On Scientific fraud

- 2 mins

While the guiding mission statements of an institution might be broad and noble in their intentions, the actual mechanism of academia is almost formulaic: get published, get promoted. Thus, despite the good intentions of any acadmic institution, there exist loopholes that can be exploited by researchers to maximize personal gains while minimizing actual effort.

The reasons for committing scientific fraud are many, and depending on the background of the researcher and the adminnistrators of a research division the motivation and means might be varied. Departments might passively encourage low-quality-high yielding research in order to look better in terms of publications. Scientists might be motivated to utilize research grants for non-research purposes. Labs might even inadvertantly misuse grants for applications not covered under the terms of the grant. Whatever the reason, fraud in research is definitely not as rare as scientists would have the public believe.

In this blog post, I examine one case study from the Office Of Reseach Integrity, involving one Dr. Mona Thiruchelvam of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, who was investigated by the Office of Research Integrity for misconduct in 2012. The summary of the case study mentions that she falsified data in a number of grant applications, posters and publications. The scale of this fraud is illustrated in this line

The Respondent provided to the institution corrupted data files as the data for stereological cell counts of nigrostriatal neurons in brains of several mice and rats by copying a single data file from a previous experiment and renaming the copies to fit the description of 13 new experiments composed of 293 data files when stereological data collection was never performed for the questioned research.

A single data file, copied and used to make 293 data sets. That clearly comes under scientific fraud. While the case study does not mention the motivation behind commiting these acts, this specific case study clearly identified Dr. Thiruchelvam as the sole researcher responsible for these actions in the capacity of a principle investigator.

It is interesting to think about the fine line between scientific incompetence and genuine fraud. Since this case study involves the use of cell lines, another case of scientific misconduct comes to mind. Dr. Chester Southam was at the center of a major controversy regarding (the lack of) informed consent of his patients when he injected a cell line, HeLa, into healthy individuals to study cancer. While the case suggests that he genuinely believed that he could understand cancer by carrying out these experiments, his research definitely endangered the lives of his subjects. The same cannot be said for Dr. Thiruchelvam’s research, especially since she has been effectively banned from carrying out research for a number of years. However, beyond the actual reasons for scientific misconduct, the impacts of misconduct are varied and unpredictable, and the objective of regulatory bodies like the ORI is focussed on catching the instances of fraud early, and minimizing their impact on the public and the environment.

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