April 13

Scientific Misconduct: Cleaning Up the Paper Trail_SCIENCE

The academic community has shown tolerance for research fraud, pretending that tainted research reports that enter the body of scientific literature have no adverse influence.  In fact, one of the examples cited by Science is someone who, perhaps unnecessarily, underwent surgery on his tongue because of a fraudulent report by a Norwegian oncologist warned about a high risk of cancer.

At least one journal editor validates  our frequently expressed view that it is the scientific journals’ responsibility to guard against fraud and to expunge fraudulent reports from the scientific literature.  “The journal is the primary point of enforcement” against fraud. “In the end, it’s our process that got that work into publication." [Harry Klee, Editor, The Plant Journal].
Science writers, JENNIFER COUZIN and KATHERINE UNGER, examined more than a dozen fraud or suspected fraud cases spanning 20 years. It reveals the academy’s distaste for expunging fraudulent reports from the scientific literature. Journal efforts are described as "uneven and often chaotic." A lack of consistency leaves doubt about whether and how a journal will deal with findings of fraud–even when confirmed by a credible investigation by the federal Office of Research Integrity–an agency not known to be particularly vigilant about pursuing accusations of fraud.

Most journals do not proceed to expunge the scientific literature of fraudulent reports without the author’s confession to fraud; and without the written request by ALL authors of a fraudulent report to do so. That’s like holding off sentencing a criminal found guilty by a court of law until he pleads to be punished…
"For the journals, a confession followed by author unanimity to pull a paper is a best-case scenario… The official rule for journals is that the authors must do the retracting,” says AACR’s Case. A retraction on these terms sharply reduces the legal risk that journals will be accused of tainting a scientist’s reputation by retracting a paper without his or her consent."

"But debates rage over how comprehensive fraud investigations need to be—whether, for example, they ought to examine a scientist’s entire body of work regardless of expense. And then there are the journals, keepers of the historical record. Journal editors often stress—and universities and funders agree— that publications are in no position to investigate fraud.

The burden, they say, should be on institutions and funding agencies; they have the money and staff to convene sweeping inquiries and demand raw data. Traditionally, journals wait for the results of inquiries to steer decisions on problem papers. Some act only if a retraction has been requested by a paper’s authors—preferably all of them. But authors accused or suspected of fraud often don’t agree to a retraction. Editors must then make a potentially career-wrecking decision, with varying degrees of guidance."

Among the case examples cited demonstrate that unlike the academy, industry is likely to be far less tolerant of fraud by an individual scientist:

Eric Poehlman, an obesity and aging researcher at the University of Vermont in Burlington, who had penned 204 articles. He left the school after a whistleblower brought concerns of research inconsistencies to university officials.  [Office of Research Integrity] ORI oversaw its biggest inquiry ever, covering 10 papers co-authored by Poehlman and 15 of his NIH grant applications. All 10 papers, they determined, contained fabricated data and ought to be retracted or corrected."  

"An ORI finding, many journal editors say, gives publications ironclad backing to withdraw a paper even if an author doesn’t cooperate. But ORI officials weren’t happy with the journals’ response in the Poehlman case. By last September, 6 months after the office issued its report, six of 10 journals had published retractions or corrections, supplied by Poehlman as part of his agreement with government  officials. Two more followed. But two journals have not acted at all, according to ORI officials and journal records. (Poehlman has pleaded guilty to making false statements on a federal grant application and is awaiting sentencing."

Even as he pled guilty to fraud colleagues defended him:  David B. Allison, an obesity researcher and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that based on the facts of the case "from the initial university investigation," he believes that Poehlman "committed no act of scientific misconduct."
The University of Vermont investigation concluded that Poehlman had fabricated most of the data used in a six-year study of changes in 35 women after menopause, which was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 1995. In 2003, the journal retracted the paper

Friedhelm Herrmann, German oncologist, author of 349 papers on cancer research:  94 publications were found to contain falsified or suspicious data; 19 papers retracted, two corrected
He is currently working as an oncologist in Munich.

Science found that even retracted papers endure: Like ghosts riffling the pages of journals, retracted papers live on.

The reluctance of journals to carry out their public responsibility is borne out by how even after fraudulent papers are retracted, they  "can linger in the scientific record for years."
Although the Internet has made it easy to link retractions to articles, “if something has been published in a paper journal and been bound, and then retracted later, no one’s going to know.”

Science reporters describe how by using Thomson Scientific ISI Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar, they found "dozens of citations of retracted papers in fields from physics to cancer research to plant biology fraudulent retracted publications continue to exert influence–and, therefore, to misinform other scientists:

" Seventeen of 19 retracted papers co-authored by German cancer researcher Friedhelm Herrmann have been cited since being retracted, in some cases nearly a decade after they were pulled. Together, two of those papers were cited roughly 60 times. Examination of one Nature paper by former Bell Labs physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, published in 2000 and retracted in 2003, revealed that it’s been noted in research papers 17 times since, although the drop-off after retraction was steep: Prior to being pulled, the paper was cited 153 times."  

Responding to continued references to retracted publications, Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, acknowledged, It’s “quite embarrassing." And Paul Friedman, a former dean at the University of California, San Diego, who oversaw an investigation into papers by radiologist Robert Slutsky in the mid-1980s, said: "If people cite fraudulent articles, then either their research is going to be thrown off or something will be wasted.”

Those who suggested that citations to retracted articles are “negative”–that the paper is cited precisely because it was retracted, and the retraction duly noted in the text, are shown to be wrong.  “It almost never happens,” says Drummond Rennie, a deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Indeed, Science spot checks of 10 papers that cite withdrawn publications found no negative citations. Instead, scientists often don’t know that the work they are citing has been retracted. Lon Kaufman, a cell biologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, was surprised to learn from Science that his 1999 article in The Plant Journal cited Afterlife. This Science paper was retracted nearly 7 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped other researchers from citing it.

Fear of lawsuits is often the reason given for failure to cleanse the scientific record. But that may be a knee jerk excuse–especially when fraud has been found by a credible investigation. The real reason why journals might be reluctant to pull a paper–and why retractions rank low on the priority scale, is the reluctance to "make waves" or to spoil relationships within the good old boy network: fear that it "can breed bad blood between the journal and researchers. They can also reflect poorly on a publication."

"Paul Friedman, a radiologist and then–associate dean of the University of California, San Diego, spent 15 months overseeing an investigation of 135 publications by a colleague, Robert Slutsky, who was accused of widespread fraud. Of the 60 publications judged fraudulent or questionable, Science found retractions for 18.   The journals with which he corresponded ranged from pleasantly collegial to downright defensive."
Ulf Rapp, a cancer researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, led an inquiry into Herrmann’s work set up by Germany’s main science funding agency, the DFG.
His contact with the journals, Science reports,  "left a bitter taste in his mouth. Most ignored his notes and faxes, he says, or “wrote back very nasty letters.”  Several, he says, remained determined to get permission from every author on the paper. The reaction “did surprise me. … It seemed to me we were helping those guys. They had a rotten egg in their basket. We gave them a chance to clear it up."

Unlike academic scientists whose institutions coddle them when caught committing fraud, corporate scientists who engage in fraud can expect to be sacked.  Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist for Bell Labs, author or co-author of 90+ papers 25 papers investigated 17 papers found to involve scientific misconduct. He was fired from Bell Labs the day the investigation reached its conclusions. Stripped of his Ph.D. by University of Konstanz in 2004. Whereabouts unknown.

Clearly, scientists and the gatekeepers of our recorded scientific heritage have proven incapable (or unwilling) to protect the integrity of our communal scientific body of knowledge.
Laws are therefore needed to define scientific fraud and to ensure that scientists will be held accountable if they commit fraud.

See complete article at: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/312/5770/38

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
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