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Fraud, not mistakes, at heart of bad research

Susan Notes:

I subscribe to e-mail updates from Retraction Watch and they come faster than I can keep up with. As Gary Marcus noted on a a New Yorker blog in late December, "A lot of scientists have been busted recently for making up data and fudging statistics. . . dentistry, cancer research, neuroscience. And that's just in the last week."

Who knew there was a federal Office of Research Integrity? I studied their 13 case summaries for 2012 and scanned previous years. Typically, the punishment for deceit is not being able to apply for another federal grant for three years OR if participating in a new grant to "have his research supervised."

If a teacher changes student answers on a standardized test, she loses her job. And has her license removed.

Does anyone know of a federal department that cares about fraud in education research?

Retraction Watch commends reporter Ben Sutherly for digging up new material that highlights the conflicts of interest inherent in university investigations for broadening the story. This "broadening" appears in the second article posted below.

Probe by OSU Missed Fraud

by Ben Sutherly

Federal officials found evidence that more than 100 researchers nationwide committed misconduct over the past decade, and experts are certain that universities and other institutions underreport that fraud, which comes at an untold cost to taxpayers.Ohio State University came close to becoming an example of underreporting. The university's investigation of research misconduct by a pharmacy professor failed at first to recognize his deception, according to documents obtained by The Dispatch.

After allegations surfaced in 2010, the OSU pharmacy department committee concluded that "irregular" images in journal articles were caused by disorganization, not "intentional malfeasance," on the part of professor Terry Elton.

That July 2011 report might have ended the OSU probe into Elton's research.

But a year later, the university found that Elton had intentionally misstated figures in several journal articles and in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.That was only after the federal Office of Research Integrity urged the university to reconsider the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to highlight a pattern of falsified images in Elton’s publications over the past decade.

"It is clear from the PowerPoint that Dr. Elton has a long-standing convention of reusing figures to represent both control and experimental conditions," wrote John Dahlberg, director of the federal office's investigative oversight division, in an October 2011 letter."It would also appear that he has copied, resized/stretched/shrunk, darkened and flipped images (horizontally and vertically) ... to conceal similarities.

"The images in question include those of proteins and microRNAs -- small RNA molecules that regulate gene expression."

The university ultimately agreed. In a voluntary deal disclosed late last month, Elton agreed to retract five articles; a sixth had been retracted in April. An OSU spokesman said a total of $1.6 million in grant money was associated with the retracted papers, though he said that money went toward broader projects, not just the retracted papers.Elton has published at least 66 peer-reviewed articles during the course of his career, The Dispatch found.

The handling of Elton's case, laid out in documents obtained by The Dispatch through a public-records request, raises questions about whether research misconduct inquiries at universities are rigorous enough to root out wrongdoing. Dr. Caroline Whitacre, OSU vice president for research, defended the university's response to misconduct allegations.

"Each of these cases is extremely different," Whitacre said. "There's no two of them that are even remotely similar."I do think we have checks and balances in place to determine when misconduct has occurred. This is the first time ORI has come back to us and told us, 'You need to look deeper.’ '"

Dahlberg said in a statement issued late Friday that "Ohio State University has a long history of working effectively with ORI to ensure that OSU maintains the integrity of its research programs and that ORI's regulatory requirements are met." The Elton case should spur university officials to examine what they can do to make sure such an oversight doesn't happen, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch and executive editor of Reuters Health.

"It behooves them to do as thorough a job as possible rather than find excuses for why they didn't find it the first time," Oransky said. "If they need to be nudged, why should tax dollars be going to places that have very little accountability?"

The Office of Research Integrity received an anonymous tip about Elton's research in July 2010. After Elton was cleared by the pharmacy department's first investigation, Dahlberg asked that anyone who had a personal or working relationship with Elton be removed from the panel investigating the matter.The letter also requested that OSU officials ensure that the committee had members with expertise in reading Western blots, a lab technique used to detect proteins that Elton had reportedly falsified.

The university and ORI ultimately found that Elton had falsified data in the six journal articles, published between 2004 and 2010.

Elton, who is tenured, will keep his job, which pays $130,146 annually. But he's barred from serving as primary adviser to undergraduate or graduate students, postdoctoral trainees or lab technicians for three years, plus other sanctions.

His research technician, Mickey M. Martin, lost her job in October 2011 after Elton's grant funding ran out. Elton blamed Martin for irregularities in his lab in a December 2011 letter to a journal in which he had published some research that has since been discredited.

As a result of its follow-up investigation, the pharmacy college committee concluded that Elton -- not Martin-- 'falsified data. Martin couldn’t be reached to comment.

Elton's misconduct is similar to or greater than that of other researchers who lost their jobs, Oransky said. "It's unusual for this level of misconduct to not be punished by either an early resignation or early retirement."

But Whitacre described Elton's sanctions as "severe." "He's essentially cut off from doing research," she said.

Elton instead will focus primarily on teaching and service responsibilities.

"They doled out what they thought was an appropriate punishment," Whitacre said. "I don't think tenure, per se, played a role here" in Elton keeping his job.

Elton did not return calls seeking comment.In an undated letter on OSU letterhead obtained by The Dispatch, Elton wrote, "Although I strongly disagree with the conclusions of the College of Pharmacy Investigation Committee Report and the severity of the proposed sanctions, I take full responsibility for the figure irregularities in manuscripts outlined by (the National Institutes of Health)."

Roughly 7,100 university faculty, staff and graduate research associates take part in research at Ohio State, according to the university.

In response to a Dispatch inquiry, OSU officials disclosed two other investigations of research misconduct over the past five years. One began in 2009 but has not been completed by the Office on Research Integrity, a university spokesman said. The other probe, which began in 2011, involved a pharmacy graduate student who the university will not name. He falsified lab data, according to a university report.

The last record of any federal findings against an OSU researcher was in 2001, when the U.S. Public Health Service found that an assistant professor in the College of Dentistry plagiarized another researcher’s data in a federal grant application.


Fraud, not mistakes, at heart of bad research

by Ben Sutherly

An Ohio State University pharmacy professor’s falsification of published data is local evidence of an emerging, unsettling revelation in the larger scientific community: Fraud, not inadvertent error, is to blame for most bad research.

Misconduct accounted for more than three-fourths of the retractions of biomedical and life-science research articles for which a cause could be determined, according to a study published in October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study's examination of more than 2,000 retractions published in the past 40 years challenged long-held beliefs that error was the primary culprit.

The study attributed 43.4 percent of all retractions to fraud or suspected fraud, 14.2 percent to duplicate publication and 9.8 percent to plagiarism. In contrast, just 21.3 percent of retractions were rooted in error. The cause of the remaining 11.3 percent couldn’t be determined.

2011 was a record year for retractions with about 400, according to the blog Retraction Watch, but it's not clear whether the increase can be attributed to higher rates of cheating or to greater vigilance.While nobody knows the rate of cheating, there are estimates that as high as 3 percent of funded studies are tainted by misconduct, said David Wright, director of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.One of the study’s authors said he worried that their findings could undermine public funding of research.

"If the public loses faith in us, this is going to be a much greater threat to science," said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.One of the latest examples of misconduct involves the research of Terry Elton, an OSU pharmacy professor. The federal Office of Research Integrity found that Elton had falsified data in six journal articles.

Such misconduct has been shown to hurt funding for other scientists and could affect the bottom line at Ohio State and other universities that rely on research dollars, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a co-founder of Retraction Watch and executive editor of Reuters Health.Ethics training and preventing opportunity -- requiring researchers to show their raw data, for example -- are two ways to deter such misconduct, Wright said.

And, he said, some universities are considering random data audits.Wright said his office relies on universities to conduct primary investigations of research conduct.

If the university doesn't handle a case properly, he said, it can be difficult for the federal office to reach findings against a scientist.Universities, hospitals and other institutions have to assure the Office of Research Integrity that they will oversee federal research dollars responsibly, and the federal office opens about 10 compliance investigations per year for cases in which it has questions about whether that’s happening, Wright said.

Though federal dollars are often at stake, the federal government rarely levies prison sentences or probation in cases of research misconduct, Oransky said, citing only three examples in the past 20 years.

One possible reason, he said, is that scientists aren't stealing grant dollars outright, though they might profit personally from the prestige that comes with winning a large research grant.

Science journals should be more transparent about disclosing the reasons for retractions, Oransky said. One journal in which Elton published a paper, The Journal of Biological Chemistry, has had 37 retractions related to fraud or suspected fraud, more than any other journal, according to the National Academy of Sciences study.

But the Biological Chemistry journal traditionally has refused to share with the public why it retracts papers, Oransky said.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which publishes that journal and two other scientific journals, recently created an ethics-manager position to deal with the increase in "manuscript issues," said Nancy Rodnan, the director of publications."I think hiring a staff member to handle these issues is showing our effort in wanting to deal with this at a high level," Rodnan said.Research journals’ willingness to be open is improving, Wright said.

"When they retract, they aren't always as transparent as I'd like them to be, but they're much better than they used to be."

While retractions are rare, they're also underreported, said Dr. Ferric Fang, another co-author of the research-misconduct article and a laboratory medicine and microbiology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Fang said it would be conservative to estimate that fraudulent research's direct cost to the public runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even then, it's only a fraction of the overall cost, he said, noting that bad research can lead to a waste of effort and money later on and can create public misperceptions. One high-profile example was a 1998 study linking vaccinations and autism that has since been retracted.

"You end up discrediting science as a whole when you commit an act of misconduct," Fang said.

Researchers are under considerable pressure to publish, particularly in prestigious journals, Fang said. And many large universities rely on income from grant money to pay for at least part of a researcher's salary, particularly in the health sciences.

"We have to look in the mirror and think, 'How can we make science better?'" Fang said. "It's much bigger than our individual careers."

— Ben Sutherly
Columbus dispatch


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