Scientific integrity took another hit Thursday when an Australian researcher received a two-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to 17 fraud-related charges. The main counts against neuroscientist Bruce Murdoch were for an article heralding a breakthrough in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. And the judge's conclusions were damning.
There was no evidence, she declared, that Murdoch had even conducted the clinical trial on which his supposed findings were based.
Plus, Murdoch forged consent forms for study participants, one of whom was dead at the time the alleged took place.
Plus, Murdoch fraudulently accepted public and private research money for the bogus study, published in 2011 in the highly reputable European Journal of Neurology.
"Your research was such as to give false hope to Parkinson's researchers and Parkinson's sufferers," said Magistrate Tina Privitera, who heard the case in Brisbane. Still to go to trial is Murdoch's co-author, Caroline Barwood, who has also been charged with fraud.
Since 2000, the number of U.S. academic fraud cases in science has risen dramatically. Five years ago, the journal Nature tallied the number of retractions in the previous decade and revealed they had shot up 10-fold. About half of the retractions were based on researcher misconduct, not just errors, it noted.
The U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which investigates alleged misconduct involving National Institutes of Health funding, has been far busier of late. Between 2009 and 2011, the office identified three three cases with cause for action. Between 2012 and 2015, that number jumped to 36.
While criminal cases against scientists are rare, they are increasing. Jail time is even rarer, but not unheard of. Last July, Dong-Pyou Han, a former biomedical scientist at Iowa State University, pleaded guilty to two felony charges of making false statements to obtain NIH research grants and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
Han admitted to falsifying the results of several vaccine experiments, in some cases spiking blood samples from rabbits with human HIV antibodies so that the animals appeared to develop an immunity to the virus.
"The court cannot get beyond the breach of the sacred trust in this kind of research," District Judge James Gritzner said at the trial's conclusion. "The seriousness of this offense is just stunning."
In 2014, the Office of Research Integrity had imposed its own punishment. Although it could have issued a lifetime funding ban, it only barred Han from receiving federal dollars for three years.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was outraged. "This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies," he wrote the agency. The result was a federal probe and Han's eventual sentence.
He belongs to a small but ignominious fraternity.
In 2006, Eric Poehlman, an expert on aging and obesity at the University of Vermont, became the first American scientist sentenced to jail for research misconduct not involving fatalities. He received a one-year plus one-day prison term for fraudulent obesity research that, stunningly, spanned a decade.
Four years later, Scott Reuben, a prominent Massachusetts anesthesiologist and researcher, was found to have faked data in at least 21 studies. Several of them touted positive results from popular painkiller medications. Reuben received six months in prison.
Currently, no national or international database of scientific retractions exists. The blog Retraction Watch, run by the Center for Scientific Integrity, does keep an unofficial list of the worst offenders. Of the top-30 -- 28 of them are male -- by far the most retractions belong to Yoshitaka Fujii, with a mind-blowing 183. An anesthesiologist, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo, Fujii's fraudulent research on responses to drugs after surgery, spanned 20 years.
Fujii published the results of as many as a dozen randomized clinical trials in one year -- several times. “It’s impossible to publish so many,” German anesthesiologist Peter Kranke told the journal Nature in 2012. “If you just look at mere output, everybody who has performed at least one clinical trial should have some suspicion.”
Ivan Oransky, the executive director of the Center for Scientific Integrity, which runs the retraction watch blog, recently announced plans to finally track research misconduct. He said his nonprofit would partner with the nonprofit Center for Open Science "to create a database of retractions designed to reduce waste in science and allow scholars to study the scientific literature in order to promote scientific integrity."