Breaking news: Prolific Dutch heart researcher fired over misconduct concerns

Don Poldermans, a leading heart specialist, has been fired over concerns that he committed research misconduct. According to a report on the website

Erasmus University in Rotterdam has sacked a professor in cardio-vascular medicine for damaging the institution’s academic integrity and for ‘scientific misconduct’, the NRC reports on Thursday.

The professor is accused of faking academic data and compromising patient trust, the paper says. In particular, he failed to obtain patient consent for carrying out research and recorded results ‘which cannot be resolved to patient information,’ the university said.

Don Poldermans has spent years researching the risk of complications during cardio-vascular surgery and has some 500 publications to his name.

A spokesman for Poldermans told the paper he admitted not keeping to research protocols but denied faking data.

One of Poldermans’ most widely known areas of research involved the effects of beta-blockers on surgery patients, for which he conducted some of the foundational trails. A search of Medline revealed at least 75 publications on that subject alone.

So far, we have no indication about which, if any, of Poldermans’ publications will be retracted. Sixteen of his papers have been cited at least 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knoweldge, and one, in the European Heart Journal, has been cited more than 700.

Steven Shafer, editor of Anesthesia & Analgesia, which published one of Poldermans’ articles in 2009, as well as an editorial, called the news “mindboggling.”

We’ll write a note to the university and ask them, is this paper fraudulent or not. When this happens you have to consider every paper suspect.

The case comes just weeks after officials at Tilburg University in the Netherlands fired Diederik Stapel, a noted social psychologist, for fabricating data in at least 30 papers.

Update 1:30 pm Eastern, 11/17/11: According to a statement from Poldermans’ institution, Erasmus MC, the researcher was fired earlier this week after questions surfaced about a study involving outcomes of surgery patients.

Erasmus MC dismissed Prof. D. Poldermans on 16 November because of violation of academic integrity. Research carried out under his leadership was not always performed in accordance with current scientific standards.

An inquiry committee on Academic Integrity concluded that the professor was careless in collecting the data for his research. In one study it was found that he used patient data without written permission, used fictitious data and that two reports were submitted to conferences which included knowingly unreliable data.

The professor agrees with the committee’s conclusions and expressed his regret for his actions. Poldermans feels that as experienced researcher he should have been more accurate but states that his actions were unintentional.

The study that gave rise to the inquiry committee having to take action was the health of patients who had to undergo surgery. The aim of the study was to identify which factors can contribute to being able to better estimate the risks of complications. There were no medical implications for the patients who took part in the studies.

Erasmus MC will, however, endeavor to inform the patients concerned personally and apologize to them.

Here’s a link to a press release, in Dutch, from Erasmus MC about the matter.

All this suggests that the vast bulk of Poldermans’ 500-odd publications won’t require retraction. That should be a relief to editors and researchers — and patients — alike, given his outsized influence on the field. However, it’s still too soon to tell, and we’ll be watching this case closely as it unfolds.

Hat tip for press release: Larry Husten

24 thoughts on “Breaking news: Prolific Dutch heart researcher fired over misconduct concerns”

  1. Polderman has “some 500 publications to his name”; does that number, 500, alone incite incredulity? A vast undertaking would be to review all of those publications to determine just how unique and how reliable was each study.

  2. But believe me, if one falls to the ground, the whole castle will crumble. It is just a matter of someone finding which was his “strategy” if he really faked data.

  3. It’s a culture in clinical medicine to just look at the quantity, not the quality. You need to get more than 15 publication/year in order to reach 500 in a 30 year career span and this is a theoretically impossible task if you’re doing real science. Only possibility I can think of is that everyone in the building have been putting his name as a co-author. It’s even difficult to make up over 15 papers/year. I think we will keep hearing this kind of stories as long as scientist go unpunished for their crime…. learn from the Wall Street!
    Loosing the job is not just enough.

  4. So you’re telling me that this is a consistent culture, i.e. the pressure to publish? (I’m finally beginning to see the obvious.) That suggests that much of the “edifice” of clinical medicine research literature may be structurally unsound. Tell me it’s not so.

  5. If you have a large team, and you relax authorship rules a bit, 15 papers a year may be possible, depending on the field. If he did put together the lab and the team, and if he had a lot of good ideas, I don’t see why he should not be an author, or the senior author at the end of the paper. We need people who can do this, without cheating, obviously…

  6. Dear Conrad and others,

    I would like to introduce an intriguing example here. I know of a scientist in Brazil who achieved WAY over 500 papers in his career, and seeing is believing, regurgitated over 25 papers only in 2003 as first author. The link to his public online CV is given below.

    695 papers and counting. This makes up to one paper every 9 weeks. I find it hard to believe it bona fide, but I cannot judge from my position. Everyone knows about “Schon-8-weeks-a-paper”, I assume?

    Well, should anyone get interested in checking out this fella, this one really looks noteworthy.

  7. There is also something called “professional jealousy”… I hope we won’t start a vigilantes club here… If you work in the same field and have a strong suspicion the work is bogus, based on what you know, then I’d think there is a good cause for sniffing around. Otherwise, based on numbers of publications only, that borders harassment…

    It might be worth focusing on groups that “replicated” results that later on turned out to have been fabricated. Say scientist A publishes an article in Science and group B replicates it, but later on it turns out that scientist A had falsified the data. It could be that group B just got lucky, but that would seem a bit suspicious…

    1. I do take your point about professional jealousy, but that argument can be used to deflect any criticism.

      According to his offical webpage professor PJ Barnes of Imperial College, London

      “He has published over 1000 peer-review papers on asthma, COPD and related topics and has edited over 40 books. He is also amongst the top 50 most highly cited researchers in the world and has been the most highly cited clinical scientist in the UK and the most highly cited respiratory researcher in the world over the last 20 years.”

      You can find the references here:

      Fredrick Sanger, 2 Nobel prizes, only published 93 articles.

      Is there some correlation?

  8. “Otherwise, based on numbers of publications only, that borders harassment…”

    What, being suspicious and encouraging others to peruse one’s papers is harassment? To me that borders a compliment. Such a person deserves worldwide attention.

    This 1,000 papers-guy is unbelievable. Well I think any scientist can be just briefly scanned every now and then just to check him out, what’s the issue. And logics and experience truly tell producing over 500 papers with a good % as first author is, well, quite unlikely in the least.

  9. Oh, and let us just mark the fact that there is nothing like a Science Police and no investigator colleague is really empowered to sending another one to jail (or kicking his ass), thus the term vigilante would not dress well someone who scans suspicious colleagues. That is more likely the most direct (and certainly not new) self-correction mechanism in science in action.

    1. one of the major problems is that the suspicious colleagues with 500 publications are often bosses of some sort that are in prestigious academies and tenure committees that decide fates …

      1. Some say that the 21st century is a repeat of the 19th century…in reverse.
        Things do seem to be sliding backwards.

        Also in response to Marco November 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm, by “Vancouver guidelines” do you mean these as they are not called the Vancouver guidelines and it might confuse people:

        “Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.”

        I think that it is stretching it a bit to say that you can satisfy point 2 without any “writing”.

        “A small group of editors of general medical journals met informally in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1978 to establish guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to their journals. This group became known as the Vancouver Group”

      1. And ALL these people are AUTHORS. An author is someone who writes an article. There is no way 250 “authors” can collaborate to create a single article. All this is is stroking egos and/or giving credit. That should NOT be done on an “autors” page since that is misleading and misinforming the reader.

      2. While we use the term “authors”, they are in reality “contributors”. Please see the Vancouver guidelines for inclusion on the ‘author’ list, and you’ll find that actually *writing* is not a necessity.

  10. Such things as the 250 “authors”, often 50 plus on “-omics” papers do raise the question of what each person did. Throwing things into the trash-can is a function. Sadly these papers make you think that science has changed for the worse. Does this sort of work match the intellectual satisfaction of solving a quadratic equation when you were an 11-year-old? I do wonder if a lot of this work is driven by the equipment suppliers.

    Megan Scudellari has written this piece:

    Title: Data Deluge. Large-scale data collection and analysis have fundamentally altered the process and mind-set of biological research.

    This may be true, but in the 1910s and 1920s the people in the famous “fly room” at Columbia University did manage to go through millions of flies and still do the work amongst themselves, a smallish group of people. They didn’t use the collection of a lot of data to “change their mind-set”. The work certainly was important, Nobel prizes (you get them usually years after the work, but not always so),

    fundamental insights into how genes work, but the papers did not have that many authors on them. Sometimes only single author papers!

    I do have to admit that now we live in modern, more efficient times, and that Iam an old-fashioned reactionary.

    Here is a picture of the “fly room”.

  11. Given that a researcher has a lot of graduate students and associates, and has a lot of great ideas that spin off to a lot of studies, that are actually hands on by the assistants, with credit to the boss in the form of an appropriate position on the author list, maybe 500 papers wouldn’t be too hard over a long career…not cause for suspicion by itself under the appropriate circumstances, but how often does this situation obtain and what does it say about such a man when his most recent paper is found to be bogus? Was his previous work OK, or was it maybe suspect? At this point, interested parties will feel an obligation to review his entire history with a critical eye, but there is no “Science Police”, at least not in the sense mentioned. There are no dogged flatfoots licensed and paid by the government, tirelessly rooting out faked data or plagiarism.
    My basic question: how are we supposed to know what is good science and what is just a facade?

    To me, it seems that we have to use our skeptical, critical facilities to the full when we read research studies and reviews of advances in science. Caveat emptor, that is, let the reader beware.

    1. “There are no dogged flatfoots licensed and paid by the government, tirelessly rooting out faked data or plagiarism.”
      True, but there are probably many individuals who did “not make it” in their field (often because they were not as “brilliant” as people like Hauser or Stapel) and probably have a lot of time on their hands and the motivation to do exactly this! Perhaps there should be an organization formed to do exactly this.

      1. Dear Joseph,

        Considering the financial crisis as an example, do you consider that the world is perfectly ordered?
        Do you believe that this sort of behaviour that has led to finanical meltdown is limited to the financial sector?
        My impression is that you worldview is somewhat Panglossian. Do you think that is a fair comment?
        I could be misunderstanding what you wirte though. Maybe you mean things ironically,or sarcastically,rather than literally.

  12. I often hunt down suspicious papers and scientists out of pleasure (no denying) and because it feels the right thing to do. Still, I do not think I run far below their production standards, and I am sure many suspect of my CV as well. Let them investigate me, I like the attention.

    Thus I do not think all those investigating scientific frauds (the ‘vigilantes’) do it out of spite or because they failed. And depending on the way you do it it does not take up much time, believe me. It is harder for the accused to justify their misdeeds in a plausible way.

    I think that for every three published papers one ought to have retracted one fake paper from another group. This is bold scientific contribution, and this way science could progress in a faster, cleaner pace.

    1. Of course, liars are the first ones to say they are not and the first ones to express moral outrage about deception. So, you never know…

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