Scientific Misconduct
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did you know?Scientific Misconduct


2014:  Brigham and Women’s Hospital study on heart cells is withdrawn due to compromised data
2014: Japanese researcher apologizes for:  “carelessness, ignorance and immaturity” in reporting stem cell research
2013: Controversial paper implicating genetically modified food and herbicide to rat cancer retracted
2013: Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist, faked research over several years and published his fradulant results in numerous scientific journals.
2013: Males Are Overrepresented among Life Science Researchers Committing Scientific Misconduct

Quick Facts

  • More than 2000 retractions of articles in scientific journals have occurred over the past 40 years.
  • Journal articles on anesthesia account for most retractions.
  • Nine scientists have more than 20 retractions each.
  • Scientific misconduct is old--Ptolemy may have copied his famous sky charts from another astronomer.


What some examples of scientific fraud?

  • Pilt Down Man-- a human skull with a very large jaw was unearthed in a pit in Sussex, England. The "discovery" had scientists puzzled for forty years until 1953 when “Piltdown Man“ was deemed a hoax. The skull was human, but the jaw belonged to an orangutan. Mastermind of hoax is still a mystery. New York Times
  • Himalayan Hoax--A prominent Indian geologist, Viswa Jit Gupta, "discovered" fossils in the Himalayans that steered research for 20 years. The fossils, however, were not from region. In fact, they were as far away as New York State. The discovery of the fraud set back Himalayan research several decades. New York Times
  • Toad--Paul Kammerer, called the next Darwin, unveiled in the 1920’s an amazing discovery that the offspring of Midwife Toads inherited black spots. A closer examination revealed the spots were, in fact, hand painted with black ink. New York Times. In the 1970's William Summerlin tried the same trick by painting black spots on the skin grafts of mice.*The Patchwork Mouse
  • Cold Fusion--Two researchers, Fleishmann and Pons, claimed in 1989 to have achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature--otherwise known as cold fusion. Numerous attempts to replicate the experiments were unsuccessful and the researchers were accused by practicing "pathological science". Read a discussion on the matter. Read Fleischmann's obituary.
  • Autism Vaccines--Andrew Wakefield published "results" from a study of 12 children that appeared to link autism with vaccines. In 2011 the British Medical Journal declared the study not a case of bad science, but of outright fraud. New York Times
  • Stem Cells--Hwang Woo Suk published a paper in the journal Science that claimed success getting stem cells from cloned human embryos. Co-workers alleged he had falsified the data and a Seoul National University investigation confirmed it. New York Times (multiple articles)
  • Obesity -- Eric Poehlman, a researcher with $2.9 million of US federal grant money, was convicted in 2005 of falsifying data in various studies on obesity. Having “violated the public trust”, he was sentenced to jail--the first for a US scientist for lying on a grant application. New York Times,Nature

What are the forms of scientific misconduct?

Scientific misconduct comes in one of three flavors: fabrication, falsification, plagiarism Prize Fight (Meyers). Fabrication is creating data where no data existed before. Falsification is changing data that already exists. Plagiarism is copying someone else's words or work. However, there are numerous sub-categories. Stealing someone else's work. Performing experiments without IRB approval. Making up fake co-authors. Using someone else's name (Sir Cyrl Burt New York Times).

What motivates scientists to commit fraud?

What motivates a scientist to risk fame and fortune are exactly the sources of the problem: an excessive need for name recognition, ever larger grants, rapid promotion within a research institute or university, old fashioned rivalry with a colleague; plain old ego stroking.

What's a typical apology for scientists who are caught?

Most apologies tend to be worded in such a way that minimizes the blame on the person accused of misconduct. Some examples of the general types of apologies are 1) mortifications and corrections, 2) denials, and 3) admit responsibility but blame something else1. Here are some specific examples of apologies:

Poehlman apology: In this case, he admitted wrong doing, but also placed blame on a system that requires principal investigators to raise money for their research through government grants. “I have wanted to say I’m sorry for five years,” “I want to make it very clear I am remorseful. I accept the responsibility. There’s no way that I can turn back the clock. And I’m not that individual that I was years ago.” “I had placed myself, in all honesty, in a situation, in an academic position which the amount of grants that you held basically determined one’s self-worth.” New York Times

Cheorl-Ho Kim, accused of plagiarism admits wrong doing, but feels shame for what he did and states he will send forward his letter of apology to former and present employers. Neurochemical Research (Vol 31: 109–120, 2006)

Wolfgang Kopp, in an attempt to restore his image, denies any wrong doing, but states he is sorry for not citing the passages he is accused of plagiarizing. Metabolism (Vol 52: 840-844, 2003)

Huang, Gwo-Feng, accused of plagiarism, admits responsibility, but blames it on the fact that English was not his first language and this was his first time writing papers and he did not know that duplicating English sentences from other writers was wrong. Gait and Posture (Vol 12: 162-168, 2000)

Stephan Ruegg, accused of plagiarism, admits that there was misconduct, but states that it was not related to his contribution to the research.
“I fully acknowledge the responsibility which I share as an equally contributing co-author of the manuscript. However, the misconduct is not related to my written contribution, and I disclosed it as soon as I became aware of it.”Epilepsia (Vol 44: 1223-1232, 2003)

What is the social impact of scientific fraud?

Scientific fraud impacts society in numerous ways. It can take years before an article is retracted, therefore false information is still being circulated and being used and cited by others. This in turn can affect patient care. Retracted clinical trials can potentially put patients at risk. 2 University reputations can be damaged and there can also be a loss of trust in scientists and their endeavors.3

What is the typical punishment for scientists who commit fraud?

Some administrative actions that can be taken against the scientist include suspension or debarment from US Public Health Services (US Department of Health and Human Services) related activities, ban on working in advisory capacity to the PHS, and there may be a requirement that the person’s work be supervised if they are allowed to continue doing research. Usually these actions remain in place for 3-5 years.

Other punishments include loss of grants and contracts, jail time, public shame, and fines.

There can also be criminal and civil legal proceedings under federal anti-fraud statutes.4

How can scientific fraud be prevented?

One approach is the creation of the Reproducibility Initiative. The RI plans to match researchers with independent third parties to repeat their experiments, then gives scientists the option of publishing those validation studies along with the original experiments in PLOS ONE. The initiative’s founders claim that such authentication will identify and commend researchers who produce high-quality, reproducible research, while helping to suppress the increasing numbers of retractions. 5 Many other factors need to be addressed that influence misconduct, as discussed in this article by Arturo Casadevall on reforming science. 6

How often does scientific misconduct occur?

Article retraction is a good indicator of misconduct. According to a recent PNAS article, there were 2,047 retracted articles identified in the PubMed database from 1973 to May, 2012. “The most common reason for retraction was fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), with additional articles retracted because of duplicate publication (14.2%) or plagiarism (9.8%)”. 7

"Considerable hard data have emerged on the scale of misconduct. A metastudy8 and a detailed screening of all images in papers accepted by The Journal of Cell Biology (M. Rossner The Scientist 20 (3), 24; 2006) each suggest that roughly 1% of published papers are fraudulent. That would be about 20,000 papers worldwide each year." 9

Researcher Retraction years Country Field of study Number of retractions Justification given for retractions
Joachim Boldt 2010–2011 Germany Anesthesiology 88 Lack of IRB approval
Adrian Maxim 2007 USA Electrical engineering 48 Alleged data fraud and fictitious co-authors
H. Zhong 2010 China Chemistry 43 Alleged data fraud
Jon Hendrick Schön 2002–2004 USA Physics 33 Alleged data fraud
T. Liu 2010 China Chemistry 29 Alleged data fraud
Robert A. Slutsky 1985–1987 USA Cardiology 25 Alleged data fraud
Scott S. Reuben 2009–2010 USA Anesthesiology 24 Alleged data fraud
Naoki Mori 2010–2011 Japan Oncology 23 Alleged data fraud
Friedhelm Herrmann 1997–2003 Germany Oncology 22 Alleged data fraud
John R. Darsee 1982–1984 USA Cardiology 19 Alleged data fraud
Pattium Chiranjeevi 2008 India Chemistry 19 Plagiarism
Wataru Matsuyama 2007–2010 Japan Immunology 17 Alleged data fraud
Suresh Radhakrishnan 2010 USA Immunology 15 Alleged data fraud
M. Quik, G. Goldstein and collaborators 1993–1994 Canada Physiology 15 Artifact (contamination)
Jon Sudbø 2006–2007 Finland Oncology 14 Alleged data fraud
Michael L. Grieneisen and Minghua Zhang 10

In what fields does scientific fraud occur?

Scientific fraud occurs in many fields. This chart shows the major areas. 11


1Souder, L. (2010). A Rhetorical Analysis of Apologies for Scientific Misconduct: Do They Really Mean It?. Science & Engineering Ethics, 16(1), 175-184
2Fang, F., & Casadevall, A. (2011). Retracted science and the retraction index. Infection and Immunity, 79(10), 3855-3859
3Steen, G. (2012). Retractions in the medical literature: how can patients be protected from risk?. Journal of Medical Ethics, 38, 228-232.
4Tilden, S. (2010). Incarceration,restitution, and lifetime debarment:legal consequences of scientific misconduct in the eric poehlman case. Science and Engineering Ethics, 16, 737-741
5Bramford C (2012) Solving Irreproducible Science: will the recently launched Reproducibility Initiative succeed in cleaning up research and reducing retractions? The Scientist. Sept. 26, 2012.
6Reforming Science: Methodological and Cultural Reforms Arturo Casadevall, Ferric C. Fang Infect Immun. 2012 March; 80(3): 891–896. doi: 10.1128/IAI.06183-11 <
7Fang FC, Steen RG, Casadevall A (2012) Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. PNAS 109:17028-17033.
8Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738
9Macilwain C (2012) The time is right to confront misconduct. Nature. Aug 2;488(7409):7. doi: 10.1038/488007a.
10Michael L. Grieneisen and Minghua Zhang PLoS One. 2012; 7(10): e44118. Published online 2012 October 24. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044118 A Comprehensive Survey of Retracted Articles from the Scholarly Literature
11Michael L. Grieneisen and Minghua Zhang PLoS One. 2012; 7(10): e44118. Published online 2012 October 24. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044118 A Comprehensive Survey of Retracted Articles from the Scholarly Literature



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