Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ambition Beyond Suspicion

"In cases where deliberate research fraud is proved after thorough investigation, additional deterrence through punitive measures such as criminal proceedings should be added to the repertoire of measures available."
"It is time to regard such behaviour [research misconduct] in the same category as criminal fraud and deal with it accordingly."
"The code of conduct for investigating and tackling flagrant research fraud [in the academic world is unclear]."
"In most instances institutions and academic bodies do not follow up on alleged or proved wrongdoing with criminal proceedings. [Often perpetrators] claw their way back to active research."
Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta, co-director, Centre for Global Child Health, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto
"Criminalizing research misconduct is a sad, bad, even mad idea that will only undermine the trust that is an essential component of research and requires good governance not criminal investigators."
"It is surely not beyond the expertise of research organizations and their staff to reduce opportunities for misconduct, encourage open and verifiable information on which trust can be built, investigate appropriately, and correct misconduct in almost all its flavours."
Dr. Julian Crane, director, medical research group, University of Otago, New Zealand

Scientific researchers in every discipline of endeavour to discover new and protocols that may introduce or clarify, aid and advance science are, for the most part, completely dedicated to producing results that are verifiable, that can be reproduced following their published findings and methodology, and adding to the general and specific lore of useful knowledge among their scientific communities. A small number of those researchers may persuade themselves on occasion to set aside accuracy and reality to bring acclaim to themselves by claiming to have discovered useful new practises or elements that give promise to opening up an authentic new field of practical applications.

Dr. Bhutta is concerned with medical researchers whose claims to having made discoveries that alter the manner in which the medical community views a particular therapy or handling of conditions through deliberate fraud which is believed and whose outcomes prove ultimately to be of harm to society. It it those malefactors, professional scientists who take the oath of their profession carelessly, preferring to feed their ambition rather than advance scientific knowledge that he rankles at.

He has cited a number of telling examples in an article published in the British Medical Journal. And he is campaigning for the criminalization of such fraud claiming it would have a deterrent effect on deliberate research fraud, "prevalent", and producing "incalculable" harm to the golden grail of break-out medical discoveries to alleviate human suffering.

Research fraudThis file photo taken on January 28, 2010 shows British doctor Andrew Wakefield (R) and his wife Carmel arriving at the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London. Wakefield was found to have falsified data in a study that linked autism to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and was barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. because of his misconduct. A Toronto doctor is calling for stiffer penalties for research frauds. Photo: SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images
The "fraudulent and discredited" work of British research Andrew Wakefield presents as a case in point when his falsified data in a study that linked autism to measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, led to suspicions among alarmed parents that resulted in refusals to have their children inoculated, creating a slump in the 'herd effect' of mass inoculation leading to outbreaks of measles.

Those repercussions with the return of a childhood malady which in some children produced dangerous conditions raised a furore, and though the discredited Wakefield's reputation plummeted when his fraud was revealed, enough parents still devoutly believe his thesis to create a societal-medical distrust situation inimical to general population health. "Yet he lives a free man in Texas, raking in money from various support groups", stated Dr. Bhutta.

Hwang Woo-suk of Korea was forced to resign as a professor at Seoul National University when his "landmark" papers on stem cells were discovered fraudulent, but, pointed out Dr. Bhutta, he has since returned to "scientific life", and "written more than 100 scientific publications since his fall from grace in 2006, 40 in the past two years alone."

According to surveys undertaken to measure the extent of such scientific frauds, two percent of all scientists will admit to having falsified, fabricated or modified data at least once in their careers. Altering data to match their hoped-for search results. Fidelity to the truth would logically drive all such scientific research, but apparently the excuse is that pressure to publish and produce high-value results motivates people to such ruses. And, according to Dr. Bhutta, revelations of misconduct are "all too dependent" on chance detection and whistle-blowers.

Dr. Crane of New Zealand has an entirely different opinion, feeling that the responsibility to penalize such fraud should remain within self-regulating research organizations; to investigate allegations of misconduct. Calling in police, he is convinced would not "more satisfactorily uncover misconduct or prevent harm." It is research organizations to whom the duty should fall to reduce fraud.

In Canada, a notorious case took place at Memorial University in Newfoundland in 2004 when Dr. Ranjit Chandra, considered a top researcher, fabricated data on hundreds of non-existent babies in studies on infant nutrition; his work saw publication in leading medical journals only some of which retracted his work once his deception was made public. Dr. Chandra retired from the university and left for India. Where he now boosts himself as president of the Nutritional Immunology & Allergy Centre in India.

Dr. Ranjit Chandra claimed that vitamin and mineral supplements boosted brain functions in his elderly subjects. (File photo)

And where Dr. Chandra's website speaks glowingly of his professional status and impeccable credentials, no mention is made, needless to say, of the fabrication of his research details, nor the retraction of his Canadian research. A photograph does, however, proudly feature a photograph of Dr. Chandra receiving the Order of Canada in recognition for his outstanding research, pre-revelations.

Universities and research councils in Canada do regulate scientific claims to ensure accuracy. When misconduct has been substantiated, however, they will not reveal nor discuss the cases, even when they appear in the news, preferring to maintain a dignified aloofness rather than stain themselves with the taint of naming names and further impairing the reputations of their academic or research credentials.

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