On paper, the 33-year-old scientist seemed a shoo-in when he applied for a post as associate professor. He had been first in his class at college and at medical school, had trained at a "top-notch place" in an "extremely competitive program" and had received two fellowships.
In the process, he had accumulated an impressive 118 scientific research papers to his credit.
But when a senior member of the department considering him for the job reviewed the publications, his suspicions were aroused. Further checking suggested that the reported research had never been done. Confronted with allegations of misconduct, the scientist left the institution to go into private medical practice.
"We should ask ourselves how we got into this sorry mess," said Dr. Robert Petersdorf, vice chancellor of health affairs and dean of the medical school at the University of California, San Diego.
He cited the case today at a symposium on "Fraud in Science and the Pressure to Publish" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Petersdorf declined to be more specific about the researcher or the institution involved. But he and other panel members expressed concern that increasing pressure to publish prolifically to advance a career or get federal funds may be distorting scientific research, leading to flagrant instances of scientific fraud as well as more subtle and widespread forms of deception.
Petersdorf suggested that the problem begins with the "fierce competition" in college among pre-med students and intensifies as more people compete for fewer research posts and shrinking research dollars.
Although there are no firm estimates of the extent of scientific fraud, Dr. William F. Raub of the National Institutes of Health said his office gets about two complaints a month. This is a "small fraction" of the roughly 20,000 grants and 40,000 persons that NIH funds at any one time, he said, but "each one of these is threatening to the integrity of science."
Over the past five years, Raub said, the government has found evidence of misconduct in about 50 cases. In one, a researcher lost federal funding for 10 years.
Although some cases involved people with a history of personal problems and others were isolated instances, Raub said, perceived scientific pressure to publish appeared to be one of the "root causes."
Until now, reporting of scientific fraud has been voluntary. But Raub said NIH expects to propose rules this summer setting guidelines for dealing with scientific misconduct and making it mandatory to report instances involving public funds.
Raub added, however, that in addition to stepped-up government oversight "there is a need for much more effort in the scientific community in this area."
Patricia K. Woolf, a Princeton University sociologist, said the pressure to publish varies widely among scientific institutions and disciplines. She said that one prominent researcher recently published his 1,000th paper and that in some "research shops" dozens of papers may be generated each year by multiple authors, sometimes with inadequate quality control.
Dr. Edward J. Huth, editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, and Dr. Marcia Angell, deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said fraud and fakery are the extreme and that action is also needed to curtail less serious but more common abuses.
Some are "white lies," Huth said, such as a list of authors that includes persons who have contributed little, if anything, to the project. Other abuses, he said, are "salami science" -- slicing a single research study into several small papers -- and "meat extender" papers -- which combine data from several studies into one.
"I believe these practices are often deceptive, even though they are not what we usually mean by fraud," Angell said.
Huth called for scientific organizations, institutions and journals to tighten their publication standards.
Angell urged the government to provide grants for longer periods, to discourage "quickie studies" with instant results. In addition, she called for a limit on the number of publications that can be submitted for promotion or funding, with a maximum of three a year.