In a rare case, a former Iowa State University scientist was prosecuted by a federal attorney last summer for faking the results of his AIDS vaccine research. The university repaid nearly a half-million dollars to the federal government, covering several years of the researcher’s salary. An additional $1.4 million in grant money, which had not yet been paid, was canceled.
In Texas, the National Science Foundation issued a subpoena for the doctoral hearing of a graduate student accused of research fraud. The student, who had her PhD revoked, is suing the school.
And in Boston, a federal investigator exposed a Harvard researcher’s false data in an article for the journal Nature. It wasn’t her first time making up facts, publishing them, and getting caught. She no longer works at Harvard, or at the hospital that employed her. According to The Boston Globe, she must be supervised if she does any work supported by federal funding over the next three years.
In these and similar cases of fraud, local reporters are doing a solid job covering the misconduct of scientists at the major universities and hospitals in their communities, each of which involve the mismanagement of federal funds.
But, in classic newspaper tradition, they are covering them as local stories rather than as data points in a national narrative, even though they cumulatively point to a larger issue. As The Scientist reported last year, each paper retracted because of misconduct costs taxpayers about $400,000 in federal dollars, totaling $58 million for papers retracted between 1992 and 2012. The money is rarely paid back. It also doesn’t include money misspent by scientists who were misled by false data to pursue useless research.
If any journalists have pursued this bigger story, I have yet to see it.
“These cases typically don’t rise to that level (of attention), with the exception of the scientific press and trade publications with their finger on the pulse of these types of issues,” said Adam Marcus, co-founder of Retraction Watch. “For some reason, the national media generally ignores the story.”
Retraction Watch tracks corrections and outright disavowals in scientific articles, which, Marcus said, are sometimes due to honest error rather than outright fraud. (And they hardly represent the majority of the scientific research that is published.) The site also keeps an eye on large-scale ethical lapses, like plagiarism in a published article on Chinese earthquakes and falsified cancer research by a University of Pittsburgh scientist.
In July 2014, Marcus co-wrote a New York Times op-ed urging the government to crack down on fraud. It led with the Iowa State story, where researcher Dong-Pyou Han is at the center of the firestorm: “Even though research misconduct is far from rare, Dr. Han’s case was unusual in that he had to resign. Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are even more uncommon.”
The best local reporting on scientific fraud gives a nod to this national context. In The Des Moines Register’s Jan. 17 report on Han’s plea deal, it noted that scientific fraud “rarely leads to criminal charges, but a federal grand jury indicted Han in June on four felony counts of making false statements. A conviction could lead to prison time.”
Good, but we still need someone to dig deeper and report on that national story for a general audience. It is national institutions, after all, who are the major characters in every one of these local stories—the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Research Integrity, the National Science Foundation. And it was a US Senator—Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa—who intervened in the Han case. Furious at the scale of the researcher’s deceit, Grassley urged the federal oversight office to take a more aggressive tack than the usual on his case. And they did.
To tell the full story, the obvious candidate is a science reporter at a national media outlet. But as we’ve written before, their numbers are rapidly declining, and those that remain tend to have absurdly large workloads. That makes it difficult for a story like this one to rise to the surface.
That’s not to say national science reporters aren’t doing some admirable work. In 2012, Carl Zimmer wrote a great piece in The New York Times about the rise in scientific retractions. But it didn’t touch on the intersection of fraud and federal dollars. And The New York Times Magazine ran an excellent profile of a Dutch fraudster in April 2013, but the distinctly American story remains unwritten. That’s difficult to change when, as Marcus put it, the national science press tends to look for pieces with an exciting news hook.
“My sense is that the stories that drive these reporters are about scientific discoveries, and really sexy topics involving genomics or cancers or stem cell research,” he said. “I’m not denigrating that. It’s just what people seem to want.” Indeed, the scientist profiled by the Times Magazine specialized in “sexy” social psychology topics that tended to make headlines. One of his fraudulent articles, published in Science in 2011, detailed an experiment that supposedly showed how garbage-filled environments brought out racist and homophobic tendencies. At the time of its publication, it got an enormous amount of international press.
Meanwhile, there are intriguing (and alarming) clues about the state of the government’s response to science fraud. Between 1976 and 2007, the number of retractions due to fraud grew by nearly 10 times. In 2013, the NIH funded a team of researchers to develop an ethics remediation program. The researchers discovered that nearly all the institutions it surveyed had confronted wrongdoing in scientific research over the previous two years. A different study noted in 2014 that more than 40 percent of surveyed researchers were aware of misconduct but failed to report it.
Marcus said that over the past decade, there has been an absolute increase in the number of retractions in scientific media—outpacing the increase in the number of publications each year. That syncs with self-reported numbers by journals like Nature. “Why that’s the case isn’t clear,” he added, “It may be that we’re looking more closely, or maybe there’s more widespread use of plagiarism software. Peer review could be an issue. It’s also possible there is more fraud—no one has clear data on that.”
Whatever the story is, it’s one worth investigating.