“Fraud in Science is Easy”

By Reeteka Sud, Ph.D., reeteka @ icloud.com

Image Credit: Pedro J. Perez, Morguefile.com

Image Credit: Pedro J. Perez, Morguefile.com

The title of this article is from the letter of justification written by Diederik Stapel, former Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg University, Netherlands. Once a highly respected Social Psychologist, Stapel was suspended and later dismissed from his position. Studies he orchestrated on human behavior had garnered wide coverage in mainstream media, and were published in Science (paper later retracted), among other top journals. In the weeks prior to his suspension in Fall 2011, some of his students had reported their concerns about Stapel’s data to the head of the department (also Stapel’s friend). As a result of the inquiries that followed, more than fifty of his papers were found to be fraudulent.

Another widely publicized high profile case was that of prominent cardiovascular researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Piero Anversa. Winner of the Research Achievement Award by the American Heart Association, Anversa had received over $50 million in NIH grants just since 2000. In recent years, top tier journals as Lancet and Circulation retracted his papers, and he was under investigation by Harvard University.

Stapel, Anversa, and then there was Hwang Woo-Suk, the Korean stem cell scientist who perpetrated one of the biggest scientific frauds. You can estimate the weight his name carried by the fact that when his 2005 paper arrived at Science, Woo-Suk was a familiar name in the journal’s editorial offices. The paper claimed, fraudulently we know now, to be a highly efficient method to clone patients’ stem cells.

If there’s one unequivocal bottom line from these cases, it is this: No scientist is established enough, no institute big enough, no impact factor high enough to be immune to fraud. In all three of these cases, papers were accepted in (and later retracted from) Science and Nature. Each of them, and many others like them, were highly revered and internationally renowned.


Why do such a thing?

“I do not suppose that personal advancement is a principal motive for cheating in science: rather it is the hunger for scientific reputation and the esteem of colleagues. And I believe that the most important incentive to scientific fraud is a passionate belief in the truth and significance of a theory or hypothesis”, wrote Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar 1. A common element does seem to be that these academic celebrities were convinced they had the answers before they did any experiments 2. Piero Anversa was so convinced of the central tenet of the lab’s research that members of his lab could be, and had been, dismissed if they so much as doubted the hypothesis 3.


Shades of grey

As egregious are frauds perpetrated by the likes of Dr. Anversa and Stapel, they are still outnumbered by the “borderline” cases; those that are not quite fraud, but close enough. For instance, in one case, one of the reviewers posted on the web a manuscript they were asked to review for a journal (personal communication). A graduate student is asked to exclude select numbers so that the data fit the PI’s hypothesis. Sometimes called “massaging” of data, this practice or tendency of selectively weeding out data points is, unfortunately, more commonplace. Self-plagiarism is another one, where the same data is published “dressed up” for multiple papers. This isn’t even considered fraud by many.


Finding the smoking gun:

In the opening quote of this article, Diederik Stapel stated: “scientific fraud is too easy, because there are too few control mechanisms in science.” The system runs on trust more than we think. This could be a reason that peer review doesn’t catch a lot of fraudsters. The reviewers are not looking for proof of misconduct. Combine this with the fact that current academic norms do not reward replication attempts for published data, and we have what’s been called “the myth of self-correction in science” 2.

In none of the high profile cases was it their first slip-up. Stapel, for instance, was reported to be fabricating his data since 1996 2 — that’s a span of 15 years before it came to light! In most cases, when scientific misconduct is discovered, it is people in the group who bring it to light. For this reason, it is utterly important that institutional safeguards be in place, official channels through which any scientist can report suspected fraud without fear of repercussion. At Penn, fortunately, we have such safeguards in place:


  1. Medawar, Sir Peter. (1983). Review of “Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science” by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. London Review of Books, 5 (21), 5-7.
  2. Stroebe, W., Postmes, T., Spears, R. (2102). Scientific Misconduct and the Myth of Self-Correction in Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 670-688. Available online at http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/6/670.
  3. “Braggadacio, information control, and fear: Life inside a Brigham stem cell lab under investigation,” RetractionWatch.com. http://retractionwatch.com/2014/05/30/braggadacio-information-control-and-fear-life-inside-a-brigham-stem-cell-lab-under-investigation/#more-20711


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