Commit Fraud, Go to Jail?

What’s behind paper retractions? (21)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 01/2014

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

In June 2009, a judge in New York City sentenced Bernard “Bernie” Madoff to 150 years in prison for his role in a massive fraud scheme that drained an estimated $18 billion from unwitting investors. Six months later, Scott Reuben, a Massachusetts anaesthesiologist dubbed the “Medical Madoff”, was sentenced to six months in federal prison for health care fraud after fabricating data in clinical trials he did not conduct.

But since then, despite dozens of findings of misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity, no American researcher has been sent to jail for scientific fraud. You would think that the argument for prison would be easier to make when such fraud involves misusing the taxpayers’ dollars but most such cases don’t even result in outright bans on federal funding. A growing chorus of observers, however, is saying the time is right to make time behind bars part of the sanction against such behaviour.

Looking good in orange

To be sure, the sentiment is far from unanimous. While some scientists are frustrated that fraudsters roam free after faking their way to highly competitive grants and depriving others of research funds, many, if not most, scientists wince at the notion that their dishonest colleagues would look better in orange (the colour of a standard USA prisoner outfit). After all, finding a victim at the back end of the deed is often difficult. Sure, other researchers may have wasted time and money following up on bogus results. But the reaction seems typically to be more “Run ‘em out of town” rather than “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key”.

Yet, the arguments for making research misconduct a criminal offence is worth strong consideration. The leading voice was a December 2013 editorial in Nature titled “Call the cops”, which stated bluntly: “Science likes to shelter its crooks with euphemisms. The prefix ‘research’ softens fraud, and to deliberately obtain public money through deception gets labelled misconduct, among other things. This reflects the fact that the crime is viewed as being against professional standards rather than against the laws of wider society. The international game of science turned professional long ago, but the rules of play and their enforcement still harbour a decidedly amateur spirit.”

The editorial cited the case of Alfredo Fusco, an Italian cancer researcher under investigation by local police for possible image manipulation. “Scientists, of course, should not have to live with the threat of being marched out of their lab in handcuffs whenever casual allegations are made,” Nature wrote. “But, as the case in Italy shows, that is not how it has to work. The case is months from reaching a conclusion, but it is already clear that the procedures used by the police are no less protective of the parties involved than an academic inquiry would have been.”

We tend to agree. Indeed, in our view, universities – in the United States, at least – often are so conflicted when it comes to misconduct inquiries that they all but ignore the public’s interest at the expense of their own image.

Incompetent institutions let fraudsters escape

As Richard Smith, the former editor of the BMJ, put it, “I’ve also come to realise first hand the difficulty that research institutions have in investigating cases and gathering evidence. Fraudsters escape because of the incompetence of the institutions, whereas investigation and collection of admissible evidence is the daily job of the police.”

There are glimmers that penalties may become more severe. A French court, for example, ruled that dental researcher Christine Marchal-Sixou must pay a 5,000 euro fine and 20,000 euros in compensatory damages to a fellow student, whose thesis she had plagiarised. As Smith writes, “It’s time, sadly, to criminalise research fraud.”

The sentiment is right. It will probably require a case-by-case approach at the start but we’re pretty sure that sending some fraudulent researchers to prison will send the right message and prevent future medical Madoffs from carrying out their Ponzi schemes.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 06.02.2014