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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Scientific Fraud

            A new scandal is rocking the academic world, and it has nothing to do with admissions. This scandal has to do with the research department. It seems that fraud was taking place among the scientists, but a lab analyst blew whistle. 

            The scientific community is diligent about making sure that they have the correct data. They know that they need to get their measurements and experiments right, so they allow other scientists to check and double-check their work. They do not want any fraud in their midst because it will hamper their work and it will cause people to question their integrity.

            The scandal at Duke University was brought to the light because Joseph Thomas, working as a lab analyst, noticed that a “Duke researcher fudged data to help the university win and keep lucrative grants from two agencies….” Like a good member of the scientific community, he brought it to the attention of his employer and was fired. He went to the government with his claim, but the government declined to take any action.

            Thomas decided to fight the mighty Duke University by himself but on behalf of the government, and he won. Duke is “paying the U.S. government $112.5 million to settle accusations that it submitted bogus data to win federal research grants.” Duke is also paying $33.75 million to Thomas for damages done to him.

            One might ask, what is the problem with science fraud? Well, scientists build upon the work of other scientists. If any scientist submits faulty work, then other scientists will build upon it and have faulty results. The consequences can be a matter of life and death. If the science is good, it can save lives. If it is bad science, then people will suffer.

            As an example of problems caused by faulty science, we need look no further than the scandal of parents being afraid to vaccinate their children. In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, along with twelve other scientists, published a paper in the Lancet, claiming that there was a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. Even though the study was done with only twelve children, parents immediately became alarmed and stopped vaccinating their children.

            The scientific community immediately conducted its own studies and found no proof that the MMR vaccine causes autism. They refuted the link between the MMR vaccine and autism, but the damage was already done. Even though autistic tendencies are diagnosed about the same time that children received the MMR vaccine there is no proof of causation between the two events.

            Ten of the twelve co-authors of the paper filed a “short retraction of the interpretation of the original data.” The retraction stated, “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” This retraction was accompanied by a Lancet admission that Wakefield et al had not disclosed that the study was “funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.” 

            The Lancet did not charge Wakefield et al with charges of fraud or misconduct, but it did retract their paper completely in February 2010. An earlier investigation had found Wakefield et al “guilty of ethical violations (they had conducted invasive investigations on the children without obtaining the necessary ethical clearances) and scientific misrepresentation (they reported that their sampling was consecutive when, in fact, it was selective).” A big problem was that the Lancet published their retraction “as a small, anonymous paragraph in the journal, on behalf of the editors.” 
Wakefield et al were found to be “guilty of deliberate fraud (they picked and chose data that suited their case; they falsified facts).

            The fact that Wakefield et al were declared guilty of fraud has not stopped parents from being afraid of the MMR vaccine. The problems caused by this fraud continue to cause division among Americans. Even though my children vaccinate my grandchildren, I have friends and children of friends who are terrified to get their children vaccinated. My son, who is a doctor and has spent the last 15 years working in a hospital emergency room, told me this week that he has never seen a complication from a childhood vaccination other than a fever. The rampant fear among parents is the result of scientific fraud in spite of the diligence of the scientific community.

Scientists who publish their research have an ethical responsibility to ensure the highest standards of research design, data collection, data analysis, data reporting, and interpretation of findings; there can be no compromises because any error, any deceit, can result in harm to patients as well [as] harm to the cause of science, as the Wakefield saga so aptly reveals.

            As one can quickly see from the Wakefield case, fraud among the members of the scientific community has wide consequences. This is the reason why the good scientists allow their peers to check their experiments and review their papers before publication.

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