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Fraud in medical research



British Medical Journal, 1999;318:1164 ( 1 May )

Falsifying data is main problem in US research fraud review

Mark Pownall , London

Half of the US biomedical researchers accused of scientific fraud and
subjected to formal investigations in recent years have been found
guilty of misconduct, a new review has found.

In the biggest review of scientific fraud ever published, the US Office
of Research Integrity, has released data on nearly a thousand
allegations investigated over the five years from 1993 to 1997. The
review covered inquiries into allegations of misconduct into research
funded by the US Public Health Service, which has a budget of $15
billion.

Altogether, 150 cases were formally investigated after a preliminary
assessment of whether there was a case to answer. Of these
investigations, 76 resulted in findings of scientific misconduct -
mostly falsification and fabrication but also plagiarism. Accusations of
research fraud were most likely to result in a ruling of misconduct for
the least experienced medical researchers, with allegations against
professors and assistant professors less likely to result in
a guilty verdict.

Larry Rhoades, director of the division of policy and education at the
Office of Research Integrity, said that the figures suggested that "the
system is more protective of senior than junior researchers," and that
senior academics were more able to defend themselves against
accusations. "But we do not know why there are these patterns. We hope
researchers might find it interesting to look at these questions."

Dr Rhoades pointed out that the academic grade of associate professor,
which is one step below the top ranking professor grade, seemed to
attract the most allegations of misconduct.  Nearly a third (31%) of the
allegations were aimed at this grade, of which 17 out of 45 (38%)
resulted in findings of misconduct.

Most whistleblowers were senior academics, chiefly professors and
associate professors, and they made about half of the allegations. Dr
Rhoades called for international agreement on collecting data on
scientific fraud to enable those policing medical researchers to make
valid international comparisons.

Scientific Misconduct Investigations 1993-1997, is available from the
Office of Public Health and Science, Office of Research Integrity, Suite
700, 5515 Security Lane, Rockville, MD 20852, USA (tel: +1 301 445
5300).