Researcher banned from federal Canadian funding after misconduct loses medical license

via WCH

A once-prominent bone researcher whose career crumbled after allegations of misconduct has lost her medical license in Canada.  

The researcher, Abida Sophina “Sophie” Jamal, formerly of the University of Toronto, had been considered a rising star in the international community of osteoporosis researchers, winning awards and collaborating with some of the leading senior investigators in the field.

But on March 6, 2018, Jamal was summoned by a disciplinary committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to hear the following letter:

Dr. Jamal,

The Committee views your behaviour as shocking and shameful. Your falsification of research data and dishonesty strikes at the fundamental faith in the medical profession.

Your extensive attempts at cover up add further to your breach of the public trust. The impact of your misconduct is far reaching. This has affected not only your colleagues, but Women’s College Hospital, the University of Toronto, and the reputation of the Canadian research Community.

You were highly qualified to carry out research on human subjects in a world class setting, and you betrayed all of those involved. The Committee is of the view that your misconduct is egregious, and is of the highest order.

In addition to the falsification of research data and dishonesty, you betrayed trust in your research assistant, and it can only be imagined the resultant effects on this individual. You wasted precious health care research funds.

While we accept that there were no harmful outcomes, there were adverse effects on study participants. While the community accepts that you are ashamed of your actions, we remain at a loss as to how to explain why you acted in the manner you did. This is something you will have to come to terms with in future years.

In addition to the rebuke, Jamal had to pay the costs of one day of hearings — $5,500 — and lost her certificate of registration (the Canadian version of a medical license).

A lifetime funding ban

Jamal’s fortunes began to change in 2015, when people began to question the integrity of her data. Those doubts eventually led to three retractions and a lifetime funding ban from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to whom she paid restitution of more than $260,000.

The report, released last May by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, is a damning chronicle of deceit that cries out with condemnation. (We have only become aware of the report now, following a notice in a College newsletter.) It finds broadly that Jamal, who admitted to the charges against her:

has failed to maintain the standard of practice of the profession; … has engaged in an act or omission relevant to the practice of medicine that, having regard to all the circumstances, would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional; and … has engaged in conduct unbecoming a physician.

The document states that Jamal lied to investigators, blamed her research associate for apparent discrepancies in her data and even blamed Steven Cummings, her high-profile collaborator on the JAMA article, for cooking up complaints against her out of ‘deep personal interest’ in the outcome of that study.  

For example:

The files she submitted to the University of Toronto Inquiry were files she personally manipulated and not the original files of her Research Associate as she claimed. She went so far as to illegally access patient records to alter data and destroy and change computer files. She disposed of an old computer so the forensic computer experts could not examine it. She went into the Canadian Blood Services facility and changed freezer temperatures to damage blood and urine samples in a strenuous attempt to cover up her deceptions during the IC’s investigation. This prolonged deception and dishonesty is considered by the Committee to constitute serious professional misconduct.

Dr. Jamal attempted to put all the blame on other people. When [co-author Richard] Eastell confronted her about the incorrect data, she blamed her Research Associate for changing the data and then lied in claiming to have spoken to the Vice President of Research at Women’s College Hospital about her Research Associate’s misconduct. During the University of Toronto Inquiry, she attempted repeatedly to attach the entire blame on her innocent research associate, stating: “I had complete faith in my [Research Associate’s] knowledge and competence. I cannot understand why the data would have been intentionally manipulated, and if it was, it does not make sense to me why [my Research Associate] would choose to do so…”

Cummings declined to speak with us about the case.

Jamal’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. According to the report she waived her right to appeal the judgment.

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6 thoughts on “Researcher banned from federal Canadian funding after misconduct loses medical license”

  1. “She went into the Canadian Blood Services facility and changed freezer temperatures to damage blood and urine samples”??

    Isn’t this a crime, rather than simply a misconduct?

    1. Intentionally damaging or destroying property certainly would be, although it would be up to the owner of said property (the University or the Blood Center) to press charges, not the medical licensing board.

  2. Required to pay $260K restitution for research funds and costs for the her hearing, a no-holds-barred public rebuke, loss of job, loss of licence, loss of livelihood. She justifiably received the maximum possible punishment for her actions, which were egregious. Somehow, though, it doesn’t give me any new confidence that the old boys with big titles, big grants, and spin-offs with big valuations won’t continue to be able to just slink off somewhere else when their misdeeds and dishonesty comes to light.

  3. “it doesn’t give me any new confidence that the old boys with big titles”

    Dr Eastell from the University of Sheffield, UK has an interesting past with data access and interpretation with Dr Blumsohn
    See: https://slate.com/technology/2005/12/did-a-british-university-sell-out-to-p-g.html

    It appears it was Dr Eastell and colleagues that spotted inconsistencies with Dr Jamals data as they had some of the raw data.

    It is highly unlikely that anyone would have spotted the data irregularities if the raw data were not available.

    Therefore should all raw data be made available for all future publications?

    1. In reading the linked report, it appears Dr Eastell was in attendence when Dr Jamal presented an analysis of the data, and recognized that some of the results did not make sense. It was only then that he sought the underlying data. Dr Jamal had manipulated the data that the assistant collected from the patient records, and later also patient records themselves.

      If all patient record forms and images from a clinical study were immediately uploaded and locked from being edited later, that would have prevented what Dr Jamal did. That’s the closest thing to raw data that could be put in electronic form, but it’s not a format that would facilitate reanalysis by others. If you’ve seen the stacks of patient record forms from even a small study of a couple dozen subjects, you’ll know what I mean.

      Critical thinking by an expert looking at the end result of data analysis is what started the unravelling of Dr Jamal’s attempt to manipulate the study outcome. He was also in the position to demand to see all of the data she was using.

      It is not a simple thing to define “raw data” that would be made publically available and thereby prevent research misconduct.

      IMO keeping them honest will always require scientists who can question the work of other scientists – not just small fry but the big shots that exert enormous power in their field and at their universities – and institutions that will then be willing and able ti investigate and disclose their findings.

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