than the current “sanction-based” one.
RW: Are there lesser punishments than jail time that could act as suitable deterrents? Such as fines, stripping a researcher of his or her degree, etc?
MH: That depends on the new penal code applied for scientific misconduct. Personally, I would not advocate stripping anyone from their degree as the two events are not related (unless it is proved that the individual committed scientific misconduct during their dissertation research – if that is the case, then yes, the degree should be stripped). Obviously, a ban from conducting scientific research should be considered, again depending on the severity of the misconduct and on the penal code. Another suitable punishment is to be terminated from the current academic (even if tenured) or industry position.
RW: Are there some types of misconduct that don’t warrant felony prosecutions, in your opinion?
MH: Yes, for inadvertent mistakes in data analysis and interpretation that may appear initially as if someone committed scientific misconduct. Also, there are many cases where scientists “cut corners” (i.e. not having the appropriate controls, deleting outliers, etc.) and these do not warrant prosecutions.
RW: Do you believe anonymous whistleblowers — by also taking up valuable time and resources — should be prosecuted if their complaints reveal themselves to be unfounded?
MH: No, we should not be prosecuting whistleblowers since we already know that very few people serve as whistleblowers to begin with. I am not sure how many such cases exist or occur per year but I imagine they are not the norm and are extremely small. Also prosecuting whistleblowers will further inhibit others from coming forward to report legitimate cases of scientific misconduct.
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