Fabricated Results, Hidden Data: The Case for Criminalizing Research Fraud
In one of the latest and most tragic cases of science fraud, an esteemed Japanese stem-cell scientist committed suicide following the retraction of two “breakthrough” papers he co-published. They both contained plagiarized and falsified information.
But such cases of scientific misconduct are not isolated; in fact, they appear to be on the rise. “The number of articles retracted a year increased 19-fold from 2001 to 2010, and the increase was still 11-fold after repeat offenders were excluded and growth of the literature had been adjusted for,” writes Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta in a recent issue of the British Medical Journal. Whether or not it’s because the research community is more ready to retract these days, Dr. Bhutta thinks the swelling numbers suggest his peers are not doing enough to curb bad behavior. So he made the case in the BMJ that extreme cases of misconduct should be criminalized.
Suppressing or fabricating research results has a tangible impact on human health — from encouraging vaccine denialism to hiding dangerous side effects of drugs. For this reason, he says, it should be treated as a crime like any other. We caught up with him to find out more. Here’s the transcript from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Julia Belluz: So what’s worrying you? What’s the science fraud landscape look like right now?
Zulfiqar Bhutta: To make mistakes in research is part of life. What I’m concerned with is deliberate research fraud which frequently includes financial fraud. We’ve got global multinationals making up research findings, or publishing fraudulent information on clinical trials. You can argue that there is due course and these groups are fined but this is no different than the guy who just got away from major litigation in Germany by paying $100 million to the local government.