Should scientific fraud be treated as a crime?

ori logoSenator Charles Grassley of Iowa — known for his tough questions for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — wants to know why a former researcher at Iowa State University wasn’t prosecuted more vigorously after he was found to have deliberately spiked rabbit blood samples in a federally-funded HIV vaccine study.

As Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register reports:

In a pointed letter Monday, the Iowa Republican asked why the culprit, Dong-Pyou Han, only received a three-year ban from participating in federally financed research.

“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 wrote to a senior official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Grassley asked

whether federal administrators have ever tried to recover grant money in such a case. He also asked whether research supervisors are ever held accountable for scientific misconduct by their underlings.


“Has ORI referred the information about Dr. Han’s fraud to any other government agency for further inquiry?” the senator asked. “If so, please provide the name of the agency or agencies and the date of the referral(s). If there were no referrals, please explain why not.”

The case has led to one retraction so far.

As Retraction Watch readers know, fines and criminal penalties for scientific fraud are quite rare. In fact, most ORI sanctions don’t even include outright bans on funding such as the one Han received. Just two of eleven cases reported by the ORI in 2013 resulted in such bans.

We asked whether scientific fraud should be considered a crime — and prosecuted that way — in December, prompted by a series of stories in Nature journals. And we looked at the issue in our most recent Lab Times column, which went live yesterday, picking up on those stories and others as well as a post by former BMJ editor Richard Smith.

Smith’s post has sparked a good debate in the comments, so we thought we’d pose the question to our readers. Let us know what you think in comments and our poll:

[polldaddy poll=7791628]

56 thoughts on “Should scientific fraud be treated as a crime?”

  1. Ivan, Adam,

    Just to let you know we’ve had an interesting exchange about this same topic over on CardioExchange.



    BLOGS Voices UNFOLLOW Recommendations (0) | Comments (3) 10 Feb 2014 Categories: General Tags: fraud, research ethics Is Fraudulent Science Criminal? John Henry Noble Jr, BA, MA, MSW, PhD Share this post

    John Henry Noble, Jr., offers his perspective on the issues raised by Richard Smith’s December 2013 blog post “Should Scientific Fraud Be a Criminal Offence?”, which appeared in the BMJ.

    At a conference in Britain in 2000, Alexander McCall Smith asserted that research fraud should become a criminal offense. Since then, former BMJ editor Richard Smith has come to the reluctant conclusion that science is indeed failing in its public duty, calling research misconduct “terrifyingly common” and stating that “…hundreds of studies (and probably many more) that are fraudulent remain in the scientific literature without any signal that they are inventions.” Smith urges that research fraud be criminalized to put an end to it.

    Bill Skaggs and Jeanne Lenzer, in their comments on Smith’s BMJ blog post, argue that criminalization is likely to be ineffective. Lenzer argues, “If people are reluctant to report their colleagues now, might they be even more reticent if they knew their (possibly incorrect) suspicions would mean their colleague would be dragged through public proceedings and possibly put in jail?” She advises against directly targeting individuals but instead says that the research enterprise should change how it incentivizes individuals’ behavior. She urges “putting researchers on salary and ending grant awards on an individual basis, and stop rewarding bad behavior by acknowledging that publishing 200 articles per year cannot represent careful work.”

    Responding directly to Lenzer on the BMJ site, I quoted Machiavelli’s famous passage in The Prince:

    We must bear in mind, then, that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders.

    Nonetheless, I believe that we should do whatever we can to reform the system that incentivizes the wrong and harmful behavior of individual researchers. Criminalization of individual research fraud is necessary because that fraud debases and undermines the entire scientific enterprise on which human action and progress depend. Furthermore, the false claims of the perpetrators rise to the status of crime against society, insofar as they endanger public health by sullying and misdirecting the physician’s “standard of care.”

    Consider the impotency of the U.S. Department of Justice’s practice of occasionally exacting large fines from corporations for the egregious harms they commit. The companies simply write off the fines as part of the cost of doing business, and the corporate leadership walks off scot-free to concoct another scam. Exacting a fine is but the first step toward eradicating the problem. The leaders who are responsible then need to be criminally indicted and subjected to trial by jury.

    Similarly, researchers should be held criminally liable when scientific fraud and misrepresentation are proven. Their actions reflect the thinking and intent of knaves, not fools. These people know what they are doing. The due process of law is likely to uncover and judge the evidence of guilt or innocence more reliably and fairly than will the institutions of science and the professions that historically have resisted taking decisive action against the perpetrators.

    Let’s step back to reflect on the biomedical research establishment’s current state of affairs, using three perspectives:

    1. In a frequently cited 2005 Plos Medicine article, John Ioannidis concludes, “…for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

    2. In a 2009 Lancet article, Ian Chalmers and Paul Glaziou describe the “avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence.” For the >85% loss of the more than US$100 billion annual investment in biomedical research worldwide, they identify these four causes: (a) choosing the wrong questions for research; (b) doing studies that are unnecessary, or poorly designed; (c) failure to publish relevant research promptly, or at all; and (d) biased or unusable reports of research.

    3. In a 2014 New York Times Sunday Review article, Michael Suk-Young Chwe suggests that the way to cope with the deserved lack of credibility of today’s science is to “look for help to the humanities, and to literary criticism in particular.” He argues that science cannot heal itself because of the “pride and prejudice” in its self-limited view of the world. He cites the need to question “the validity — of the fore-meanings dwelling within (oneself)” when interpreting text, as advocated by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in “Truth and Method.” Suk-Young Chwe concludes, “To deal with the problem of selective use of data, the scientific community must become self-aware and realize that it has a problem.”

    As much as I wish that the biomedical research establishment could become so self-aware, I do not believe that will happen without much stronger incentives than have been delivered in the past 40 or so years since I have been tracking premeditated bias in its many forms (see my 2007 article — Monash Bioethics Review 2007; 26(1-2):24). The research establishment has demonstrated tenacity in hunkering down and going passive-aggressive when confronted by efforts to get it to clean up its act. I have noted that pointing out the systemic incentives to cheat merely serves first as an explanation, then as an excuse, and finally as justification.

    As Meredith Wadman reports in her 2006 article “A Few Good Scientists,” the ethicist Arthur Caplan suggests a more measured approach than rejection of the entire body of commercially tainted biomedical research, lest “the search for the untainted investigator … become like Diogenes’ quest to find an honest man.” In my view, Caplan reflects the pervasive view among members of the research establishment that corrupt practices are inevitable and unavoidable — when push comes to shove, they will shield their colleagues.

    For myself, I see no viable alternative to ferreting out and reporting premeditated bias — the extreme of which is outright falsification of data — committed by researchers who often have concomitant conflicts of interest that affect the reliability and validity of biomedical science. Should we give up and hope to escape becoming another iatrogenic morbidity or mortality statistic? No!

    For this reason, I side with Richard Smith’s assessment: Scientific fraud should be made a criminal offense. The shock of jail time may signal to the scientific community that it has a problem that can’t be explained away or rationalized.

    Do you agree with John Noble? Share your comments here.

    Edit this entry.


    Follow this comment thread Sort comments by: Date, ascending Date, descending

    Dr Bilagi, MBBB,MD,DM cardiology Physician, HUBLI, , India Competing interests: none Very much true

    Recommendations (0) Reply Edit February 10, 2014

    William DeMedio, MD Physician, Springfield, PA Competing interests: none There are already laws on the books in the United States dealing with fraud. Research fraud is an especially serious criminal activity. Whether it involves taking government money and fabricating data for pay, or publishing false information from the private sector for secondary gain, it is theft. Theft is a felony or misdemeanor depending on the amount and location.

    In the special case of medical research fraud, people’s lives can be put at risk. If someone dies as a result of fraudulent medical research, there could be a manslaughter or murder charge involved.

    Fortunately, if a fraudulent researcher is identified, they are effectively barred from further research, as the academic community is not forgiving at all regarding the sanctity of good data and the loss thereof. In addition, conviction of a felony or misdemeanor often results in loss of medical licensure.

    Competing interests pertaining specifically to this post, comment, or both: None

    Recommendations (0) Reply Edit February 10, 2014

    Jose Gros-Aymerich, MD Physician, Madrid, , Spain Competing interests: none In a world where such a peculiar thing as accepting information coming from a ‘witchboard’=’ouija’ as evidence in a court, this happened in Brazil, or where killing unborn people is considered and proposed by some a woman’s right, some restrictions sound at least ‘hard to implement’.

    However, at least on an individual basis, claims can be put by people that lost time and thus, had their health impaired when taking a therapy described in a fraudulent paper as good, or for a company or private investor, putting money in a business based on asumptions made after reading a tricky article or ‘scientific’ report.

    Can or should government authorities, for example, public bodies, or public prosecutors, act on themselves to punish scientific fakers, and restrict this way the spread of false or noxious concepts?

    Besides the legal doubts about the adequacy of this, the size of this iceberg and the resources it would require for an efficacious action are also to consider.

    Recommendations (0) Reply Edit

    1. Maybe we have to respond to this question by extrapolating to a non-scientific context, and then drawing the parallels. Then, perhaps, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who is not a scientist, can see the issue clearly. I use three examples.

      Example 1. Imagine you go to a supermarket and you buy a steak (aka the scientific paper) that is labelled as beef. You get home and after everyone agrees that the taste and texture are not beef, you go back to the store, perhaps ask a food quality control agent to verify (aka ORI) the quality and it turns out that the meat that was sold to you was actually cat meat. In this case, what happens to the supermarket owners? Are they treated as criminals, or not?

      Example 2. You buy a car from a 2nd hand dealer. It’s maker X but the dealer, to save money, or time, has substituted some parts, with maker Y parts. Upon the sale of the product, the car (aka the scientific paper), the dealer does not declare the problem. Maker Y has clearly lower standards and quality than maker X’s parts. Suddenly you are involved in an accident in which the brake cable of maker Y snaps after making an emergency brake. This would never have happened if maker X brake cable had been used. In this case, what happens to the car dealers? Are they treated as criminals, or not?

      Example 3: You are a scientist. You know that if you publish a paper in a high level journal, you will most likely get a good job, maybe a better position, or maybe a good research grant. But your samples just don’t quite give you the result that you would like to see. So, in order to get the result you want, you manipulate the samples to give you the desired result. Bottom line is: undesired result = no paper = no grants. But, desired result = paper = grant.

      This is actually quite simple, if financial benefit was obtained from manipulation of samples (aka fraud), then it should be treated as a criminal offense, as equally as a butcher in a supermarket who tampers with meat, or a car dealer who tampers with car parts to sell a false product with a false image.

      Crime is crime, and fraud is fraud, whether we are talking about science, beef, or cars. We don’t need a PhD or be a senator to see this.

      1. JATdS’ Case 3 is pretty close to my story which I recommend reading on my website:, except that I am the whistle blower not the questionable scientist. From it you must conclude that university anti-fraud committees are not without their problems and prejudices, the ORI is not without its problems and prejudices and the courts are totally incompetent when it comes to science. And the whistle blower has to pretty much back away once the whistle has been blown. Why is falsifying experiments, proposals and reports any different from stealing? Why shouldn’t those who indulge have to suffer the consequences: fines, dismissal, black balling. But we need to be very careful not to hang someone who is innocent. One thing for sure: we need to stop letting the fox guard the hen house. In NJ we have a State Board of Medical Examiners. Why not a State Board of Scientific Examiners? The system has been broken for a long time. Now is the time to fix it!

      2. Your example are really weak.

        Example 1) Nothing happens to the store owners. You could file a tort claim against them, but it is not a crime.

        Example 2) This is a tort, not a crime.

        Example 3) If you say “I believed the results where true when I wrote the paper” any prosecutor would have to prove that you did not believe them. That is of course impossible.

        You see, to prove fraud in, say, a financial institution, you need to show that when they transferred money from the victim’s account to the offender’s account there was no legitimate reason to do so. That may be relatively easy to prove. How do you prove what a scientist believes or doesn’t believe? Even a quite obvious figure manipulation can be defended. “Any misrepresentation was unintentional and I believe the results as published represent what I saw in my lab at the time.” A prosecution would have to prove that is not a true statement.

        1. Example 3 is a bit relevant if you’re deleting solvent peaks in your NMR spectrum.

          And it does have legal ramifications. I was taught to treat my lab book as being court-admissible and to adhere to certain standards when reporting. There are safety, financial, and legal reasons for this; particularly in synthetic organic chemistry.

        2. Actually, example 1 is a crime.

          for example:
          JENNY H. MA, OWNER AND

          indicted on 8/24/11 for:
          Ms. Ma and Ms. Mai were indicted on two felony
          and two misdemeanor counts for causing meat
          food products to become misbranded, with intent
          to defraud, and falsely representing meat as being
          inspected and passed, with intent to defraud

          1. Yeah, yeah, I knew that, but I was trying to keep my post short. J was talking about a supermarket, which doesn’t usually produce their own meat.

            Anyway, did you read the case just below the one you cited: “Mr. Allemang was sentenced on one
            misdemeanor count of falsely representing product as federally inspected, received probation
            for 1 year, paid a $25 assessment, and cannot be responsibly connected to any business involving
            FSIS regulated products or exempt status. ”

            This is about the same level of punishment meeted out by the ORI.

      3. Good approach. I think the most appropriate comparison would be to a federal contractor who either:
        1) After receiving a contract/grant: claimed to do work that they did not do, and got paid for it.
        2) During the bid: fraudulently claimed to have the ability to conduct work and/or a history of successfully completing such projects.

  2. Absolutely is should be a crime because they are stealing from the taxpayer and misleading
    health decisions that can have a tragic consequences. Its a no-brainer

  3. No way!

    Why doesn’t the Senator write to himself? It is Congress that authorizes the NIH’s ORI. If a Senator is unhappy with the law as it stand he can introduce legislation. What we have here is posturing.

    If you’ve been paying any attention at all you know that in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars there has been hundreds of billions of dollars of waste and fraud. And of course with no significant interest in investigation.

    Waste is good to Congress, but they are suspicious of science. From climate change, to pollution, to the HPV vaccine, many (perhaps most) politicians would prefer that science research not be done.

    There is a danger that the large crime (massive fraud in contracts and procurement) is winked at, while scientists are harassed by lobbyists and corporations, in pursuit of a tiny sliver of misconduct.

    I’ve written before about why such prosecutions are unlikely. They are unlikely to succeed, and the potential for recovery of grant funds in minimal.

    1. Let’s not get distracted and stay focused. There are many problems and flaws in this less-than-perfect world. Teeth must be given to ORI and this may be the unfortunate opening salvo if we don’t be vigilant ourselves. I prefer that we “police” (regulate may be a better word) ourselves than let others who certainly may be suspicious of science (and perhaps rightly so if the perception is that there is bad science).

    1. You’ve put your finger on the very nub of the issue.

      The university can show, in detail, that it spent the money on what the grant was intended to fund. Salary money for specific individuals and supplies accounted for up to the dollar. No waste, no fraud, they will say.

      The PI has merely to claim that they believed all the statements in their proposal were true at the time they were written. A prosecutor will have to prove that is not so. which is essentially impossible.

      Even the most egregious behavior can be explained, such as spiking the samples. The PI will claim he was desperate to save what he still considers to be a valid and valuable project. Scientific misconduct, yes. But criminal fraud? …very difficult to prove.

      1. They will throw whoever did the experiments under the bus. Maybe they’ll get salary of the “bad guy” back?

  4. The question is who to criminalize: The researcher, the author , the institution, reviewers, editors or publishers? They all gain from publishing fraudulent research!

    Abolishing the publish or perish and demanding accountability of institutions for lack of oversight should put some end to this ANARCHY!

    1. “The question is who to criminalize: The researcher, the author , the institution, reviewers, editors or publishers?”

      Technically, grants go to institutions not individuals. And I’m sure everyone will agree that there is probably 50,000 times more fraud in inflation of indirect costs than there is in scientific research itself. Does anyone think the taxpayer gets the same value per dollar for the indirect costs as for the direct costs of labor and supplies?

  5. It has to be a crime – @JATds has pretty much nit the nail on the head. Then there is the quesiont of who to blame?
    The PI? Well, there is always the “subordinate defense”, which seems to appear here on RW with amazing frequency (another category for retractions?). One can see m’learned friends settling down to a long discussion over this in court and clocking up megabucks.
    The Institution? This makes sense. They hold the grant and administer it. They also sign up to all the conditions. In the UK there are clear conditions relating to data management, yet there is generally none, apart from what the PI cobbles together.
    This might put the indirect costs up a little. Not to worry, there are a load of such costs underpinning research (generally a loss making enterprise for universities – teaching subsidises research costs), from the building (who pays for a new building?) to the millions spent on subscriptions to Closed Access J and it acolytes.
    A few prosecutions and institutions will start to pay a load more attention to anyone raising questions regarding data integrity.

  6. Why should the research community be any different than the rest of society. If a dock worker steals a box from a freight truck, we have no problem prosecuting the individual, if an accountant makes a false report we have no problem prosecuting the individual, the list could go on. The trucking company and the accountant company are held libel for the loss (and most will make good the loss, if for no other reason than good PR). As for the financial institutions, as it stands now sec has fined some, criminal investigation are still on going and civil lawsuits are in the works, the courts move very slow in these matters. If a researcher commits fraud that results in loss of any kind (including lives) are we to just throw up our hands and say well it would be too hard to prosecute them. The idea that because there is waste/fraud in the government in other areas is no reason to lower your standards. If that is your justification for not prosecuting these people then how can you justify prosecuting the shoplifter who may steal a 10 dollar item or the burglary who breaks into your home to take your television.
    As far as people who would fear exposing other researchers you need look no further than your local crime stoppers/crime watch program, provided the suspect are prosecuted they receive hundred of calls everyday. I can say for certain that right now all over the world, fellow researchers have information that they would love to share if they knew there was a prosecution at the end, but as it stands now why create a problem for yourself if nothing will be done no matter how grievous the error/fraud. Why bother coming to this site if you are not interested in some action taken.

    1. ” If a dock worker steals a box from a freight truck, we have no problem prosecuting the individual”

      Actually there are big problems prosecuting the individual. Principally there are the constitutional rights of freedom from unreasonable searches and freedom from self-incrimination. You think someone has stolen a box? Well, you can’t search their house unless you have probable cause that they did it.

      As it stands now, if there is an allegation of misconduct, institutions that receive NIH funding are obligated to cooperate with an ORI investigation. With the possibility of a criminal prosecution, this ceases. You want to see my notebooks? Well, come back when you have a warrant.

      How careful will you be to maintain, store, and share your research records, when you know it could be used to charge you with a crime at any time? Any lawyer will advise you to destroy all records once you are finished with them, to the maximum extend allowed by law.

      Let’s say you get an NIH grant, do your work, and prove that your original theory was not true. Well, under this new scientific totalitarian regime, that’s prima facia evidence of fraud. Will you be prosecuted? Will junior government bureaucrats want to rifle through all your notebooks and records to find early failed experiments? How will you defend yourself? You proved yourself that the basis of your grat proposal was untrue.

      1. This is a poor comparison. You can’t search the dock worker’s house without probably cause. Correct. Does the ORI need probably cause to search lab notebooks? No. Why? Because by taking federal money the university agrees to let them search your lab notebook and associated materials. The lab notebook (or at least its intellectual content) ultimately doesn’t belong to you… it belongs to the University that you work for… so if the University allows them to search it without warrant, they are well within their ability. No university is going to stop taking federal money so that it’s cheating investigators can’t have their lab notebooks searched.

        1. “Does the ORI need probably cause to search lab notebooks? No. Why? Because by taking federal money the university agrees to let them search your lab notebook and associated materials.”
          And that is because the ORI does not carry out criminal investigations.
          ” so if the University allows them to search it without warrant, they are well within their ability.”
          It won’t do alot for their academic reputation. Police ransacking professors offices looking for evidence. Should do wonders for those working on psychology and violent crime.
          “No university is going to stop taking federal money so that it’s cheating investigators can’t have their lab notebooks searched.”
          But it might make a change in the number of researchers keeping records in official university notebooks.
          The reality you are reaching for is the nightmare scenario of government and political interference in research and free inquiry. You’ll make all academic records immediately accessible by the police, without a warrant, without probable cause, and without judicial involvement. And you are willing to do this in order to deter what, 0.1% or 0.01% of scientists? Is it worth it, I wonder?

          1. Whether or not the university paid for the paper notebook itself, the employer/university owns the content.

            Now I’m not a fan of a police state; however, I believe that the organization funding a research project should have full access to the materials of the project that that organization is paying for. No one would rightly suggest that someone working for a pharma company should be allowed to keep their own project notes that the company couldn’t access. If it’s the government paying and they suspect a crime, they should investigate.

            Anyone who is not interested in having the government have free/unlimited access to their research money has a very simple recourse: fund their research some other way. If you’re research is funding entirely through private means, then a warrant would be warranted before a search! It just seems extremely paradoxical to me that folks want the government to pay for their research but then expect some sort of privacy.

          2. “Privacy” is the wrong term here; we’re discussing constitutional protections against self-incrimination and arbitrary searches. Most organizations receiving government money do not have to pre-emptively surrender their 4th and 5th Amendment rights. If they did, no one would ever do business with the government.

  7. Under current Federal law, the submission of false data in a grant request is considered a fraud.
    It’s unclear whether a scientist’s institution could also be held responsible. However, In the last 20 years there have just been a handful of such prosecutions.I believe only one individual has served jail time and another had his jail sentence suspended. There have also been financial penalties. Jail time or not, convicted felons usually have a tough time keeping or getting a job..

    I agree that there should be more such prosecutions which are well publicized in the scientific and public press..Doing so should have a chilling effect on someone considering manipulating data, although.the rare sociopath may not be deterred.

    ORI already has the authority to forward cases to the Justice Department for prosecution.However such referrals are apparently rare. I have been told that this is,in part, related to the Justice Department’s reluctance to invest the time in what they would consider only chump change..If that is true, I would think that Senator Grassley could persuade them,to take the offense more seriously.

    Don Kornfeld

    1. Great post, Don. Yes, we want the government to take all crime seriously, including science fraud. And if we press it to do so, instead of acting like it’s impossible, the government will.

      Interesting thing, just last week I read the whole story of Poehlman, the convicted obesity research fraudster who did time. Wow. There’s a NYT Magazine story on, online. I missed this when it happened. So he has a criminal conviction, I wonder how he’s making a living. Has he wiggled back into science or did the conviction put paid to that? Perhaps RW’s intrepid proprietors could answer that question empirically.

    2. “Doing so should have a chilling effect on someone considering manipulating data, although.the rare sociopath may not be deterred.”

      I wonder how much it will deter.

      In my opinion, the typical faker is a junior scientist (grad student through junior faculty) who is under intense pressure to get the ‘right result’ under threat of the collapse of their whole career. Unable to get good data in the requisite time, they ‘improve’ on the data. I think we can all see that the pressure can often be so great that the deterrence of criminal prosecution won’t be high.

      Another large group are the pathological cases. These people may actually believe in the validity of faked data and so won’t be deterred.

      The last large group is the over-ambitious A-type, smartest-guys-in-the-room. They think they will never be caught and so will not be deterred.

      Then there are the fakers who are good at it. They won’t leave a paper trail, will not keep manipulated and unmanipulated files in the same place, and won’t make the sort of obvious, crude fakes that we see here on RW. They won’t be caught.

    3. Indeed, a few scientists found guilty of research misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) have gone to prison:

      In 2005, Dr. Eric Poehlman, Professor at the Univ. of Vermont, formerly at the Univ. of Maryland at Baltimore, falsified massive human subject physiology testing. DoJ imposed a 1 year prison term plus 2 years probation for lying in an NIH grant application, with a $180,000 civil fine, and ORI debarred him for life:

      In 2006, Mr. Paul Kornak, Clinical Research Coordinator at the Stratton New York Veterans Administration Medical Center, falsely claimed to be an M.D. and falsified clinical trial data, including that to enroll an ineligible veteran patient, who died from the treatment? DoJ found negligent homocide with a 6 year prison term, and ORI debarred him for life.

  8. Hurrah! It’s great this is finally being talked about! Woohoo! A longish period of talking, in publications and in person, happens before things actually change. Everyone talk about this. To anybody. That’s how reform happens. Excellent comments too, although I disagree with Dan, who seemsto thinks prosecutors have to have mindreading abilities to ever prosecute crimes. But my favourite bit is in John Henry Noble’s post about other bad research things. Bad design, asking the wrong question. Wrong question is often part of ‘looking under the streetlight’. Doing work on a question because it’s easy (including using an off the shelf design and not having to make your own) regardless of whether the research is actually needed. Cracking down on fraud? Yummo. Cracking down on useless ‘me to’ research? Even better. Wonderful article.

    1. The criminalization of fraudulent scientists will come soon (I predict). At least to the USA. If one considers the increased criminalization policies of the US (e.g.,, the expansion of FEMA camps (e.g.,, the increasingly lucrative penal system, aka the prison industrial complex (, and the peak in incarceration in the USA (, it is not hard to image that the next “group” to be targeted will be scientists. Run for the border now, while you have time, or get ready to serve jail time or pay a massive fine, including massive legal fees (to support the booming economy generated by the legal sector; e.g. in the UK, Sometimes I see a need for radical action against fraudulent scientists, even as a deterrant. But how can scientists operate under a state of fear? Their desire to research will evaporate in an instance out of fear of legal consequences for perhaps even fair or honest mistakes. Will one day scientists be criminalized based on the number of retractions? Is that why perhaps (one reason) why we are seeing quite an aggressive spike in retractions? These are only hypotheses, but based on my gut feeling, I suspect that ORI will be given a new set of (legal) teeth in 2014 to deal with this problem. My other serious concern, is if criminalization of scientists takes place in the US, and we see the rise of fraud in the other 190 approx. countries, how do we reign in fraud elsewhere? The public blog remains the best way to shame the misconduct, and may have a more effective way (and cheaper) of bringing justice to academics who are involved in misconduct.

      1. JATds, do you support criminal prosecution of scientific fraud, or not? FEMA concentration camps? The government is not going to start interning scientists. Look at this response to the idea the law should be enforced!

        1. Conn Suits. What I think, what I see and what I feel are three very separate issues here. Firstly, I am not an American, so I see this from an external perspective. And I do not claim to understand the US legal system, of course. This may or may not be a good factor. You should note that all I did above was list the facts, and the facts are not beautiful, I admit. The bottom line is: Criminalization is increasing in the US and the chances of a scientist being criminalized are increasing very quickly (I perceive). I never mentioned whether such criminalization was valid or not, or good, or bad. Simply, I indicated what I was seeing as a trend in the USA. Elsewhere on this blog, in fact, I have made some positive suggestions, for example a three-card system, like football. Most likely something like a three-strikes system will get implemented if we see a certain threshold of fraud or misconduct being committed. We must never assume malice, but who is sufficiently qualified to assess malice? After all, some people can make mistakes, whether students or PIs. So, we have to be somewhat flexible towards human fallibility, but not be naive. If you are a repeat offender, you get criminally prosecuted, or pay a fine. I think such a simple approach could be fair. Personally, I don’t like the idea of criminalization of scientists. It will be an implosive day for science and we will see a massive exodus away from science. We will have a classic brain drain from science by those who are too weak to fight the “system”. But do you see any other solution for now? In addition, I am think the idea would never work. I think there should be a panel of 10 that examines the evidence and makes a ruling. Then, fines should be implemented and real consequences, such as refunding grants, salaries, travel funds, etc. Jail time would harden the fraud and make him/her even more cynical and bitter. But a sting to their wallet might make them a little more cautious the second time round. As for who foots the bill, I am definitely against the tax-payer footing the bill, so this basically leaves us where we started. Nowhere. That is why I claimed that the best way, and the cheapest, was through public embarrassment. RW provides us that perfect tool. Using pure facts, e.g., duplicated data, we have the full proof to expose the fraudsters right here. No need for lawyers, fees, complications. Only the cold hard proof will be enough. Common sense will then take care of the rest…

      2. For a moment there I thought JATdS actually believes in the FEMA concentration camps. Fortunately he provides a link to rationalwiki, known for being, well, rational enough to see it for what it is: conspiracy nuttery.

        1. Yes Marco, Rational Wiki knows FEMA concentration camps aren’t real. JATds did not. He either did or still does believe they are real. After having read the Rational Wiki post that clearly states from the get go that the FEMA concentration camps (for when martial law is declared!) are not real, are a nutty conspiracy theory JATds posted on RW saying the camps are real. He included the link to Rational Wiki as his citation for the realness of the camps. And he presents them as a reason to not “criminalize” scientific fraud. What can one say?

          1. Marco and Conn, I guess I was a little sloppy with the literature search. The comment about FEMA camps was only to place some emphasis (and add one more potential piece of evidence) about the increasing risk of encarcerating scientists in the US penal system. Nothing else. If rationalwiki was so wrong, then why hasn’t anyone retracted that site yet? Although there is debate about the conspirational nature of the FEMA camps, can one trust any government anywhere on this planet? After all, it’s not just rationalwiki calling FEMA camps concentration camps or highlighting their risk and future use (only five additional proof), and the implications on citizens’ rights (in the US, 1st, 2nd, 5th amendments?):


            Are you suggesting that Supreme Court Justice Scalia, journalists like Marc Dice and activists like Jesse Ventura, Glenn Beck and Alex Jones are all wrong? Honestly, this is another debate for another blog, but just to show that my ideas are not so “conspirational”.

            The bottom line is I am very concerned about a trend of criminalization of scientists, even though I myself have often called for the criminalization of scientists who are truly fraudulent. This is because I don’t see it as a purely justice-based decision. I think now that it will unfortunately be a new way to make money.

  9. I’m fully in favor of punishing individuals who misuse tax money. However, I’m also familiar with the inside of a prison through a close friend who lives in one now. Suffice it to say that it is not a good place. The investigating body would need to be exceedingly careful in determining intent and in assigning blame. First, mistakes and artifacts occur Iin research. That is unfortunate, but normal. Second, the PI-mentor relationship is usually pretty one-sided. The PI holds the purse strings and has the reputation, and thus the power. He/she could easily claim no knowledge of the fraud and point the finger at the more-or-less defenseless student or postdoc. These young folks don’t make much money, can’t afford lawyers. Institutions may then have to furnish lawyers for them, and this of course costs more taxpayer money (at least in the case of universities). I’m not against harsher prosecution, but it would need to be handled with appropriate gravity.

    1. I agree, these prosecutions should be relatively selective.In an earlier post I referred to current Federal law which would be the basis for prosecution. I should have added that I believe such prosecutions should be reserved for the heavy hitters and not desperate post-docs convinced they needs one more publication to get a faculty appointment.I don’t think it would require the prosecution of lots of folks to have an impact if those cases are well publicized in the public and science media.

      Don K.

  10. Intriguing questions awaiting answers:
    1. How many “faked it until they made it” and are now willing to sit on investigative committees?
    2. How will justice be served when low profile researchers who publish in low tier journals are never caught?
    3. How is the scientific community going to deal with institutions and countries who engage in and cover up fraud?

    Conclusion: Many have and will escape scrutiny unless the root cause of the problem is dealt with!

  11. “Eric T. Poehlman’s case marked the first time a researcher would serve time in prison for falsifying data to obtain federal grants.”

    The press release ( by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont and the ORI in 2005 also stated:
    “Preserving the integrity of the grant process administered by the Public Health Service is a priority for the Department of Justice,” said United States Attorney David V. Kirby. “This prosecution demonstrates that academic researchers will be held fully accountable for fraud and scientific misconduct. Dr. Poehlman fraudulently diverted millions of dollars from the Public Health Service to support his research projects. This in turn siphoned millions of dollars from the pool of resources available for valid scientific research proposals. As this prosecution proves, such conduct will not be tolerated.”

    The sentencing Judge William Sessions’s summary in Eric T. Poehlman’s case is remarkable. He said to Poehlman:
    “When you commit this kind of misconduct, you put at risk a community’s acceptance of all scientific and medical research. You put at risk fully the work of other scientists. When scientists use their skill, their intelligence, their sophistication, their position of trust to do something that puts people at risk, that is extraordinarily serious.” ““In one way, this is a final lesson that you are offering.”

  12. The judge in the Poehlman’s case also said,” I generally think deterrence is significant, perhaps more so in this case. The scientific community may be watching.”

    The scientific community will need more than one case every five – ten years to catch its attention.

    Don K

    1. I agree that prosecutions of a few will not deter many falsifiers.

      However, data transparency will deter some.

      Requiring raw prePSed gels and clinical, genomic and the like data sets to be deposited/archived will be a good first start.

      Sure you can publish in a “lesser” journal that does not require transparency, but I predict such journals would die or past into obscurity as it becomes the standard.

  13. So a PI can bring in a foreign postdoc, work them 100 hours a week, not give them benefits, hold over their head the fact that their continued residency is dependent on their production of results, and then when the expected occurs, make them the scapegoat?

    There are systemic problems in how research is done, and scapegoating postdocs is not the solution. The way you handle the negative consequences of a system that puts pressure on generally good people is not to apply more pressure through threats of prosecution. You remove the incentive to cheat by rewarding good reproducible science instead of trendy, novel science that makes a pretty magazine cover.

    Seriously, the desire for some people to create more and more specific laws for specific cases never ceases to amaze me. There will always be fraudsters, but that’s what the courts are for. Would you rather the university administration or the attorney general deciding what is or isn’t fraud? Read up on what happened to Aaron Swartz to see how that can go.

    Ivan reports that funding bans were given in only 2 of 11 cases in 2013. The number of retractions exceeds that by several orders of magnitude, and thus the number of irreproducible results that haven’t been replicated for reasons having nothing to do with fraud or requiring retraction is many-fold higher still. Taking a litigious approach to scientific misconduct is inefficient and wasteful, and can only hope to correct that vanishingly small fraction of the literature, while we do nothing about irreproducibility.

    Those who care more about quality science getting done than settling a score would be wise to put their efforts elsewhere.

    1. mrgunn, we’re all opposed to scapegoating postdocs. Enforcing the law does not equal abuse by the legal process. MITCH’S comment above, is sensible. People who want the law enforced don’t want to see it abused or want postdocs to get scapegoated. “There will always be fraudsters. That’s what the courts are for.” well, which is it? Courts are good or courts are bad? Why are so many people, although often without giving their names, on various articles, willing to defend or downplay misconduct? And on this article, invoking government persecution. This is science. We are ALL supposed to be meeting a standard far more rigorous than the mere law ALL the time. Honestly carried out research? Absolutely. But how about intellectual honesty too? If you are a scientist that’s what you signed on for. Need I remind us, Grasseley was outraged by spiked samples in research on an AIDS vaccine. This is about real people’s real lives. Not JUST the working conditions of junior scientists.

  14. I am against it, for multiple reasons. Here are some:

    1. Fifth amendment rights will reduce transparency in fraud cases.

    2. It shifts the burden of proof from the scientist to the scientific community. It is easy to doubt a paper’s results, but it is much more difficult to actually prove that the results were obtained through fraud. At the same time, making a false accusation of fraud will automatically also become a more severe offense than today. This will make it more difficult to set the scientific record straight.

    3. I expect it to stifle creativity and innovation. It is well known that innovation thrives in a culture where mistakes are appreciated rather than punished. Of course, mistakes would still not be a criminal offense, but making fraud a crime will encourage researchers to follow established paths. Moreover, having a lawyer hang around the lab all the time will create an atmosphere of fear and tension that is not helpful to science.

    4. Today, if you are a convicted fraudster, your career is pretty much over. That is already a pretty severe punishment. Most empirical evidence suggests that higher penalties are not associated with reduced crime rates.

  15. Re the above:ORI currently investigates and reports approximately 15 cases of research miscionduct per year.. These are individuals whose institutions have already found them to have committed research misconduct. Therefore, the system is already in place for investigations by scienctific peers. One third of those cases are tenured professors. You would also be surprised to learn that the careers of many of those found guilty are .not destroyed,

    Don K.

    1. ” You would also be surprised to learn that the careers of many of those found guilty are .not destroyed,”

      I wonder if this has been studied. I assume that a finding of misconduct by the ORI would effectively terminate a research career. A tenured professor may not loose their job, but I find it difficult to believe that collaborators, graduate students, and funding organizations would continue to work with such a person thereafter.

      It would be interesting to see some case studies on this.

      1. As to the question of whether careers are ended by an ORI finding of research misconduct — when I was in ORI (1989-2006), we tried to get Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval for a research “survey” by Research Triangle Park specialists in confidential interviewing — to try to find and talk to the 100 or so persons whom ORI had found committed research misconduct, and to see what happened to their careers, etc. The Federal OMB would not permit the study (arguing that too few of them would agree to talk, and that the results reported could not be kept anonymous enough). So we could not do the “survey” study. Later we worked with an individual social scientist who wanted to try to do the research study himself, but his NIH grant application was not funded. So we do not have the answer — of course, one can Google the names that ORI publishes in the Federal Register and NIH Guide, and one can find what appear to be the same persons now working in or out of science.

        1. Thank you, Alan! That is extremely informative. And a huge bummer. Nice to know someone in government was thinking about this and had a plan. Off-pissing that OMB didn’t act. That’s how you scope if ORI’s actions are effective, duh. Thanks for the info. Send it to Grasseley.

  16. Interesting string, but most commentators seem to assume that new laws and punishments are the solution to the problem of scientific fraud. I think they should be careful what they wish for. There seem to be more than enough criminal and civil laws on the books to deter fraud. There certainly are a plethora of laws dealing with illegal drugs, for example, yet we still have a culture of illegal drug use that generates far more human misery than anything a fraudulent paper has yet created, and an almost random enforcement where the minor players seem more likely to be punished than the king pins.

    The impression that I get from reading Retraction Watch is that we are seeing the natural outcome of a badly flawed, easily corrupted system. It isn’t just the high-stakes medical research gamblers that are the problem, it is the universities, journals, and granting agencies that let them get away with fraud because it is to their advantage.

    I take the point of the commentator who raised Machiavelli, or at least I think I do, but I suggest that the system does need to be made accountable. The best way to do this is to remove the current incentives to cheat. Bandwagon funding schemes in the US and most other places seem only to encourage money grubbing. Block grants to researchers so they could pursue what they thought important should be less susceptible to corruption than politically motivated funding. The number of grant dollars brought in should not be the primary factor in hiring, promotion and tenure.

    Reducing the emerging class structure in science would be a positive step. Science, Nature, the Lancet and the like belong on coffee tables: they are more about politics than science and shouldn’t count at all in promotion and tenure decisions. Impact Factor should be restricted to its original intent – helping librarians choose popular journals for general readerships. Respect should come from new discoveries that are replicable, not from publication in glossy magazines.

    Peer review needs to be more rigorous. I’m not sure how this would be best accomplished, but if grants can support open access, then I don’t see why they can’t support paid reviewers. Some journals do pay reviewers, but usually it is a token amount. Open, public review may also be a good idea, at least once a paper has been tentatively accepted. As an editor, I wouldn’t pay a reviewer until I had accepted the review and a subsequent open review might be a good check on who to keep and who to strike-off the reviewer list.

  17. Just prosecuting a few fraudulent scientists will not resolve this issue. Science in general has disappeared down one of the mythical black holes that no one can see. Science now gets too much of its money from Government and therefore is under pressure to deliver the desired result. So whether it’s looking at far away galaxies and noting they don’t obey the laws of gravity, or looking back at our earth and trying to figure how the dinosaurs defied logic and all else to grow so large, or at one of the most divisive issue of our time “Global Warming” science spend all its time trying to prove its right and the science is settled. This is the most preposterous situation for science to be in.
    Science is not about “settle science” it’s about discovery and finding the truth. It’s not about inventing “dark matter” or “dark energy” just to make the maths work, but about saying “perhaps we are wrong” and looking at other solutions. Billions have been squandered on global warming without one scientist explain and demonstrating how something cold can transfer radiation to something warmer and make it warmer still, ignoring the laws of thermodynamics along the way. Yes that sounds preposterous, and yet we are asked to believe this is so. And we won’t go into how much money we waste looking for the mythical “gravitron” or “Higgs Boson” at the expence of our education systems and health services.
    If we are capable wasting billions on a galactic scale over global warming then prosecuting someone for faking research in a project of a few thousands is not going to get very far. I believe that science is on the cusp of a massive change, the catalyst is the internet as more and more real science is posted online. The general public is becoming more and more aware of fraudulent science because some of the policy responses by Politians to poor science are hitting people in the pocket, which is the only thing that gets most to sit up and take notice.
    Want to stop science fraud, change the way we fund science.

  18. Answer to this question lies in the antithesis: why should research fraud not be considered a crime?

  19. Whether or not some misconduct is considered criminal under a criminal code, the scientist and his employing institution should have some “product liability” and be subject to at least civil claims of damages. The “product” would then be any publications or even a grant application or materials supplied to other researchers.

  20. Perhaps a more effective approach could involve rigorous peer review and ethical oversight rather than immediate criminal charges, but it’s a debate that warrants careful consideration and ongoing discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.