Scientist who faked data in his thesis will keep his PhD

Nitin Aggarwal

Last month, we reported on the case of Nitin Aggarwal, who earned his PhD at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and who, according to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), faked data in his graduate thesis, in applications for National Institutes of Health and American Heart Association grant, and in two published papers.

Given the findings about his PhD thesis — and the fact that he had won a $1,000 award for his dissertation — we were curious whether he would lose his degree.  Ravi Misra, dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science, tells Retraction Watch he won’t:

Because we take these issues seriously, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences convened a special committee to investigate allegations that Nitin Aggarwal falsified information in his doctoral dissertation.  The thesis was found to be scientifically valid, and a decision was made to allow Nitin Aggarwal to retain his terminal degree, but with notations on the findings placed in his academic record.

Aggarwal is now working at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Update, 5:45 p.m. Eastern, 11/13/13: One of Aggarwal’s papers has now been retracted:

For the paper by Nitin T. Aggarwal, Sandra L. Pfister, and William B. Campbell (Hypercholesterolemia enhances 15-lipoxygenase–mediated vasorelaxation and acetylcholine-induced hypotension. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2008;28:2209–2215; DOI: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.108.177113), after an investigation by the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the MCW concluded that Dr Aggarwal knowingly and intentionally falsified data, specifically Figures 1A and 1D. To MCW’s knowledge, Dr Aggarwal is solely responsible for the research misconduct.

The editors, therefore, hereby retract the paper.

Update, 10 p.m. Eastern, 11/13/13: As someone pointed out on Twitter, there is a likely typo in the retraction notice we quote. Where it says “investigation by the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” it should probably say “investigation by the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) AND the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” because the ORI mentions an investigation by both — and they are two separate institutions.

47 thoughts on “Scientist who faked data in his thesis will keep his PhD”

  1. How is a thesis scientifically valid yet contains falsified data. And with the job market being the way it is nowadays how is BMS not replacing him.

    1. Ya, its a lie, but its the truth! Some one is trying pull wool over eyes—when I studied science they
      called this obfuscation. But it is now the norm with most review panels. They just don’t the scientific record
      seriously. Maybe someday they will be treated by an MD who relied on faked information and kills them
      by mistake. I am not sure it matters in their fantasy world.

      1. Yes, faking is an asset and getting caught does not destroy the asset (as one would think) because
        its all a joke in both the commercial and academic research world. They operate on the bigger fool theory.

        1. This kind of story is depressing because it reinforces that lack of ethics is acceptable, that power plays still reign and that the scientific community continues to be the laughing stock while Big Pharma continues to reap record profits. And the message to Aggarwal: pay back the 1000 US$.

      2. No it isn’t. Spinning results the “right” way, perhaps, but absolutely not faking of data. No pharma company would want its employees in the discovery and development phase faking any data, as it would likely lead to disastrous clinical trials with associated enormous costs.

          1. Can you please indicate where Wilmshurst provides a case for the claim that Big Pharma wants its employees to fake data?

            I’m sure it happens, employees at Big Pharma are as much human as anyone else, but that’s not the same as the companies wanting this.

          2. That award was ten years ago, and cites studies (and alleged offenses)from the 1970’s. Sterling-Winthrop is a company that has been defunct since 1994.

            I guess linking Pharma to the Piltdown man was too much work?

            Perhaps there should be a Retraction Watch equivalent of Godwin’s law that can be applied to Pharma-bashing?

        1. Yeah, pharma companies are happy spin the interpretation of data in their favour and to leave papers on data to rot in the cabinet drawer, but falsified data is worse than useless for exactly the reason you said.

          1. Actually I am giving you a thumbs up not so much because of your comment, but because of your “blog” name: Angry PhD student is so telling! It would be nice to get the input and commentary of more undergraduates (Ms or PhD) because this mess in the world of science publishing is going to be what you, the younger (18-35 yo) generation, is going to inherit and have to deal with in the next 10-15 years, at least. How can we encourage young scientists to believe in science (and its magic) when we see, as seasoned scientists, so much that is wrong with scientists around the world, editors, publishers, and the publishing model? Those of us who came into science with the spark of fascination decades ago are seeing our intellect being pulled between publishers, like a carcass between vultures. Even when one speaks to so many scientists, they don’t even pay attention to what your study is about any more. The first stupid question they are likely to ask you is, in what journal did you published it, or what the impact factor of that journal is (especially in developing countries, and in Asia). I am afraid of what research institutes are teaching their undergraduate students. I can give, as a concrete example, the institute I obtained my PhD from: despite having a modest 105-year history, it has no ethical, research or publishing guidelines.Isn’t that incredible? This led me to quit my position and initiate a fight against the ethics (or lack of it) of the institute, because part of my argument was that this university was reaping great profits from the government, tax-payers and parents of students in families that are struggling to survive financially. What do such institutes with no ethical guidelines teach the youth in terms of publishing ethics, including retractions? There is basically a void when it comes to publishing ethics, the culture of post-publication peer review and retractions.

      3. @Bobo2,

        This comment is unfair, untrue, unhelpful, and does not reflect how drugs are developed. My decade in academia and subsequent decade+ in Pharma pre-clinical development have revealed far more fraud in the Hallowed Halls than in the Pharma diamond mines.

        In my current situation, our weekly lab meetings (6 people), monthly project team meetings(16-20 people), and quarterly/semi-annual/annual portfolio reviews (senior division leadership) provide far more oversight than the occasional thesis committee meeting or bi-annual/biennial departmental seminars required of the average grad student.

        In my lab, data is 100% recorded and auditable. No exceptions. We also have e-logs for every plate reader, mass spec, cytometer, and gamms/scintillation counter in my lab. No study goes unrecorded. Furthermore, in academic labs, people rarely have the time or a vested interest in repeating experiments quickly. I spent $40,000 on one experiment YESTERDAY. Forty one eyes were peeled on the justification for that study (one team member suffers from extreme strabismus).

        People are people, and scientists are scientists.

          1. Karlvonmox, that settlement was about illegal sales practices, like many other settlements. That’s a whole different ballpark than data fraud.

    1. In reply to Marco who said “Can you please indicate where Wilmshurst provides a case for the claim that Big Pharma wants its employees to fake data?” Nov 14 2013

      (I agree that one should not generalize about all Big Pharma from specific instances. I was just trying to make the point that Big Pharma is like Academia, because they are both full of humans.)

      At any rate, this is some of what Wilmshurst ran up against:

      “Company employees asked us to exclude some patients from the analysis. These were ones where there was a downward trend in contractility. The effect of excluding them would have been to produce an apparent but spurious increase in contractility in the remainder. We refused. My supervisor and I were then threatened with litigation.”

      “The Netherlands Committee for the Evaluation of Medicines spotted our paper on the side effects of amrinone.[11] There were major discrepancies when compared with the clinical record cards submitted by the company on our patients. We showed that the company had sent the Netherlands Committee forged clinical records for our patients with the information on adverse events deleted.”

        1. Omnologos

          Do you mean deleting faked data to hide an ‘error’ (of judgement) or deleting data so another academic who cannot do science cannot steal your excellent, honest data, profit from it and leave you to mop floors?

      1. If Big Pharma is like Academia, we hopefully can agree that Big Pharma does not want its employees to fake data?! It’s the generalization that I don’t like. As Pharmapawn notes above, research at Big Pharma is likely to be much more controlled and auditable than almost any research in Academia.

  2. Ah ! Now, I finally understood…
    I certify, via the RW blog, that 10 figures in my PhD thesis are pure inventions, which were transferred unmodified in 5 publications with senseless captions (the publications are bogus, of course).
    Now, please let me know where to apply for a tenure track.

  3. “To MCW’s knowledge, Dr Aggarwal is solely responsible for the research misconduct.”

    That seems carefully phrased. Perhaps the facts of the case are under dispute.

  4. I will tell again and again and many times that “why the supervisor is not taken in for these kind of fraud by either graduate student or postdoc?” Isnt it their duty too to oversee the scientific integrity ? or they are happy with data (who cares) untill one is caught and then entire blame goes to the postdoc!

  5. Can we please stop with all this “still scientifically valid” hogwash?

    Say you do a western blot once, it looks like crap, so you splice it and now it’s OK to publish, and it shows protein A goes up in condition X. Some time later an eagle-eyed reader points out a problem, so you send a new figure because in the mean-time you ran the blot more times (like you should have done BEFORE you published) and it gave the same result. The journal lets you publish a correction, with a statement such as “these mistakes in image preparation do not affect the conclusions of the paper”. Hey, if you’re super lucky then someone else validated the fact that protein A goes up in condition X in the mean time.Congratulations, you won science! Yay!

    This should not be a get out of jail free card. We should stop rewarding DUMB LUCK. Being eventually vindicated at the scientific level is not enough to excuse less than honest data presentation up front. The outcome may not have changed your conclusions, but it sure as hell changes mine (about everything you’ve ever published or will do).

    If the new rules of the game are “as long as the results are replicated eventually then we’re all cool”, then we should just adopt the million monkeys with a million pipets model of science**, because eventually one of them will win a Nobel prize, and oh boy are there enough pay-to-play journals to soak up all the excess results!

    **some have said the current US system is already monkey-based, because it pays peanuts, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    1. Why do journals allow for blotting data where only 1 “representative” panel is shown followed by the inevitable description in the legend “this was repeated 3 times”. Right. If its repeated 3 times ….and personally I feel that 3 is way too low, then show the freaking quantified data. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut…once. I wonder how much of the garbage that is out there could be prevented if journals actually required a reasonable “N” for blotting experiments and not this one-off garbage that is currently out there. I’m getting worked up and need to get back to grant reviews….but frig

  6. This reminds me of the case of Leila Khubnazar’s PhD thesis at the Charité (Berlin) from 2006. She had shown severe DNA strand breaks after exposure to low-intentisity electromagnetic fields such as those emitted by mobile phones. I had discovered multiple gross manipulations of most of the data. Consequently the printed version of the thesis as well as the pdf files were removed form the libraries and the servers, respectively. After the manipulations were “corrected”, the thesis was re-submitted (!!) and the Medical Faculty of Charité agreed that the thesis could be re-published with an “Addendum and Corrigendum”. The Faculty also agreed that she could keep her PhD title.

      1. While this very well might be fraud, it is not a PhD thesis, but a German MD thesis. German MD theses are about as profound as Bachelor theses, or maybe less so. They are useless exercises required so that the patients can call their physicians “Herr Doktor” oer “Frau Doktor”. I would not consider German MD theses part of the scientific record, and Germany should just get rid of them altogether.

        1. I worked at a German hospital recently (Dresden University Hospital). You’re dead on about those MD theses. You get the students for 3 months at best; it’s hardly even a Diplom. The neuroscientist I worked with had a Dr. rer. nat.; she didn’t let the MDs do anything too …. Important. I recall asking her about her PhD work compared to these MDs’; she just Looked at me and said “No, Allison, I have a doctorate in a *Natural* Science”. She’s a very clever lady……and very German…..

        2. Sorry about that incorrect statement. It was indeed an MD thesis.

          Since I am teaching and doing research at Jacobs University in Bremen for 12 years, and also because I have been working in a Medical Institute for 10+ years including supervising MDs-to-be, I can tell you for sure that our Bachelor thesis are much better than most of the MD theses I’ve seen so far!

          1. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of MDs getting their feet wet in a lab and seeing how the research they wind up using in their clinics is done. In fact, I’m in favor of everyone doing this at some point in their lives.

            Just please, don’t equate a few months in a lab to a full-blown, ah … “natural science” PhD dissertation that’s been published in a peer reviewed, flagship journal for a particular discipline and which is continually referenced by the community.

  7. In the past there have been a few laments about where disgraced researchers can work after their fraud is detected.

    Now we know the answer: The University of Wisconsin Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin. If these schools allow grad students to receive degrees based on fraudulent data, then job applicants to the schools should also be able to use their fraudulent publications as part of their CVs.

    (Considering the student committed multiple frauds, the lack of action by the schools is quite amazing).

  8. Why does Retraction Watch state that “…Nitin Aggarwal, who earned his PhD..” when he clearly didn’t? Perhaps this should have been worded, “received his Ph.D.” Unbiased and objective.

  9. The problem is not with this scientist being punished or not… The problem is with young scientisits who will read this and think: “So, it is not a big problem if I faked data…”…

  10. Oh dear, Prof Jonathan Makielski’s 2011 Linkedin recommendation for Aggarwal: Nitin takes the initiative in acquiring the technical expertise to do his research, for example learning voltage clamp and mitochondrial flourescent asays. He also independently develops project ideas, and brings them to the table. His calm and steady nature works well with colleagues and the many students he supervised. I recommend him highly.
    methinks Aggarwal’s ‘initiative’ and ‘independent development of projects’ went a little too far….

  11. Reminds me of a recent plagiarism case (see Suman Sahai on Wikipedia), where a Heidelberg University researcher plagiarized a complete review article (from someone else, of course) in her “habilitation” thesis. The investigating committee remarked that they didn’t like the fact that the whistle blower had done so anonymously and said that the researcher had simply forgotten to put the plagiarized material between quotation marks (pages and pages of text, yeah, right). The thesis was not withdrawn and the researcher was not sanctioned in any way. Doesn’t seem to have any consequences in India (where she now lives) either, as she got honored with a Padma Shri award a few years ago…

  12. An “interesting” institutional response. it seems only the Dutch (e.g., Stapel) and Germans (e.g., Schoen) rescind PhDs and this on occasion, not in all instances. It is true that to rescind a degree already awarded is rather different to not awarding the degree in the first place and certainly more complex legally – Schoen, if I recall, even went to court to try to get his PhD back.

    We have clear tests for undergraduate student’s work. I have just finished marking a set of undergraduate research project preliminary reports and the number of hoops these have to go through with respect to plagiarism etc. is amazing. Worryingly, there are few such checks on PhD theses, where it is up to the examiners. So we are using different standards within our institutions depending on who has done the work, which is never good and I suspect this is true for most institutions.

  13. Administrators are pragmatic. It would have been to expensive to go to court. I recall once I was teaching an undergrad course at the best university in Western Canada, I had a student who cheated on a test. The student openly admitted cheating. I was disappointed, because she seemed to be one of my best students. After I talked with her, she went directly to the chair, before I had a chance to do so, and before I had decided what to do about the problem. In any case, the chair called me in and reprimanded ME for not doing enough to prevent cheating, and I told me that students ONLY cheat when they really have exhausted all other avenues and they think they are close to failing.

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