The High-Profile Cases of Research Misconduct
"Painting the Mice"
It was during the 1970s and 1980s when a number of high-profile cases of “faked and fabricated research were discovered in prestigious academic institutions” and resulted in congressional inquiry and public policy change. The media attention garnered by the inquiries resulted in policy change within the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Public Health Service (PHS) with regard to accountability, grant disbursement, investigative procedures, and the development of ethics codes in an industry that was historically self-policing.
The high-profile cases have many things in common. Among them are:
- Popular scientist(s) with powerful supporters
- Claims of momentary misjudgment or unusual stress
- Ambiguous resolution
- Institutional investigations that take years to resolve.
(LaFollette, “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue”).
William T. Summerlin
No. 1 - The Sloan–Kettering Affair
William T. Summerlin’s research career began at the University of Minnesota but when the results of his experiments could not be duplicated, he came under serious scrutiny. (Culliton, “The Sloan-Kettering Affair,” at 1155). Summerlin's case was the "first contemporary instance of faked scientific data to receive significant public attention.”
In 1974, Summerlin, a dermatologist working under immunologist Robert A. Good at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, was investigating the use of tissue culture to facilitate genetically incompatible skin transplants (LaFollette, “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue”). A senior laboratory assistant determined that Summerlin faked results of skin transplants on two white mice with an ink marker. The laboratory assistant used alcohol to remove the ink. A successful experiment would have meant that “theoretically…one could transplant organs between genetically mismatched individuals.” (Culliton, “The Sloan-Kettering Affair,” at 1154).
Summerlin was “immediately suspended, pending further inquiry” and all of his research work was deemed as fraudulent but the cancer center downplayed the issue by stating to the press that the explanation for Summerlin’s behavior was an “emotional disturbance of such a nature that he has not been fully responsible for the actions he has taken nor the representations he has made.” The center provided him with medical leave and full salary for a year in order to “rest and [get] professional care.” (Id. at 1155).
Essentially, undisciplined, by 1981, Summerlin was working in Louisiana as a “country doctor” (Browne).
Since the incident, the term "painting the mice" has become synonymous with research fraud.
No. 2 - The Darsee Case
In May 1981, John R. Darsee, a fellow in the Cardiac Research Laboratory at Harvard was caught in the act of fabricating data during a heart research experiment on dogs at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Eugene Braunwald, Hersey Professor of Physics and Professor of Medicine at Harvard, during the course of an internal review, learned that “Darsee’s fraud extended to a major collaborative study sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH) – on which Darsee continued to work even after he was caught fabricating data.” The case was referred to the Justice Department. (Culliton, “Coping with Fraud”).
Darsee lost his research position and Harvard withdrew its offer of a faculty position. Darsee was subsequently debarred from receiving NIH funding or “sitting on advisory bodies for 10 years.” NIH made the hospital the first institution required to return funding “($122,371) because of research involving fraudulent data.” The investigation hung a proverbial dark cloud over anyone who had research connections with Darsee – collaborative work was discredited. Braunwald’s own work was placed on hold because of the time expended to the investigation, and the “morale and productivity of the laboratory was damaged.” (Goldfarb and Pritchard).
Delays in the investigative process by both the NIH and Harvard garnered attention by the media and resulted in suspicion of a cover-up. (LaFollette, “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue”). In response to the publicity of the Darsee case, two subcommittee hearings were held in 1981 in the House Committee on Science and Technology, which was chaired by Al Gore, then a representative from Tennessee. (LaFollette, “The Politics of Research Misconduct,” at 271).
The National Institute of Health “moved to bar him from receiving any Federal funds for 10 years”; and, though it took approximately six months, Darsee was eventually dismissed from Harvard and the hospital. Darsee became “a practicing physician at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y.” (Slade and Biddle). However, an Ellis Hospital spokesman reported that Darsee is not involved in patient care and that his work is restricted to computers. (Butterfield).
Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta conducted their own 14-month investigation of Darsee following the scandal at Harvard and reported that Darsee was “suspected of falsifying a large number of research papers on which he acted as co-author with some of Emory’s leading professors.” Darsee did his undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame; and around the same time as the Emory investigation, microbiology professor Julian Pleasants “discovered the undergraduate falsified data in two papers he wrote for the school science journal in 1969.” (Butterfield).
However, the Darsee case was critical, indeed a shining example, of the need for scientists to provide “closer supervision of trainees and taking authorship responsibilities more seriously. This case was instrumental in “the development of guideline and standards concerning research misconduct by PHS, NIH, NSF, medical associations, and institutes, and universities and medical schools.” (Goldfarb and Pritchard).
In 1984, Darsee lost his license to practice medicine in New York. (Harvard Crimson).
The Whistleblower in the Breuning Case
No. 3 - The Breuning Case
In 1983, whistleblower Dr. Robert Sprague wrote to the National Institute of Mental Health documenting the fraudulent research of Dr. Stephen Breuning. Three months later, Breuning admitted to fabricating data “concerning the effects of psychotropic medication” on the mentally retarded in order to receive $160,000 in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (L.A. Times).
The case remained unresolved until 1988-1989. Sprague eventually reported the misconduct to the National Institute of Health. (Goldfarb & Pritchard). In 1988, after being charged with falsifying research project reports to NIMH, Breuning was indicted in federal court. He pled guilty in a Baltimore court a few months later. (LaFollette, “The Politics of Research Misconduct,” at 274).
Breuning’s misconduct had far-reaching consequences. He contributed to “34% of all published research on the psychopharmacology of mentally retarded people…even though he was the only researcher to fabricate data, his role could [have] contaminate[d] an entire study.” (Goldfarb and Pritchard). The “results of the drug experiments (many which never conducted) had been used to justify treatment plans for hundreds of hyperactive children,” though there is no evidence that any patients were harmed. Breuning was sentenced to community service and fines. (LaFollette, “Stealing into Print,” at 25).
Breuning’s case is notable because it “demonstrated that science did not always self-correct. [His] research data had been widely reported and widely used…Moreover, his conclusions had been used to justify patient treatments.” No harm seems to have occurred to any of the patients. “More than 50 of his articles remained in dispute for months…and the journals would not retract the articles unless all authors agreed.” (LaFollette, “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue”).
Plagiarism is Research Misconduct
No. 4 - Elias Alsabti
A Jordanian biologist, Alsabti claimed to be “a blood relative of the Jordanian royal family”; his postgraduate medical education, a Ph.D. in cancer immunology, in the United States was “financed by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Hassan, brother of King Hussein of Jordan.” (William J. Broad. “Would be Academician Pirates Papers,” at 1438).
The Royal family has said that Alsabti had no relationship to them; and after the details of his fraudulent escapades began to circulate, Prince Hassan cut off Alsabti’s funding. (Id. at 1438.). He was found to have plagiarized some 60 papers on a global scale during the late 1970’s. (Jahn and Mitch). An ambitious internist, Alsabti “had published 60 papers on cancer immunology by the age of 25.” He was forced to leave his residency at the University of Virginia in 1980 “after being accused by three separated research teams of publishing their work under his name.” (Holden). It was determined that Alsabti took articles that were published in one country and then published them under his own name. Because fellow researchers are often unwilling to be the first to charge someone with fraud, it is not unusual that “no universities or labs where he worked were willing to conduct formal investigations”; however, publications like “Nature and the British Medical Journal did.” (LaFollette, “Stealing into Print,” at 7)
He eventually earned licenses to practice medicine in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania; however, when the Board of Registration in Medicine learned of the plagiarism by publishing under his name three articles authored by other physician’s, (which occurred 10 years earlier during his time as a graduate student) they revoked Alsabti’s medical license. Alsabti v. Board of Registration in Medicine, 404 Mass. 547 (Mass. 1989).
Alsabti filed suit seeking a review of the Board’s decision but the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided in the Board’s favor. According to the court, “good moral character is central to medical licensing because physicians must be held to possess the highest degree of integrity.” (Id. at 533). Furthermore, “the Board was clearly justified in assessing as serious Alsabti’s disregard at that time for basic fairness to competitors and for the possible consequences to patients who might be exposed to medical treatment by physicians relying on experiments Alsabti purported to have done but never did.” (Id. at 553-554.).
No. 5 - Vijay Soman
Trained in India and in the United States, Soman held a fellowship in endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine in 1975 and had been appointed to the faculty. By age 37, he was an associate professor, though he was primarily a laboratory researcher. Soman and other Yale associates, including the holder of the endowed chair at Yale University Medical School wrote several studies that were published in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of Clinical Investigation, and Nature. (Hunt).
Soman worked with Professor Phil Felig on insulin function and was accused and admitted to charges of plagiarism and providing fraudulent data; however, “Felig had become a professor and chairman at Columbia University” and upon learning of the fraud, Felig was asked to “resign from his post at Columbia…but was able to return to Yale.” (Ryan).
Soman was asked to resign and give up research. The papers were retracted, all of his records were impounded, and an extensive audit was commissioned. He left Yale and returned to Poona, India. (Hunt). The incidents involving Alsabati and Soman “led to the March 1981 Congressional hearings on Fraud in Biomedical Research.” (Steneck).
No. 6 - John L. Ninnemann – “First case settled under federal whistleblower laws.”
Ninnemann’s research assistant at the University of Utah filed a lawsuit in 1989 under the federal False Claims Act charging that “the universities had defrauded the Government by permitting false claims to be made in scientific papers and by making false statements to the government” and that Ninnemann falsified “information in at least nine scientific papers in four scientific journals.” (Hilts, “2 Universities to Pay”). The False Claims Act allows private citizens to bring suits and recover some of the damages if the legal action is successful. (Frammolino).
The University of California at San Diego and the University of Utah agreed to pay a combined “$1.6 million to settle charges that a former researcher faked results in a federally funded project,” according to the Justice Department. A spokeswoman for UC San Diego denied “intentional research fraud” stating the reasons for settling was to “stem further legal costs.” (Frammolino). Additionally, as part of the settlement, Ninnemann “would not admit guilt, but would agree to be excluded from eligibility from all Federal grants and contracts for three years,” and request retractions of the articles. (Hilts, “2 Universities to Pay”).
Learn more about whistleblower protection
- National Whistleblowers Center
Since 1988, the Center has used whistleblowers disclosures to improve environmental protection, nuclear safety, and government and corporate accountability.
No. 7 - Dr. Marc J. Straus - Boston University Medical Center
The National Cancer Institute awarded a three-year grant for the study of “cellular kinetics of clinical cancer chemotherapy” to the scientist in 1980 valued at over $900,000 and ordered that the remainder be withheld because “[al]though Dr. Straus did not use the grant money for clinical experimentation, he should have obtained approval for the human tissue work.” Additionally, the National Institute of Health (NIH) investigative team found “unsatisfactory progress toward the goals of the grant.” (Reinhold).
According to a correction published by The Washington Post, Straus “acknowledged that false reports were submitted to the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group, but he maintains that the false data were created by disgruntled subordinates.” (The Washington Post, “Correction”).
Dr. Straus was the first scientist to be debarred under the new NIH regulations, which prevented him from receiving federal funding “for at least four years, and other regulations will prevent him from using experimental drugs.” On June 30, 1978, Straus resigned from Boston University. (Hilts, “Cancer Researcher Punished in Fraud Case.”). Federal officials did not plan a criminal prosecution against Straus. (N.Y. Times).
No. 8 - Nobel Laureate David Baltimore & Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari
Imanishi-Kari was accused of fabricating data by “whistleblower” Margaret O’Toole, who was a postdoctoral fellow. “David Baltimore was never accused of research fraud.” John Dingell’s congressional committee investigated the case. The review and investigation took over ten years to settle ending “in a reversal of their findings on appeal.” (Ryan).
Learn more about research funding policy
Share your opinion
Should government agencies pursue criminal penalties for research misconduct involving the use of federal monies?
Resolutions to Research Misconduct
Punishment and reprimand take many different forms in these cases and range from the following:
- Loss of status or appointment
- Temporary restrictions on participation in review committees
- Temporary restrictions on submission of proposals to federal agencies
- Monetary fines
- Imprisonment (no scientist has been sentenced to prison)
- Loss of licenses or other credentials
(LaFollette, “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue”).
Most cases are settled out of court rather than go to trial. Only the Alsabti case has been appealed (unsuccessfully). Considering that the federal government annually awards somewhere between 22,000-25,000 grants, the incidences of misconduct are very low. (Fintor).
Alsabti v. Board of Registration in Medicine, 404 Mass. 547, 555 (Mass. 1989).
Broad, William J. “Would-Be Academician Pirates Papers.” Science, New Series, Vol. 208, No. 4451. June 27, 1980. 1438-1440.
Browne, Malcolm W. “Fakery: It's a pity.” The New York Times. Apr. 14, 1981. Late City Final Edition. §C at 3, Col. 1; Science Desk.
Butterfield, Fox. “Doctor Ousted by Harvard also Suspected of Falsifying Research at Emory.” The New York Times. Apr. 24, 1983. §1; Part 1 at 18, Col. 1; National Desk.
Culliton, Barbara J. “Coping with Fraud: The Darsee Case” (in News and Comment. Science, New Series, Vol. 220, No. 4592. (Apr. 1, 1983). 3-35.
Culliton, Barbara J. “The Sloan-Kettering Affair (II): An Uneasy Resolution.”Science, New Series, Vol. 184, No. 4142. June 14, 1974. 1154-1157.
Fintor, Lou. “Scientific Misconduct Tackled by New NIH Office.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute; 82: 1312-1314. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Aug. 15, 1990.
Frammolino, Ralph. “Scientific Fraud Suit to be Settled for $1.6 Million; Whistleblowers: UC will pay $625,000 over charges that researcher faked data to get federal funds.” Los Angeles Times. July 23, 1994. Part A; p. 23; Column 4. Metro Desk.
Goldfarb, Theodore D. and Michael S. Pritchard. Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers with Model Lessons for Classroom Use. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University.
Harvard Crimson. "Fraudulent Harvard Researcher Loses Medical Practice License." Sept. 28, 1984. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1984/9/28/fraudulent-harvard-researcher-loses-medical-practice/. Access date: 1/15/2015.
Hilts, Phillip J. “2 Universities to Pay U.S. $1.6 Million in Research Fraud Case.”The New York Times. July 23, 1994. §1 at 9; Col. 3; National Desk.
Hilts, Philip J. “Cancer Researcher Punished in Fraud Case.” The Washington Post. May, 20, 1982. First Section; A10.
Holden, Constance. "Briefings: Massachusetts v. Alsabti.” Science, New Series, Vol. 245, No. 4922. Sep. 8, 1989. 1046.
Hunt, Morton. “A Fraud That Shook the World of Science.” The New York Times. Nov. 1, 1981.
Jahn, Frank, C. and Carol L. Mitch. “Research Ethics.” 1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute. http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/bi/1992/research_ethics.html. Access date: 6/9/06.
LaFollette, Marcel, C. “The Evolution of the Scientific Misconduct Issue: An Historical Overview.” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, 224:211-215 (2000). Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. http://www.ebmonline.org/cgi/content/full/224/4/211. Access date: 6/14/06.
LaFollette, Marcel, C. “The Politics of Research Misconduct: Congressional Oversight, Universities, and Science.” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 65, No. 3, Special Issue: Perspectives on Research Misconduct. (May-June 1994). 261-285.
LaFollette, Marcel, C. Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1992.
Los Angeles Times. "Researcher Admits Faking Data to Get $160,000 in Funds." Sept. 28, 1988. http://articles.latimes.com/1988-09-20/news/mn-2318_1_research-fraud. Access Date: 1/15/2015.
New York Times. "Doctor Admits Filing False Data and is Barred from U.S. Support." May 20, 1982. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/20/us/doctor-admits-filing-false-data-and-is-barred-from-us-support.html. Access Date: 1/15/2015.
Reinhold, Robert. “Cancer Agency Revokes Grant to Researcher.” The New York Times. Feb. 11, 1982. §A at 19; Col. 1, National Desk.
Ryan, Kenneth J. “Research Misconduct in Clinical Research: The American Experience and Response.” Acta Oncologica, Vol. 38, No. 1. 93-97. Scandinavian University Press. 1999.
Slade, Margot and Wayne Biddle. “Ideas and Trends: 10-year Penalty for Researcher.” New York Times. Feb. 20, 1983. §4 at 5, Col. 5.
Steneck, Nicholas H. “Research Universities and Scientific Misconduct: History, Policies, and the Future.” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 65, No. 3, Special Issue: Perspectives on Research Misconduct. 310-330. May-Jun, 1994.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “PHS to Spotlight Research Misconduct.” DHHS, PHS, Public Health Report 1993;108: 795-796. Section: Public Health Programs and Practices. Nov. 1993.
The Washington Post. “Correction.” May 21, 1982. First Section; A2.
By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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This hub comes from an original research paper I wrote as law clerk intern with the Office of Inspector General. Its was originally entitled "Research Misconduct and the High-Profile Cases." It has been substantially revised and edited for HubPages.
Special thanks and gratitude go out to The UK Research Integrity Office, University of Hawaii Office of Research Compliance, and U.S. Office of Research Integrity, US Dept. of Health & Human Services who have shared this "hub" on Twitter.