Whistle-blowers and research fraud – we should reward not shoot the messenger

The importance of whistle-blowers

Peer review and replication or reproducibility have traditionally been seen as the two major safeguards that help keep the scientific literature relatively free of seriously flawed and fraudulent data.

Peer review was discussed in a previous post where I suggested that it was an inherently ineffective way of preventing the publication of fraudulent data. Peer reviewers look for flaws in the methods, analysis and interpretation of the results in a submitted paper but they usually only see summarised data and have to accept the integrity of the authors’ descriptions of their methods and actions and the authenticity of their data. Peer reviewers cannot be expected to detect deliberate and blatant attempts to deceive them.

What about replication and reproducibility? Many scientists believe that false data will be exposed when other scientists are unable to reproduce flawed or fabricated data?

“Scientists generally trust that fabrication will be uncovered when other scientists cannot replicate (and therefore validate) findings”. Crocker and Cooper (2011)

The phrase “replication crisis” or “reproducibility crisis” is very much in vogue at present. As I discussed in a previous post, much of what is published, even highly cited papers in high impact journals, cannot be reproduced by other scientists.

The traditional safeguards are thus not very effective in preventing publication of fraudulent data or in detecting this data once it has been published. So how is fraudulent research usually unmasked? In 2012, Wolfgang Stroebe and two colleagues published a paper with the provocative title Scientific Misconduct and the Myth of Self-Correction in Science. They looked at the ways in which forty notorious research frauds were discovered starting with William Summerlin in 1974  and ending with Yoshitaka Fujii in 2012. Their analysis included cases from psychology, biomedicine and the physical sciences. These were all cases that had made headlines news, so details of their method of unmasking were easily available within the public domain. For 21 of these forty cases they list a “whistle-blower” as the mode of discovery and in fact I would classify a further two of the others that I am familiar with in this category:

  • William Summerlin was caught “painting his mice” but it needed the technician who caught him to report this misconduct to prompt Summerlin’s suspension and the formal misconduct inquiry.
  • In the case of Ranjit Chandra,  Stroebe and colleagues indicate that journal peer review was a contributor to his unmasking as a data fabricator in 2002. However, a whistle-blower (Marilyn Harvey) had reported him to the Memorial University authorities in 1994 and a subsequent confidential university committee report found him guilty of research fraud. However, no action was taken and he continued to publish fraudulent data for almost another decade.

Failure to replicate is listed for only four of the 40 cases and in six cases Stroebe and his colleagues suggest that outside researchers found inconsistencies or problems with the published data that indicated fraud i.e. essentially post publication peer review.

In one case (Kristin Roovers,  her manipulation of images was spotted by a vigilant editor during the pre-publication process. In a case not listed by Stroebe and colleagues because he has never had a paper formally retracted (Ram B Singh), Professor Paul McKeigue suggested that Singh was actually using the detailed criticism of his rejected manuscripts in editorial and referees’ reports as a sort of tutorial on how to make the paper more convincing and believable when it was re-submitted to another journal.

For none of the cases discussed on this blog do Stroebe and his colleagues list failure to replicate as the main mode of discovery; several of their historical cases are from the physical sciences and so outside my range. Within more recent case studies that are covered on this blog:

  • The suspicions and investigations into the activities of Jatinder Ahluwalia at University College London were brought about by outside researchers reporting their inability to repeat his work. Subsequent unsuccessful attempts by his UCL colleagues to replicate his findings then triggered the investigation into why the results obtained by Ahluwalia differed from those obtained by outside scientists and other members of the UCL team.
  • Japanese scientist Haruko Obokata’s claim that stem cells could be generated by subjecting ordinary skin cells to mild acid shock proved to be unrepeatable by her colleagues at the RIKEN Institute but this was only after her papers had been retracted for other acts of misconduct like image manipulation.

Stroebe and his colleagues indicate that more than half of major research fraudsters were unmasked because of the actions of whistleblowers so one might expect that these whistleblowers would have been applauded and rewarded for their role in the fight against research fraud. I am going to use five examples to illustrate the range of experiences of would-be whistleblowers i.e. those who have made accusations against Eric Poehlman, Michael Briggs, Ranjit Chandra, Stephen Breuning  and Anupam Bishayee.

Experiences of five whistle-blowers

Eric Poehlman

Poehlman was a prolific and well-respected scientist based mainly at the University of Vermont. More than 200 of his papers remain in the scientific record and these papers focused on research areas that include obesity, the effects of aging and the menopause and the effects of exercise and training. In June 2006 he became the first scientist in the USA to receive a prison sentence for activities relating to research fraud. He was convicted by a federal court in Vermont of making a false statement in a US federal grant application and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He had previously been fined $180,000 and banned for life from receiving federal research funding. This case is highlighted because the whistle-blower received a $22000 share of the $180000 recovered from Poehlman by the federal authorities. This is because under US law a whistle-blower with knowledge of a fraud against the government by a contractor is entitled to file an action against the perpetrator and receive a share of any monies recovered. This is known as a qui tam writ which is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning “who sues for the king as well as for himself”.

Michael Briggs

Briggs was a British born biochemist who in 1977 became the first Professor of Human Biology and the inaugural head of the science school at the newly formed Deakin University in the Australian state of Victoria. He was regarded as an expert on assessing the safety of oral contraceptives and was a WHO adviser in this area. Dr James Rossiter, then chair of the ethics committee at Deakin University, was the first to report his suspicions about the fraudulent research activities of Briggs. He summed up his experiences of being a whistle-blower in a 1992 article in Nature entitled Reflections of a whistle-blower. Rossiter’s first action was in October 1983 when he reported his suspicions to the chancellor of the university along with a file of supporting evidence. It was not until 1988 that a final report on the Briggs affair was eventually produced by the university – Briggs resigned from the university in 1985 and died in Spain in 1986. In his Nature article, Rossiter describes a prolonged campaign of harassment and intimidation against him during the period between his first reporting his suspicions and the 1988 report including:

  • 200 threatening, obscene or silent phone calls; many at night
  • Letters containing obscene allegations about his private life
  • Expressions of doubt about his sanity from a psychologist on the Deakin staff which he believes adversely affected his private medical practice
  • Attempts to remove him as chair of the ethics committee at Deakin
  • Attempts to blame him for leaking details of the affair to a journalist (he says that in fact the confidential files had been removed from his locked office).

In 2003, Rossiter was awarded a “Doctor of the University” for his distinguished service to Deakin from 1978-88 and for his contribution to the University in the field of research ethics – a belated apology and acknowledgement of his role in unmasking Briggs?

Ranjit Chandra

From 1974-2003, Chandra was based at Memorial University in the small city of St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. He generated a huge output of research papers, review articles and books and became acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between nutrition and immunity, even at one time dubbed “the father of nutritional immunology”. In 2001, a paper that he submitted to the BMJ was rejected because of suspected data fabrication; the paper was later published in the journal Nutrition. He left Memorial University in 2003 and in 2005 the editor of Nutrition retracted his paper with direct allegations that the data in it, and probably other papers by Chandra, had been fabricated. In 2015 Chandra lost a case for defamation that he had brought against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was ordered to pay the broadcaster’s $1.6 million legal costs. The end of this case saw a spate of retractions of his suspect papers.

Marilyn Harvey was a nurse employed by Chandra in the early 1990s to recruit new parents to take part in controlled trials of the effects of different types of infant formulae upon development of atopic (allergic) diseases like asthma in babies with a family history of allergic disease. She was tasked with finding hundreds of expectant families who were willing to take part in the study and where one or both parents suffered from an allergic disease. This was a formidable task given the selection criteria and small population of St John’s which she thought would take her up to two years. She “blew the whistle” and reported that Chandra had published the results of these studies before she had recruited the subjects. In 1994, this prompted a university inquiry that found that “scientific misconduct has been committed by Dr Chandra” and the work had probably never been conducted but no action was taken and the report was not published. In July 2000, Marilyn Harvey was served with notification that she was being sued by Chandra for allegedly stealing data from one of his studies. The lawsuit was dropped a few months later. In 2007, Harvey filed her own lawsuit against the university which claimed that they had failed to properly investigate the allegations that she had made more than a decade earlier. The lawsuit contended that the university had led the medical community to believe that her accusations were unjustified and she thus acquired a reputation as a troublemaker. I have not been able to find out how this legal case between Ms Harvey and Memorial University was resolved.

In 2014, Memorial University introduced a Marilyn Harvey Award to recognise the importance of research ethics. In the accompanying description of the award it states that the university:

“Has named this award in honour of Marilyn Harvey, BN, a research nurse who brought forward her concerns regarding research ethics to senior administrators at the university”

This seems like another belated apology and recognition of the correctness of Harvey’s actions.

Stephen Breuning

Breuning was a psychologist and clinical director of the Polk Center in Polk, Pennsylvania. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he published a series of influential studies which purported to show that stimulant drugs like Ritalin were more effective and had less side effects than tranquilizers when treating mentally retarded children with hyperactivity. In 1988 the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that he had “engaged in serious scientific misconduct”. Also in 1988 he was the first person in the USA to face a criminal prosecution for research fraud. He was convicted by a federal court of fabricating research and misappropriating government research funds. He was sentenced to 60 days in a work release programme amongst other penalties.

Professor Robert Sprague of the University of Illinois was a collaborator and friend of Stephen Breuning. He used part of one of his NIMH grants to fund a study managed by Breuning. Sprague was initially delighted with the large volume of high quality data that Breuning seemed to be generating but eventually began to doubt whether Breuning was actually conducting the research and generating real data. These suspicions became stronger when Breuning was unable to produce the raw data upon which the publication summaries were based. Sprague formally reported his suspicions with a detailed rationale for these suspicions to the NIMH on December 20th 1983. The NIMH issued its final report into the matter in April 1987 i.e. more than 3 years after Sprague’s letter and Breuning’s admission of data fabrication to University of Pittsburgh investigators. The NIMH report found that Breuning had:

“Knowingly, wilfully and repeatedly engaged in misleading and deceptive practices in reporting results of research”

And that:

“He did not carry out the detailed research; and that only a few of the subjects described in publications and progress reports were ever studied”

In 1993 Sprague wrote in detail about some of the adverse consequences for him and his own career of being a whistle-blower in the Breuning case, the title for this article leaves no doubt that it was not a positive experience “Whistleblowing: a very unpleasant avocation”! One of the first actions of NIMH investigators was to investigate Sprague himself. In the final NIMH report there is commendation of Sprague for reporting the matter to the NIMH but also criticism of him for uncritically accepting Breuning’s findings and for failing to adequately oversee the subcontract with Pittsburgh. Sprague had not only made the initial report to the NIMH of his suspicions about Sprague but had also been active in trying to publicise the case and speed up the investigations into Breuning’s activities.

Sprague believes that his involvement in this case played a part in the ending of the funding of his own work by the NIMH. In late 1986, after 17 years of continuous funding by NIMH his request for further funding was turned down despite having received a favourable assessment from the scientific reviewers. The denial by the NIMH that rejection of the grant was not retaliation for Sprague’s activities in relation to Breuning clearly did not convince a Congressional committee looking into the matter. Breuning was threatened with legal action by a Vice President of the University of Pittsburgh for making slanderous and libellous comments in relation to the University of Pittsburgh’s role in the Breuning affair at a Congressional committee hearing; statements made at a congressional committee are protected and one cannot be sued for testimony given before Congress. A letter of complaint to the President of the University of Pittsburgh by the chairman of the Congressional committee resulted in a formal apology to Sprague from the President of the University of Pittsburgh. Sprague retired from the University of Illinois in 2000 but remained active in the field of drug therapy for the mentally retarded and research ethics.

Anupam Bishayee

Bishayee has never, as far as I am aware, been found guilty of research fraud in any formal investigation and this case is included primarily because of the extraordinary lengths to which the would-be whistle-blower has gone to.

Dr Helene Hill, at 89 years of age, is still Professor of Radiology at Rutgers University Medical School, New York. This is despite being at some point threatened with termination of her employment for her relentless pursuit of what she believes to be a case involving multiple acts of data fabrication. In 1999, she accused Bishayee, who was then a postdoctoral fellow at the university, of reporting cell counts from culture dishes that she claimed had been empty. With a colleague she then covertly monitored the suspect’s activities and again considered that he had fabricated the results of another experiment. She reported her observations to the university ethics committee but they decided that her case was not proven. She then reported her concerns to the US Office of Research Integrity who conducted a statistical analysis of his data. Despite finding some suspicious features they also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove misconduct. Dr Hunt has also pursued her case in the courts using the same “qui tam” law as in the Poehlman case above. Unlike the Poehlman case, however, where the whistle-blower received a share of the recovered money, this legal action has twice been unsuccessful and cost Dr Hill more than $200,000 in legal fees.

As a result of the legal cases, she obtained access to Bishayee’s laboratory notebooks in which some of his data was recorded. She and a statistician have analysed the last digit frequency of machine counts recorded by hand in these notebooks. If numbers are generated by a machine, all 10 digits should occur with roughly equal frequency but when people make up data then tend to favour certain digits. According to her the actual frequencies recorded in these notebooks had a chance of being generated randomly of less than 1 in 100 billion which, if correct, would indicate that they were fabricated. In personal correspondence in 2015, Dr Hill told me that she wants to retire but is determined to get her statistical paper published before retirement even though it had thus far been rejected by at least nine journals; usually by the editorial office before being sent for peer review. She self-published a book about the affair in 2016 and her own accounts of what she has done and details of the book can be found on her blog.

Conclusions and suggestions

The findings of Stroebe et al (2012) and from several case-studies on this blog, show that whistle-blowers have played a key role in unmasking many notorious research frauds, thus curtailing their fraudulent activities and in some cases leading to the retraction of many of their fraudulent publications (see also the case-studies of Dipak Das, Diederik Stapel and Malcolm Pearce). It is thus vital that those who feel that they have strong evidence that a colleague or collaborator is acting dishonestly should feel confident that they will not be victimized if they report their suspicions; this is particularly important where the suspect is a senior and powerful figure and the accuser a subordinate. Institutions should designate a person or persons to whom any suspicions can presented in confidence and with a guarantee that the evidence will be assessed impartially. This designated person must be seen to be independent of management and any research groups and be given the authority to make sure that any accusations are properly investigated. The accuser should also feel that, if they wish it, their anonymity will be protected. Their right to anonymity should, where possible, be protected even where accusations are not accepted, provided they were made in good faith and not a malicious attempt to tarnish the reputation of the accused or to settle some personal grievance.

There are several examples in the case studies on this blog of whistle-blowers who feel that their, subsequently proven, accusations of misconduct were not initially taken seriously enough or who felt that their own careers were adversely affected by their acting as a whistle-blower e.g. in the cases of Stephen Breuning, Ranjit Chandra and Michael Briggs discussed above. This would certainly act as a deterrent for some potential whistle-blowers. More should be done to encourage potential whistle-blowers to come forward and to reassure them that they will not be penalised for any accusations made in good faith. Where a whistle-blowers actions result in the recovery of money awarded to fraudulent researchers then maybe they should be entitled to a share of any recovered money as in the Eric Poehlman case. This would be compensation for what is likely to be an unpleasant period even under optimal circumstances.

 

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