“Crack Down on Scientific Fraudsters” — our op-ed in today’s New York Times

nytlogo379x64As Retraction Watch readers know, it’s very rare for a scientist to face criminal charges for fraud, and it’s also very rare for the National Institutes of Health to recoup grants found to have involved misconduct. Both have happened in the case of Dong-Pyou Han, the former Iowa State University researcher who spiked rabbit blood samples with human antibodies to make it look as if an HIV vaccine was working.

We used that case as the basis of an op-ed that appears in today’s New York Times, arguing that it’s time to “crack down on scientific fraudsters.” Have a look.

Speaking of the Times, we’re also on page A3 of the paper version, in a story titled “Science Journal Pulls 60 Papers in Peer-Review Fraud,” which picked up the SAGE scandal we broke the other day. A number of other outlets have also followed up on that story, with many of them kind enough to cite and quote us. Here are several:

Ivan will also be appearing on NPR’s Science Friday today, and on Boston’s WXKS & WJMN this Saturday at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. with Bill Frezza of the Real Clear Radio Hour.

Like Retraction Watch? Consider supporting our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, and sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post.


40 thoughts on ““Crack Down on Scientific Fraudsters” — our op-ed in today’s New York Times”

  1. The real heroine is a Senior Publishing Editor, STM, Engineering and Materials Science, SAGE Publications Ltd. in London, who contacted me on July 8, 2014 at 11:35 PM. I am keeping her identity anonymous because I am sure that she would not like the undue attention. I then broke the story at RW slightly thereafter, and the next day then RW launched the story (note the hat tip). I hope that the New York Times understands the true birth of the story. Independent, it raises greater awareness among the non-scientific crowd. Journalism needs to conside the alpha to omega and not simply the delta to theta.

  2. I commend you folks at RW for the work that you do. Those of us working in science (actually, anyone in any field) should be held accountable. However, I question the wisdom of placing pieces on corruption in science in media outlets read casually by the lay citizen. The scientific enterprise in the U.S. breathes tax dollars from the NIH, and we barely have enough to not suffocate. What worries me is that political candidates will run on a “more science regulation and less science waste” platform, and citizens inflamed by pieces like this (and by the coming BPA scandel) will vote for them. Then it will be “goodbye, science in the U.S.” as even tighter funding and more bureaucracy run us out. I guess the question is “helping or hurting?” I hear China is paying well right now…

    1. It’s the usual polemics Mitch. Lay people had to learn over the years not to trust blindly any Authority. They will do the same regarding science (see centuries of stories lampooning scientists – from Aristophanes onward) – I think only scientists could be so detached from reality as to think everything will be fine only because nobody speaks of anything that is not fine.

      1. Bringing politics into this arena, which is what RW have just done here, is what this is about. The GOP is looking for any excuse to reduce funding for public research and increase political oversight, far beyond research integrity. Honest working scientists should be very frightened by this. Do you want your grants reviewed by Chuck Grassley and his cronies? Do you want politicians to decide what research is worth funding and what isn’t? Are you OK with politicians banning NSF from funding political science research, because that’s already happened.

        You all need to temper your retraction scandal rage for one second and think about the bigger picture here. This is much bigger than scientific fraud.

          1. Actually, Dave is right, I feel, although I can understand why some might be irritated by his tone. The politicization of science and the militarization of science is greatly intertwined. There are global critics and cynics of science that seek its destruction, and there are many reasons for them to want that: jealousy, incompetence, frustration, power, greed, inter alia. But the destruction of science, nonetheless. This will involve a step-wise process of increasing regulations and criminalization (I have talked about the increased criminalization of the USA here*), and the tortuous (even if true) demonization of science and scientists. RW is one very clever tool to achieve this, and although we cannot know what the ultimate objective of RW is, and most likely we will never know, we can say that it is a good piece of journalism that uncovers problems in science and publishing, allowing scientists and society to bridge the gap and seek discourse over the problems, through the comments section. In that sense it is way superior to the scholarlykitchen, for example, because it allows for a free flow of ideas. I do also agree with Ed that there is a problem with money. I have also often claimed that if we removed money from the equation, how many would pursue science? Most likely we would lose 99% of the science population and be left with the real lovers of science, including me (I have been doing voluntary work, research and publishing for almost a decade now). However, I can appreciate that science cannot function without money, or funding, especially complex projects with very hi-tech equipment. So, this is a discussion that will continue ad infinitum, provided that there are competing political groups that are willing to use science and scientists, to support their policies and pet projects, or to bash their opponents (Dems vs Republicans, I guess). I am not sure if it is politically correct or not for the RW staff to indicate their political affiliations, but given the sometimes high profile interviews they have been granted, e.g. at the BBC, NYT, etc., would it be unreasonable to request, in the name of journalistic transparency, their political affiliations, too? I know that this might sound really amateurish in style, but the truth is spot on: http://www.mijst.mju.ac.th/vol5/S1-S10.pdf

          2. JATds, The hardworking taxpayer has no say in this? Let the universities and professors pay for their own
            research. That would depoliticize however not uncorrupt the publication industry.

          3. Ed, I completely agree with your feeling. But how does one suddenly turn the system around? Just think about it at a very basic level. How does a professor who is currenlty employed by a university at let’s say 100K (US$) a year (perks and grants aside) suddenly become self-sustainable? Just the costs of building and establishing a laboratory are astronomic, let alone maintaining it. You seem to be suggesting that research should be privatized. But then let’s imagine that the Koch Brothers decide to support their favorite lab with 1 billion dollars. Would that be right? Would that also not be perceived as influencing and buying out science? It is the public that has ignorantly elected a corrupt government that does not know how to manage public funds, so the solution is not to whine at RW, it is to seek change right at the top, and not every 4 years when the very same who are elected want change to be determined in its pre-determined schedule. Observing the political battle from the outside is like observing trapeze artists in a circus. One cycle you have Republicans, the next you have Democrats. It doesn’t really matter who is twirling and jumping and catching, and occasionally falling to the safety net below, ultimately it is the delighted crowd that maintains the circus alive, sometimes not cognizant that it is in a circus. In an ideal world, yes, science should operate fully independently of politics, economics, and religion. But it it can’t because the current capitalistic system has made it irrevocably intertwined to the former two. I see no positive solution except for the ultimate exploitation of science (by companies, politicians and publishers) under its funds dry up and the vultures seek another carcass elsewhere. It is precisely because science, directly or indirectly, accounts for such a high percentage of GDP (even in the weapons industry), that the vultures will continue to circle most likely long after you and I have become fertilizer.

          4. Ed, actually most scientists do pay for their own research. Government grants are awarded competitively, and brother competition is fierce. Grant writing is a job unto itself. But if you mean that we should pay out pocket, then believe me I would love to pay for my own research. Unfortunately, the instruments and even the consumables are wildly expensive, not to mention overhead for the lab space that is essentially rented from the university. It would take far more than my current salary to cover the annual expenses. As for completely privatizing research, I agree with those who say that industry is more efficient. Unfortunately, they are only interested in very common diseases (large customer base) that are also chronic (return business). Rare and acute diseases are largely ignored by companies due to the likelihood of low ROI. Academic science can fill that avoid. Personally, I’d be in favor of limiting academic research to rare illnesses and expanding industry research to speed discovery in commom diseases. But, as was pointed out, if you think government lacks transparency, you’ll hate industry.

          5. And by the way, that fierce competition is largely why fraud seems to be on the rise. Back a dog into a corner, and even the good ones will become vicious. The way to fix that is to put more money and less regulation into science to releave the competition, not the opposite.

          6. By the way, please ignore spelling errors. I’m typing on a tiny phone with annoying word suggestions that constantly pop up. Sorry.

          7. This “crack-down” has a much wider context, I believe. I am curious to know what level of brain-drain is taking place from the US? I remember a massive bran-drain taking place in South Africa after Mandela took power, with fearful Europeans primarily emigrating in droves. I assume that at some point, when the system becomes sufficiently militarized in the US, fortified now with the potential increase in criminalization of scientific misconduct, that US scientists will want to flock overseas in search of a calmer and less militarized system. For example, I can easily see US researchers moving to the East, to the EU, or even to Cuba or Brazil to establish themselves in a cheaper, more flexible research environment. However, the complexities of abandoning one’s homeland are massive, in some cases leading to the desire to change citizenship* (although we already are starting to see this taking place – perhaps not yet in science since a critical negative point has not been reached). The concept of the cornered dog – good or bad – will not change in most countries, only the level of competition, or the amount of funding available. You suggest that more money should be put into science with less regulation. I think you need to observe the US’s debt level to understand that that most likely will never happen. Worse yet, those who criticize the system might face fines, as is taking place in the banking sector, ultimately to go to government coffers rather than be circulated back to deserving scientific research projects. So, as far as I see it, the options are bleak: a) privatization without bias is literally impossible due to astronomic costs; b) requesting more government funding from a bankrupt government is wishful thinking; c) expecting less laws and regulations is also wishful thinking, because these are required to prop up a system that is increasingly becoming more militarized and legalized. The solutions do not look like they will be quick, or simple. And many a paper will still be retracted before the literature is fixed, and a whole generation might be lost as guinea-pigs to the publishers, being pulled to and fro with new rules, new ethics, new formats, new systems, new X, Y and Z to suit the capitalistic model of the day. Ultimately, it will leave a battle-scarred scientific community (except for those with good and safe positions, salaries and grants) that is bitter and remorseful. I believe that we are witnessing the “lost generation” of science.

            * http://rt.com/usa/158736-americans-citizenship-us-refuse/
            ** http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Top-10-fines-imposed-on-banks-by-US/articleshow/37479502.cms

    2. You are suggesting that we repress data we don’t like to have known? I think that’s how you get into trouble on this blog 😉
      More seriously, I understand what you mean. The fraudsters are a mortal threat to science funding for everyone. As much as there will be public backlash as these situations come to light, but they simply will come to light one way or another, and the best course is for those of us who are ethical to mercilessly skewer the liars and refuse to hide anything.
      As well it can be an embarrassment to any university who has one of these folks who get caught, but probably most have at least one who hasn’t been caught (yet). We should champion schools that ferret out the details with diligent investigations rather than making it a black mark on a place to have one of these incidents.

  3. I think this is a horribly irresponsible way to publicize the issue of scientific misconduct, and it is becoming clear that this is more about you and retraction watch than it is about protecting scientific integrity. The article reads as if you have resentment toward the scientific community, and it plays right into the hands of Republicans who want more control over publicly funded research. That is NOT a good thing and it is very dangerous, despite what you might think. Any time you quote that vile human being Grassley, you are heading in the wrong direction. Anytime you say Grassley is right, about anything, you need to reevaluate the implications of what you are saying. He is always on the wrong side of sensible and reasonable. I admire the work RW has done over the years, but I’m not quite sure what it is that you guys are trying to achieve now, aside from publicity and website hits.

    1. No, Dave, its called freedom of speech and search for transparency. Like many scientists you show a desire
      to control the opinions of others:part of the problem to begin with. The taxpaying citizen deserves much better and the “scientific” community needs to accept this. Sorry, its all part of the democratic process.

      1. Interesting. So I cannot exercise my freeeeeduuum to voice my disapproval of the article? Instead I am ‘controlling the opinions of others’. If I wanted to do that, I would write a NY Times Op Ed. Free speech goes both ways ed. If what you want is more Republican oversight of science funding, then go for it, but don’t complain when you can no longer obtain funding to do research.

        1. Typical of a taxpayer funded “scientist” (defensiveness). You had your freedom of speech although, in my opinion too strong and self-serving IN MY OPINION. Yes, please do write an Op Ed piece—the more you write, the more revealing you are.

    2. Dave, what would be the responsible way to publicize the issue of scientific misconduct? As a scieentists, it revolts my intestines to see the fraud and the misconduct that is taking place, and it is extremely painful process for me to be battling many of my peers in the horticultural and plant sciences, many of whom I had trusted and believed in as far back as undergraduate when I first read their “marvelous” papers. So, I think 5 stars to RW for bringing attention, but is there a politically more sensitive way to do it? I sense that you are angry, and maybe even rightfully so, but if you could perhaps calmly set out some guidelines about how scientists and non-scientists alike could frame a better way of communicating the problems to society, without causing a revolution when they know that their tax dollars are bbeing squandered, even by the ORI, then let’s hear those ideas, please.

      1. I’m not angry at all, and my posts are perfectly calm. You might not like them, but that’s not my concern. Everything starts with the basic career issues that are affecting academic scientists today. Until those are addressed, everything else is a waste of time. Getting politicians involved in any way, unless it is to HELP address the career and funding issues at the root of scientific misconduct, is a terrible and dangerous idea. Institutions are also a major cause of scientific fraud, and this again goes back to academic career issues that are really too broad and deep to go into here. If RW dedicated more time and press to publicizing the underlying causes of misconduct in science (and put forward ways to address them), rather than baiting Republican senators to police academics and throw scientists in jail, I would be much more supportive of the overall mission of this website. As it is, that is not the case. Instead, the authors prefer to sensationalize the issue and call for more political oversight from the very same people who are contributing to the root causes of misconduct in the first place.

        1. Dave, I hear you and am not against your views in any way, in fact. I am not in the US, so it is also difficult to empathize exactly with the struggle you are describing. However, I see two or three very independent issues that seem almost independent. 1) Basic career issues. Indeed, this needs major discussion and a thorough clean-up and a fresh way of perceiving the merit of scientists’ work, which should not be evaluated by the number of “positive” results and the IF score of the journals they publish in. Of course there are dozens of other problems, but those too might take a generation to resolve because they are so entrenched. 2) Actually, I am in favor of imprisonment of serious academic fraud, as eqaully as one who steals a car or defrauds a mental patient might go to prison. A criminal is a criminal. So, one less on this earth competing against honest, hard-working scientists might not actually be a bad thing. However, I do agree with you that the system needs to be well structured before criminalization initiates. And if even ORI is extremely dysfunctional, then how can we expect the initiation of criminalization to be successful? The only thing it will do, as I predicted before, is bring profits to politicians and to lawyers. So, in that sense, I agree with you, that the discussion at NYT is premature because it doesn’t actually focus on the real underlying issues. 3) I am not sure that the mission of RW is so sinister (i.e., baiting Republican senators), and I also don’t think the mission of RW is to necessarily examine science’s rots. RW, as the name suggests, focuses on retractions, and we, by association, have broadened the issues through our comments. Although we might not be fully happy with the imperfect messages delivered to NYT, because it really projects all of science and scientists in a very bad light, at some point someone has to cross that divide and initiate the conversation. And the only way to do that is through mass media. If you feel that you have something strong to say, why don’t you project your views on YouTbe?

        2. I understand your point, but there has always been an incentive to cheat. The fact that there is so much pressure on scientists in this era can tip people from the side of ethical to unethical. However, at the end of the day, if you want to be a truly good scientists, you must be scrupulous. The fact that the game isn’t fair still does not make it ok to cheat.

        3. I think you may have lost a bit of perspective here. There is too much real science here for the typical creationist to recognise RW as a lay blog–I doubt one Republican in a hundred can tell the difference between this publication and Nature or Science. Moreover, you can relax about the typical Fox News viewer coming in contact with the New York Times:

          Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.¹

          No one is more incensed by scientific fraud than we. That is as it should be, and the taxpayer is entitled to see us cleaning up our own act.
          A cost-benefit analysis of transparency will always yield the same outcome. It may leave one vulnerable, but it is the only legitimate, practicable policy–all the hand-wringing in the world isn’t going to change that. Despite your very vocal misgivings, I am certain that you would always ultimately select transparency over deception or misdirection regardless of circumstances.
          ¹ Bartlett, Bruce. “Revenge of the Reality-Based Community”. American Conservative, 26 November 2013.

    3. Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus are not irresponsible. You might not like that they criticize misconduct, but they do this during free time and as such they restrict such criticisms to examples of misconduct which are trivially demonstrable to anyone. Despite this limited scope, there is still much misconduct for them to type about. Therefore going beyond this limited scope, there is even more misconduct.

      It is sensible and reasonable for politicians to control public funds.

  4. Gentlemen, your New York Times piece is a good start to alert the public about the waste in public research funding, but your proposed solutions are half measures. ORI needs to be shut down and an external oversight department run independent from “scientists” is needed. I gave ORI court ordered subpoenaed
    documents and they ignored obvious misconduct, so ORI subpoena power would be just another sham.
    The citizens and scientific record needs to be more respected by potential “publish or perish” fraudsters
    and the mutual admiration society of institutions (journals, universities, and do nothing regulators) that support them !!!

  5. Your support for strengthening the ORI budget and administrative subpoena authority is right on target — and making ORI an independent entity in HHS (as mandated by Congressional law in 1993 in establishing ORI under the PHS Act), out from under the deputy assistant secretary for health. Is critical too.

  6. Can someone report on how the Chinese determine the amount of bonus money they award to their researchers for each successful submission in Western journals ? Which journal commands the highest bonus amount ? Which the lowest ? Are these bonuses being shared with the US/Europe-based collaborators of such submissions ?

    The grapevine is full of stories about these bonuses.

    1. I can comment only from what I know. At least in the universities I have personally seen and interacted with, there is a simple, and often stupidly ridiculous equation. I guess that larger central labs command a greater profit than those from more rural universities. Tere are a few factors that are considered, in decreasing order of importance, but the most powerful one, and that leading to greatest profits is, slam-dunk down, the impact factor. It’s a dirty business, if you ask me, but what are scientists to say against a system that is controlled by powers much, much greater than them? Scientists don’t question, they just follow. Questioning the system would be equivalet to shooting themselves in the foot. Another mportant criterion is who is the corresponding author, because this gives direct rights to greater salaries, research grants and even positions. I know of a few cases where publishing in an IF > 10 journal (approx.) would result in AUTOMATIC professorship, which of course then comes with it, greater salary, more grants, and more contacts in the web… Not to mention the juicy bonus calculated base don the IF score of a paper. Whether co-authors to that paper shared with a Chinese scientist are able to game the system as well is a totally different ball game. So, I cannot answer your query about the EU/US based partnerships. All I can say, is that probided that there is the position of corresponding author and an impact factor, even if there are 100 co-authors, then they don’t frankly care. I hinted at some of the calculations here (some of my own collaborators kindly gave me great insight into the system in China):


  7. Yes, fraud should be taken very seriously.
    BUT the problem is that the press tends to completely ignore the existence of the vast majority of us, who would never dream of committing such fraud, and who work 60+ hour weeks trying to do good research and keep it funded so that we can continue to do so, and teach, and mentor lab trainees, and publish, and carry out assorted university committees duties, etc, etc, etc.
    Please please please ALSO cover the dedication but increasing desperation and demoralization of the average basic scientist. And no, it is not driving most of us to fraud. It is driving us to blubbering in the minimal privacy of the bathroom and then dragging our tired butts back to our offices and working another 10 hours.

  8. The problem is, and it is a radical problem, is that the likely outcome is that scientists are to be subjected to more political control than defense contractors.

    Scientists often tell politicians things they don’t want to hear. Defense contractors (and others) only ever say “have some more campaign contributions”. How do you balance the uneven amount of power and wealth?

    Scientific fraud happens in a large part because people are under extreme pressure to produce “good results”. Hounding of scientists will result in people being pressured to produce the “politically correct” result. That will not be an improvement, and may very well be a wildly detrimental development.

  9. The broader, general problem here is not the discussion of scientific misconduct cases before the public. It’s the lack of transparency on the part of many researchers’ institutions when it comes to divulging cases that have proven to show misconduct. The investigative procedures at most research universities — which usually follow federal guidelines for such inquiries — are lengthy and deliberative, primarily to insure due process in cases where misconduct is not proven. The media, and the public, are rarely comfortable with waiting for ultimate outcomes and easily embrace the concept of guilty until proven innocent (rather than our long-pronounced belief in the converse). While federal sanctions clearly need to be strengthened, the research institutions have the real power to punish the guilty. Sadly, few of them ever substantively do. I was proud that my institution aggressively dealt with those found to have committed scientific misconduct during my three-and-a-half decades there. Where we fell short was a hesitance to release the verdicts in such guilty cases until we were asked. Instead, we should have shouted the results to the rooftops as an indication of our obligation for internal oversight. I have a score or so of news releases that explained such cases, all of which simply sat waiting for a reporter’s inquiry that never came. Few institutions aggressively report the good and bad of research. They should. How else can we expect the public — and the media — to ever understand how research is done?

  10. Medical science has fraud and bad science exposed more easily because results can be quickly tested and verified or not. Climate science is not under the same rigorous examination and predictions are so far into the future, the science has been transformed into a popularity contest enforced by consensus of the “in-crowd’. However some studies blaming climate change on extinctions are so bad they should be retracted but the ‘in-crowd’ circled the wagons as documented in How the American Meteorological Society Justified Publishing Half-Truths

  11. Apparently Asian editions of the “International New-York Times” carry “Science Journal Pulls 60 Papers in Peer-Review Fraud”. Does anyone know if a Spanish edition carries it? (Spanish editions of the “International Herald Tribune” often lacked science stories by “The New-York Times”.)

  12. I’m happy to see the Op Ed piece in the NYT, but am disappointed that the NYT did not provide the opportunity to post comments. Would have been an outstanding opportunity for public discussion.

  13. Obviously the solution is for scientists to be more demanding of scientific papers. A major factor is that papers are published without sufficient review and duplication of experiments especially if they are to be used in government recommendations.

    Scientists must clean up their collective act, or government will do it for them, which they will deeply regret.

  14. The NIH must do a better job of weeding out fraudulent and in some ways morally corrupt biological science investigators conning this agency out of research dollars. There has to be a need now, for a Congressional Audit and Inspection of the NIH extramural research grants awards system, and how it is possible that so many discredited biological and medical researchers successfully lie and obtain research funding from the NIH. Additionally, the NIH cries foul that insufficient funding is available. That is simply ridiculous. Deal with the fraud, deal with the “inner-circle, and self-serving” peer-review systems, stamp out redundant and repetitive research programs, and the NIH would save millions over time. It is high time, the NIH as an agency was overhauled, made more efficient, more accountable and more objective in all that it does. NIH does one thing – fund research; please do it properly and responsibly. The tax payer is watching and demands transparency.

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.